Kwak Dong-yeon learns to love acting and steals the spotlight
TvN series “Vincenzo” marked actor Song Joong-ki's return to television screens and shone a light on up-and-coming actor Jeon Yeo-been.
But viewers took particular interest in a third cast member — Kwak Dong-yeon.
Kwak plays Jang Han-seo, the acting chairman of the powerful conglomerate Babel group in the series. In the beginning his character is completely unlikeable, involved in all sorts of wrongdoings and gapjil (abuse of power), but after he is demoted and replaced by his half-brother Jang Jun-woo (played by Ok Taek-yeon) he earns laughter for his comic performance fueled by his sense of inferiority and ambition to claw his way back to the top of the social hierarchy. Regardless of the importance of his role in the series, the ex-idol trainee certainly stood out among the star-studded cast.
The Ilgan Sports, an affiliate of the Korea JoongAng Daily, recently had the chance to interview the actor as the series ended. The following are edited excerpts.
Q. How did you feel when you first heard the news that you were cast in “Vincenzo”?
A. I was extremely happy that I was joining a group of so many actors, writers and director I respected. I thought I shouldn’t try to stand out, all the while brainstorming what Jang’s role and place in the story was. If I were to give myself credit for my performance, I initially worried that viewers would think of me as too young to feature as a chairman, but I think I managed to pull it off.
What did you focus on as you portrayed Jang Han-seo?
I think there were many layers to peel off in Han-seo, but the key word for him was “survival.” All through his life he was constantly overshadowed by his brother without having anything to claim as his own. He was basically living the life of a puppet. I acted thinking that my No. 1 goal was to live my life completely on my own. Han-seo would have found hope to live again through Vincenzo.
Were there any moments when you pitied Han-seo?
He lived a repressed life completely controlled by the ultimate evil but I first thought that was only an excuse to justify his wrongdoings. But his past was shown in the fifth episode. When he witnessed Jun-woo kill his father, that’s when I came to understand he was educated to be evil. How he gradually transformed when he met Vincenzo and the people in the plaza made me feel pity and sadness for him.
In “It’s Okay to Not be Okay,” you play a character dealing with a mental illness. Are you instinctively drawn to those unique roles?
I believe that I am more attracted to those with mental issues and wounds. There may be humane charisma to the characters, yes, but as an actor I’m drawn to roles that I can really dive into. I remember asking for medical advice [to play that character]. I looked up how patients with manic symptoms acted and how much can I express that on television, while holding on to the reality of their symptoms. I wanted his emotions to be real without being too dramatic.
What is your favorite scene in “Vincenzo”?
There is a scene where Han-seo plays ice hockey with Vincenzo at the end of the 17th episode. I went to the set that day thinking that I should act with a poker face so others wouldn’t know what I was thinking. But as we rehearsed that scene, how Vincenzo skated looked so beautiful, and I thought, ‘this is when Han-seo falls for him again.’ That scene was supposed to end with my line, ‘Thank you for making me realize that I’m stupid,” but when Vincenzo left after giving a pat on my shoulder, Han-seo fell for him again. So I looked up the word ‘Thank you’ in Italian and asked the staff to add that in the scene.
Han-seo is beaten up a lot in this series.
I think it’s the most I’ve been beaten up throughout my entire career. Jun-woo’s always slapping him, hitting him on the head, beating him with a hockey stick, kicking him and strangling him. And I really did feel worthless when I shot those scenes. I actually felt depressed when I repeatedly shot scenes where I was insulted and treated like a piece of garbage.
Do you feel that you’ve grown as an actor through portraying Han-seo?
What I gained most from the series was getting an opportunity to meet so many seniors actors I respected, and seeing them act on the set. I also cannot leave out director Kim Hee-won. My life as an actor diverges from before and after I met him. One by one, he taught me every lesson on how to act, on which of the character's points I should focus on the character, and how should I read through my script from an actor’s perspective. I was so happy to learn from him and work with him.
You were also very active on social media while you were shooting for the series.
Truthfully, I’m feeling both the pros and cons of interacting on social media. The pros are that I can actively communicate with my fans sharing news and information, but the cons are that misunderstandings can arise from sharing too much. I was active on social media this time because the project was just so good. I wanted to promote the series as much as I possible so more people would watch it. And I wanted to entertain my fans during the ongoing pandemic. I wanted fans to feel that interaction.
How would you feel about shooting another season of “Vincenzo”?
It would be a dream come true and I fervently hope it will happen someday. Other actors have their fingers crossed for it too. Since Han-seo died in the first season, I promised I would appear as his spirit following Vincenzo.
Now that the project is finished, what do you want to do next?
The two things on the top of my list are dating and traveling. But I think it’s too late to do either of them. I have another project which starts up soon. I think I will live vicariously through my next role.
What do you do when you’re not acting?
I just rotate between home and gym. I really only stay at my home. My original hobbies were playing ice hockey and taking photos but that went out the window with the pandemic. The places where I want to take photos are really popular, so I tend to avoid visiting them because of the crowds. Nowadays I just take care of the business I need to outside and come home straight away. I like to order food to be delivered.
You’ve settled down as an actor to the point that I don’t believe anyone would think that you were once a K-pop trainee.
I’m ever so grateful and happy to hear that. If even one more person can think of me that way through the series, I would be thankful. Being a trainee was a past I once wanted to hide, that I didn’t like about myself because I didn’t want people to think of me as some outsider in the acting world. But now I realize I’ve learned so much from that phrase. I’ve learned to not give up easily and to feel a sense of accomplishment through the trials I face.
Do you have any plans to continue with your music?
I did try plays and musicals and when I become more stabilized as an actor, I want to start a band with my friends.
What is your goal as an actor?
There is no wavering of my mind when I say I want to act all my life. Before, I used to work on each project as if my life depended on it, but because I was stressing too much about scenes that I wasn’t satisfied with, I realized I wouldn’t last long this way. So I decided to focus more on what scenes were coming next so that I could do something about it instead of mulling the past. I used to think a carrot-and- stick approach was the best way to improve, but my perspective changed to be more generous to myself, which is how I became an actor who loves what he does. I want to be an actor whom people aren’t bored by. I want to peak their interest in whatever new roles I try next.
BY HWANG SO-YOUNG [email@example.com]