Jung Ryeo-won never really thought of becoming an actress, but fate had other ideas. Korean-Australian Ryeo-won spent her teenage years in Australia, where she graduated from Griffith University with a major in International Business. One day, while visiting Korea, she was picked by a talent agent and relatively quickly became a part of a K-pop girl group, Chakra. Although they didn’t stand the test of time, this hasn’t discouraged Ryeo-won from pursuing a new career: acting.
Her first role in Hello Franceska, a cult vampire sitcom, gained recognition and since then, she has starred in more than twenty Korean dramas, including her latest, May It Please the Court, which was shown on Disney+ in Europe and Hulu in the United States. In addition, Ryeo-won has eight features under her belt with The Woman in the White Car being her most recent work. The film had its world premiere at the 26th Bucheon International Fantastic Film Festival where Ryeo-won received the Korean Fantastic Award for Best Actress. Woman in the White Car was also awarded with Best Foreign Film Award at the San Diego International Film Festival. Prior to San Diego, the film was screened at the 66th BFI London Film Festival where it received a positive reaction from the audience.
Jung Ryeo-won spoke to View of the Arts about her journey into acting, her role of Do-kyung in The Woman in the White Car, and what the future holds for her.
Prior to discussing your incredible role of Do-kyung in The Woman in the White Car, how did your journey into acting begin?
Jung Ryeo-won: I had never studied acting in school or had even dreamt of becoming an actor when I was growing up. Having moved to Australia as a teenager, I missed Korea dearly and so one winter, I decided to visit Seoul, wanting to see the snow for the first time in a while. And as fate would have it, I was picked up by a talent manager and ended up beginning my career as a member of a K-pop girl group. 2 years into working, I was given an opportunity to act for the first time in a daytime series and I felt an unexpected sense of freedom and of liberation. That’s when I realised that acting was something I’d love to do as a profession, and I’ve been doing it ever since.
In the aforementioned film, you portray a complex character, a woman who is affected by domestic violence. What interested you in the role of Do-kyung in the first place?
Jung Ryeo-won: I’ve always loved the crime/thriller genre but it was the first time that I was offered the role of a character who goes back and forth between such extreme emotions. It scared me at first but I felt like I was up for the challenge. I could empathise with her, her emotional scars and trauma, and I could understand her intentions and motivations behind everything she did in the story. Also, it was my second time working with Christine, the director, and also Ja-yeun the screenwriter. We had already established a certain level of trust which meant that I knew they’d be great collaborators in helping me overcome my fears and my shortcomings.
The Woman in the White Car kept me in suspense and left me emotionally drained at times, but while making this you already knew the script so you knew what was coming. Were there any moments on set where you felt emotionally drained or scared while playing Do-kyung?
Jung Ryeo-won: It’s definitely challenging to shoot a 2-hour movie in 14 days, which is such a short amount of time, but simultaneously, it also worked in my favour to not have time to reflect back and think too much about my state of being emotionally drained, and to “wallow” in the exhaustion. Because I knew we didn’t have much time, I knew I had to be able to quickly move on emotionally to be prepared for the next scene, and the next day. It was physically exhausting but I was never scared to go on that emotional journey with Do-kyung.
Before shooting the film, and while you were in pre-production, how did you prepare for the role of Do-kyung? Did you find her character challenging in any way?
Jung Ryeo-won: I felt a lot of pressure in the beginning, especially because I hadn’t starred in a thriller film before. I knew going into production that we were going to be pressed for time on set, so there was a lot for me to think about beforehand. Me being me, I wanted to do it well and there was a degree of fear involved in wanting to give a great performance. But the fear of missing out on a role like this, which might not come along too often as I age, was bigger than my trepidations about actually doing it. So I jumped head first! Talking with Christine more about my concerns and discussing the details of Do-kyung’s emotional changes helped me gain confidence that I really could do this, and do it well.
Looking at your past feature films you have mostly acted in romantic and crime comedies. The Woman in the White Car is a very different genre, did you have any reservations about being part of this project?
