85-year-old Lee Soon-jae is busier than ever: The veteran actor’s diverse career has provided him roles on stage and screen

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85-year-old Lee Soon-jae is busier than ever: The veteran actor’s diverse career has provided him roles on stage and screen


Actor Lee Soon-jae holds a series of photos from his previous dramas and films at SG Acting Academy located in the neighborhood of Yeoksam-dong, Gangnam District, southern Seoul. [KWON HYUK-JAE]

Born in 1935, Lee Soon-jae is one of the oldest actors you can see on screen, and he doesn’t look like he’ll be slowing down anytime soon.

From epic dramas, sitcoms and reality TV shows to films to theatrical plays, the actor is willing to take on any role he is presented. He plays a trusted doctor during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) in one TV drama series, but his next role is a quirky grandpa who is addicted to erotic videos.

Lee has been playing a diverse range of roles over his nearly seven-decade career.

The actor is dubbed seonsaengnim wherever he goes. The title literally means “teacher” in Korean, but is also used when referring to a person with years of experience.

The seasoned actor, however, kept a low profile by stressing that the experience of older people is not valid to the younger generation during a recent interview with JoongAng Ilbo, an affiliate of the Korea JoongAng Daily.

“You should refrain yourself from talking too much when you’re getting older,” said Lee.

Throughout the interview that was arranged to mark the new year, Lee kept emphasizing that “The older generation should not pass down their old values to the younger generation.

“The future of the younger generation is theirs. The future is not something we can handle. We can’t contaminate them with our wrong perceptions and habits.”

The actor also mentioned the Korea Human Nature Film Festival held in December, of which he was the chairman of the organizing committee.

As part of the film festival, the committee initiated a campaign called gojalmi, an abbreviation of gomapda (meaning “Thank you”), jalhanda (“You’re doing great”) and mianhada (“I’m sorry”).

“The main target for the film festival was preteens and teenagers. You know how kids these days are smart. We should terminate all the conflicts and fights within our generation so that they can embark on a new chapter.”

Having debuted in 1956 in a theater production titled “Beyond the Horizon,” Lee is celebrating the 65th anniversary of his debut this year. The actor has appeared in nearly 300 films, drama series and stage performances.

Unlike other actors of his age who hardly appear on screen, Lee is as prolific as other 20-something budding actors.

He appeared in four stage shows last year alone, including the play “I Love You.”

In the play, Lee plays the role of Kim Man-seok, a milkman who falls in love with an old lady in his neighborhood. The play runs through Feb. 2 at the Seokyeong University Art Education Center located in Daehangno, Jongno District, central Seoul.

Doing a live show on a daily basis is a daunting task even for young actors, but Lee said, “The stage is the best place for actors to present their artistic abilities.”

When asked to pick the best lines of his life, the actor chose “To be, or not to be - that is the question” from William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.”

“[Hamlet] is the character I have wanted to play since I was young, but the role didn’t come to me. Other friends who are better than me played it. I still regret missing that role.”

Lee saw Laurence Olivier’s “Hamlet” when he was a sophomore in college and thought to himself, “This is an art.”

“I had goose bumps all over my body as I heard Oliver speaking his lines with his beautiful voice. I came to know what it feels like to be moved by an actor back then.”

Another one of his favorite lines is from the theatrical play “Grandpa Henri and I,” in which he plays the role of Henri.

The cranky old man advises the young, disoriented lady Constance by saying, “You can’t judge life with success and failure. We try our best to succeed in life, but we fail and are frustrated. That is part of our life.”

Lee defines the life of an actor from the same stance of Henri. He thinks actors are meant to go through “continuous ups and downs.”

“I just want to be remembered as an actor who did his best. That’s all I want.”

Lee is scheduled to perform in four plays this year too.

“These are all re-runs of my past works. I wish I could work on a new project, but it’s not easy.”

When scripts are given to him, the actor numbers all of his lines and decides how many lines he will memorize per day.

“Art is infinite. Since there is no end, you can create as much as you want. For this reason, art is still a challenge and doable.”

Lee has other titles apart from being an actor. He is currently the chair professor of the acting department at Gachon University in Seongnam, Gyeonggi, and the head of SG Acting Academy in southern Seoul.

The actor shared a secret to him having his hands full at the age of 85.

“I can still wake up in the morning and I have these given tasks. As I cross off the things I have to do for the day, the day passes by.”

BY LEE JI-YOUNG [estyle@joongang.co.kr]

85세 현역 이순재 “지난해도 4편, 올해도 4편 무대 선다”

“젊은이들의 미래는 그들의 세계, 우리가 감당할 수 없는 미래다. 우리 세대의 잘못된 인식·습성으로 그들을 오염시켜선 안 된다.”

