Sunny days are rare in the UK during the Autumn, but who needs them when Ryu Jun-yeol is in London and his bright personality and smile brightens up the day?
At one of London’s hotels, the actor greets us with a warm handshake. As we sit comfortably on the Victorian looking sofa, he enthusiastically invites us to begin interviewing him. Although it has only been a few years since Rye Jun-yeol began his acting career, the young man already has a number of K-dramas, 3 shorts, and 19 feature films under his belt. He didn’t always dream of acting as a profession, but certain circumstances changed his path, and – luckily – in 2012, he became the golden boy of South Korean cinema: “I was just a regular kid, playing at school with the kids, I studied when I supposed to study. That worked out until I was a senior at high school and I was trying to prep for college, which is very intensive in Korea, but I am sure it’s the same here [in the UK] with A-levels,” he says.
“I remember once, I was so sleepy that I stood up to be able to study more, but I found myself falling asleep while standing up,” he laughs, adding: “That was when I realized that this [path] was not for me. I was also interested in films, I never thought about being an actor before then, but at that time, I just thought maybe I could do it.”
Photo © Showbox
Jun-yeol shines with a positive attitude, and it’s obvious how humble and appreciative he is of what he has achieved. During the 4th London East Asia Film Festival, the actor came to promote his two recent films: Money, a gripping financial thriller directed by Park Noo-ri, and The Battle: Roar to Victory, a period action film by Won Shin-yun. With the films being very distinctive from one another, Ryu found an interest in both scripts regardless: “In terms of [how I joined] Money, the offer came from a production company that I admire, which made films that I really loved to watch. It was fun talking to the director [Park Noo-ri] and we really got along. Also, the character [Il-hyun] that I am playing is the same age [as me], and I basically had a similar experience. Coming from being nobody in the film industry, to starting out and earning a lot of money like Il-hyun did.”
“I focused on trying to identify with the character and his experiences, and in preparation for the role I did dabble in stocks and earned a lot of money, I also blew a lot of money. I honestly experienced the bittersweet, two-faced aspect of the stock industry,” he adds.
Photo © Showbox
While also being a dashing man, Jun-yeol has an intense look that is suitable for any kind of role. He can turn into a villain [No Tomorrow], a heartthrob, or even a character from a period drama, like the one of Lee Jang-ha in The Battle: Road to Victory. When it comes to his character in this film, the actor’s preparation for the role was different from Money: “Obviously I can’t have the same experiences as the characters [in the film]. What I tried to do, to identify and empathize with Jang-ha and everything that’s happening to him. I tried to imagine what would happen if I lost my mother, because losing a country is horrible [something I might never experience], but the closest thing I could think of was losing my mother. Then, of course, I had to think about going back to work, and that’s when I tried to connect these two [to build the character emotionally].”
Throughout the interview, it was difficult not to smile at Jun-yeol, his engaging answers and jokes in between the questions, made us feel like we were having a chat with our favourite next-door neighbour.
The actor has worked alongside some of the biggest Korean’s names, including Oldboy’s Joo Ji-tae in Money and Yoo Hae-jin in The Battle: Roar to Victory. Any other actor might have felt intimidated in the presence of Joo Ji-tae, but not Jun-yeol, as being together on set and performing opposite one another was something to remember.
“Joo Ji-tae did it all [acting-wise],” Jun-yeol laughs. “You guys saw Oldboy before, right? He is such a great actor. My character keeps plowing through everything, keeps going forward, so in order to maintain the balance, Joo Ji-tae knew very well he had to find himself in all this and make both of us shine. He built the perfect balance, and he controlled it well, [so] I just went along with that.”
“Both actors from each film are veterans, they are at the top of their game. And having experienced working with other great actors before on other films, I knew that what I had to do was to go along with what they did, and then the results would be great. It was comfortable for me to work with both [Joo Ji-tae and Yoo Hae-jin].”
Photo © Showbox
Jun-yeol sincerely admits that he doesn’t fully immerse himself into any given character, as he says: “what I really do is I look for an element, or characteristics, or something about a character that I can identify myself with. I look for something that is similar to me, [something] that reminds me of me.” This approach often ‘invites’ an actor to improvise, but what about artistic freedom? Jun-yeol tells us he was extremely happy to film Money: “I got along so well with the director in terms of ideas and everything else, that [the filming] was a great experience. I felt like I was back at film school, working on an indie film and everybody was brainstorming their ideas, and it was almost as if we were competing with each other to see who could come up with a better idea.”
Meanwhile, 2019’s The Battle: Road to Victory was a challenge for the actor to shoot as there were many scenes shot on location. Nevertheless, for Jun-yeol it was the emotional side of the production that he had difficulty confronting the most: “What I focused on, was portraying the fighters when they were sleeping and eating, that’s when I got many mixed emotions, I felt so many different things and that was difficult to portray. Because for us, the actors, we get to go home at the end of the day, or the place we were staying at [during production], but for those guys they didn’t have that, they were living it 24/7, they had to stay there [on the battlefield]. And I empathized with that, it was really heartbreaking and difficult for me.”
Ryu Jun-yeol at the 4th London Film Festival – Photo © LEAFF
It seems like the world is changing, not only when it comes to technology but also history. At times, the younger generation forgets their grandparents’ experiences and the turbulent history they went through. But with an engaging narrative, good camera work, and hard-working actors, history can be brought back to life. With The Battle: Roar to Victory, and other Korean films set during Japanese colonial rule, Korean cinema reminds youngsters about the tragic events that took place in their country. So, as much as Jun-yeol enjoys fun films, he admits “there comes the time when films like these are necessary. We live in a time when it seems like we won’t lose the country, it doesn’t look like we will and we are not going to experience a war. And with the upcoming 100th anniversary of the event [depicted in The Battle: Roar to Victory], it’s important to have movies that reflect on those times or times that have gone by. We should have films that talk about important issues. We don’t really know or understand how [previous generations] felt when they lost their country, and they suffered so many things. So, I think it is important for us to see movies like this, and see what those people sacrificed for us, for the country, and how they felt about it. These should never be forgotten,” he explains.
Time flew by and, sadly, we were reminded that it was time to end the interview. We could have happily talked to the actor for hours, but we were only allowed one more question. It was truly hard to choose just one, as there were so many things left to ask. We couldn’t help but laugh and joke about what question to put forward, and at the end, we found an interesting one. As many of us know, there are many actors who have been venturing into directorial or screenwriting projects so we were eager to know if Jun-yeol feels he wants to try his hand at something besides acting… and guess what? He does!
“I have a little bit of time before I start working on my next project. So I’m writing something now.” he laughs.
Choosing not to spill the beans on his script, we conclude our meeting with Jun-yeol. In all honesty, it’s rare to have a relaxed interview with well-known actors, but the conversation we had with him will surely stay in our memories for a long time, he made an impact on all of us.
Ryu Jun-yeol in London – Photo © CJeS Entertainment
Written and interviewed by Maggie Gogler
Edited by Roxy Simons.
The interview was also conducted by Roxy Simons
Translation by Roc Hyunjung Lee
Featured photo © LEAFF & CJeS Entertainment