Jung Ryeo-won: A lot of people close to me have told me that they’ve wanted to see me in a thriller of any sort for a long time, but I had never gotten a script in this genre that really spoke to me. I had been offered some horror scripts before but I’ve always been a little averse to horror, for the simple fact that I’m easily scared by such stories. But now that I’ve gotten the first one under my belt, I’ve found that it’s actually quite fun to work on one. You don’t have to worry about too much make-up, or trying to look good all the time! You only have to work off of a few outfits and because Do-kyung really only wore one outfit through the entire film, whenever I put on her clothes, I was right back in her shoes, both literally and figuratively. And in thrillers, because the emotions are so raw and unfiltered, I didn’t have to temper my acting too much in the sense that I could really just portray each emotion to its extremes, which was a relief sometimes as well. If we had had a little more time, I think I might have been able to take it even further but even now, I don’t have any regrets because I truly believe everyone did the best they could do within the given timeframe. If I am offered another script in this genre, I’ll have more confidence next time.
You act alongside Lee Jeong-eun, how did you create that incredible onscreen bond and chemistry? Did you discuss in detail how you would approach the relationship between Do-kyung and Hyun-ju?
Jung Ryeo-won: She’s always been someone that I looked up to and wanted to act alongside. When I heard that she was coming on board, I was ecstatic. Just watching her act on set was a treat for me. She has that special aura about her. We didn’t have a lot of time to bond or connect too much but we grew quite close in the short amount of time that we had. That might be why we were able to really just trust each other, and trust ourselves to do the story justice and I think that really shows through our on-screen chemistry.
You are also well known for your acting in various K-dramas, so looking at that as well as your feature films, what is your acting process? How do you feel minutes before playing a character on camera?
Jung Ryeo-won: There is a mantra that I recite to myself just before they yell “action.” It’s “I love my job.” There are times that it doesn’t ring as true as it might other times but it’s become a habit because I’ve done it so many times throughout my career. I remember reciting it to myself on the set of this film, but this time it really hit home and touched me at my core. I was able to remind myself just how much I enjoy acting and so every moment on this set was precious and I was incredibly grateful to be there.
Whenever I sign on to a project, I dedicate a huge chunk of time to understand the character and it usually takes 1,2 episodes on a K-drama to really feel comfortable in the skin of my character. But with this project, even though we were rushed, I felt at home immediately. I’m not entirely sure about the reasons behind it, but I was never really nervous before going on this particular set or getting too anxious about my performance. Was it because we were so busy on set or because Do-kyung was a little special to me? I’m still curious to this day.
What do you think makes a performance more believable?
Jung Ryeo-won: I think when you, as an actor, truly come to love the character as a human being and understand their motivations, a lot of the silly, useless questions or suspicions disappear and become meaningless. If you’re always questioning why or how, or looking at a character from a third-person point of view and judging them, you can only see them as an idea rather than a living, breathing entity that is capable of growth.
There are many actors who have ventured into directing or screenwriting; do you feel you also want to try your hand at something besides acting?
Jung Ryeo-won: There are a lot of actors that I respect who have done that. I love writing but I don’t think I’ll ever be able to write an entire screenplay. I’ve always been attracted to creating something from nothing by myself. What comes out of it is incredibly beautiful, in my opinion. I’d like to try my hand at it one day, in whatever shape or form. It might be in a very distant future, but still.
Looking at your current life, to what extent do you think your surroundings have shaped you, creatively speaking, and in what way?
Jung Ryeo-won: When I was growing up, I wasn’t ever quite sure why we moved to Australia. It was hard for me to understand my parents’ motivations and I had to face a lot of racism directed at me. At the time, our family was struggling to make ends meet and so ever since I was a kid, I had to get used to swallowing my emotions and bearing the brunt of a lot of curveballs life threw my way. But now, as an actor, I think all those experiences have come together and hardened to become my foundation for creative energy and for empathy. I work primarily in Korea but my experiences of living abroad and the exposure that I’ve had to other cultures have helped me thrive creatively while working here. Not having had the perfect upbringing also helped me to get in touch with my insecurities, to portray those insecurities on screen well, and to empathise with my characters with their own hang-ups. A life with limitations gave birth to a free-roaming imagination, capable of going above and beyond. In retrospect, my life had been leading me down a path, designed to help me become the actor I am today.
What are your upcoming plans? Are there any other projects that you have planned for the future?
Jung Ryeo-won: I’ve been reading scripts and looking for new projects. Since attending these film festivals with The Woman in the White Car, I’ve been talking a lot to Christine about a re-energized desire to work more! So I want to keep looking and be active. I want to continue challenging myself, for as long as I am allowed to act.
Written and interviewed by Maggie Gogler