1935년생. 대한민국 최고령 현역 배우 이순재(85)는 “기성세대의 가치관을 후대에 물려주지 말아야 한다”고 강조했다. 새해를 맞아 마련한 인터뷰 자리에서다. “나이 들며 제일 조심해야 하는 게 말을 길게 하는 것”이라고도 했다. 어디를 가나 ‘선생님’으로 불리는 그이지만, ‘나 때는 말이야’를 일삼는 훈수꾼을 스스로 경계하는 듯 보였다.

지난 연말 그가 조직위원장을 맡은 ‘대한민국 인성영화제’에서 ‘고잘미(고맙다·잘한다·미안하다) 선포식’을 한 이야기를 전하며 “초중고생이 주축인 행사였다. 요즘 아이들 얼마나 똑똑하고 잘 생기고 멋있냐. 협력하고 합의하는 새로운 세계를 그들이 창조할 수 있도록 갈등·싸움은 우리 세대에서 끝내야 한다”고 말했다.

그는 지난해에만도 네 편의 연극에 출연했다. 우유배달 노인 김만석 역으로 송이뿐 할머니와 황혼기 가슴 찡한 사랑을 펼치는 연극 ‘그대를 사랑합니다’는 서울 대학로 서경대 공연예술센터에서 다음 달 2일까지 이어진다. 그는 “무대는 배우의 창조적 예술성을 발휘하기 가장 좋은 조건”이라고 말했다.

1956년 연극 ‘지평선 너머’로 데뷔, 올해로 연기 인생 65년 차를 맞은 그는 모두 300여 편의 연극·영화·드라마에 출연했다. ‘인생의 명대사’를 꼽아달란 요청에 그는 ‘햄릿’의 “사느냐 죽느냐 그것이 문제로다”를 꼽았다. “(햄릿은) 젊어서부터 욕심낸 배역인데 나보다 더 좋은 친구들이 했다. 타이밍을 놓쳐 아직도 아쉽다”고 했다. 그는 대학 2학년 때 로렌스 올리비에의 영화 ‘햄릿’을 처음 보고 ‘아, 이건 예술이다’라고 생각했다고 한다. “미성이고 고성인 올리비에가 마음의 소리로 읊어제끼는데 소름이 쫙 끼쳤다. 배우가 주는 감동의 크기를 피부로 느꼈다”고 돌아봤다.

그가 꼽은 또 다른 ‘인생의 명대사’는 연극 ‘앙리할아버지와 나’에서 까칠한 독거노인 앙리의 말이다. 방황하는 20대 콘스탄스에게 “인생이란 건 성공과 실패로만 가늠할 수 있는 게 아니다. 짧은 인생을 굳이 성공과 실패로 가르려고 한다면 사랑하는 데 얼마나 성공했느냐, 바로 그거였어”라며 ‘마지막 잔소리’를 한다. 그는 “성공하려 아등바등하고 실패했다고 좌절하고 그런 게 우리 인생의 단면”이라며 “하지만 그게 다가 아니다. 진정한 사랑이 이뤄졌을 때의 행복감에서 모든 가능성이 생긴다”고 의미를 짚었다.

배우의 삶을 “부침의 반복”이라고 정의한 그는 “열심히 했던 모습으로 기억되는 배우, 그걸로 족하다”고 했다.

올해도 연극 네 편에 출연 예정인 그의 연기 열정은 여전히 청춘이다. ‘사랑해요 당신’ ‘장수상회’ 등 예정된 공연 소식을 전하면서 “전부 ‘재탕’이다. 새 작품을 하고 싶은데 잘 안된다”며 아쉬워했다. 그는 대본을 받으면 자신의 대사 하나하나에 번호를 매겨 총 대사 수를 계산해 두고 하루에 몇 개씩 계획을 세워 외운다고 했다. 그의 신작 욕심은 TV 예능 ‘꽃보다 할배’에서 보여준 ‘직진순재’ 캐릭터 그대로였다. 그는 “예술이 해볼만한 이유는 완성이 없기 때문”이라며 “예술적 창조라는 것은 종착이 없다. 끝이 없으니 얼마든 새로운 창조가 가능하다”고 덧붙였다.

추천영상 더보기
가천대 연기예술학과 석좌교수, SG연기아카데미 원장 역시 배우 이순재의 현직이다. 종횡무진 전성기를 이어가는 비결은 뭘까. “아직은 아침에 일어날 수 있으니까, 매일 그날 과제가 있으니까, 그걸 쫓아다니다 보면 하루가 넘어간다.”

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