With the new romantic-comedy spy movie Level 7 Civil Servant (aka Secret Couple) about to come out — it’s in theaters April 23 — both stars have been heavily promoting the movie, which is earning favorable buzz.
I’m not a top star or top actor. That’s why I’m still thirsty.”
The young man began acting at the age of 25 and told himself he would quit if he wasn’t able to succeed by the age of 30. He pounded on the door of the musical world and stood onstage with a minor part. But the spotlight only shined on the lead.
Then, he was going to appear in a television drama series. To see their son, his parents sat in front of the television all day. The young man was cast in the role of the main character’s dead son, appearing as a sticker photo on a cell phone.
The frustrated young man finally got his break at the age of 29. His face didn’t start to be known to the public until he appeared on the daily drama Be Strong, Geum-soon. But that was just briefly, as all the dramas he appeared in were crushed by competing dramas Hwang Jini, War of Money, New Heart and others.
That young man at last earned a “new actor” award at the age of 32, then took on the film role of top star Kim Haneul’s love interest. This is Kang Ji-hwan.
(I think the intro’s rather dramatic, because while Kang Ji-hwan’s dramas all faced stiff competition, he wasn’t quite the forgotten star it sounds like. He had a few flops like 90 Days’ Time to Love and Fireworks, but he definitely gained notice with Capital Scandal and Hong Gil Dong, and by the time he won the new actor award for Rough Cut, he was already pretty popular, if not a household name. For what it’s worth.)
Your comic side in Level 7 Civil Servant resembles your role in Hong Gil Dong more than in Rough Cut.
Even so, I think Rough Cut was more influential in getting me cast for this. They say that people in film don’t watch television dramas very much.
Do you tend to avoid the press? It’s been a long time since you made your debut, but you haven’t done many interviews, and you haven’t revealed much to the public. It was like that for Rough Cut as well.
When I start working on a project, I can’t really worry about other things. I didn’t learn acting formally, and I didn’t really know why my audition for Be Strong, Geum-soon was successful. At the time, the priority was to survive on a day-by-day basis. I didn’t know any older sunbae actors so I had nobody to learn from, and I could only dig into the scripts. If I let my attention wander elsewhere even for a short while, it was impossible to immerse myself fully in the emotions.
Maybe that turned into a habit, but I continued to study the scripts in that way. I didn’t even have a chance to look around me. And when doing Rough Cut, we were supposed to have some promotional events in Japan, but the release date was moved up so that didn’t happen.
You were an unknown for a long while, and even after you took on lead roles, for a while your dramas faltered in the ratings to competitor dramas.
I had decided that after starting to act at age 25, if I hadn’t succeeded by age 30 I would give up. Even aside from that, I’m the kind of person who’s sensitive anyway and feels pressure keenly. With Capital Scandal, all I could think was what would happen if it failed because of me, and what I could do to turn that around. I just tried to survive.
Having gone through such tough times, why did you not quit acting?
At first, when things didn’t work out, I would feel this stubbornness develop. When I started with musicals, I figured I would first need to make some money, so I worked for a year. Then, I rehearsed like crazy, but the real applause was only for the leads. Truthfully, that’s obvious, but at that age, I didn’t get it.
In the drama More Beautiful Than a Flower, I played Go Du-shim’s dead son, and came out only as a sticker photo on a cell phone. But because their son was going to be on, my parents sat in front of the television waiting to see me. Seeing that made me suddenly well up with tears. I decided I had to make it as a lead.
I auditioned for the musical Grease and got the lead part, and brought my parents to see it.
Your dramas like 90 Days’ Time to Love, Capital Scandal, and Hong Gil Dong suffered in the ratings due to competing dramas.
They were all good, award-worthy dramas. There was some mania fandom, but not much response. There were many dark days when I would drink to leave those characters behind. But I couldn’t shake off the addictive thoughts that things might improve if I just work a little harder. And then I met Hong Gil Dong, even if that did get pushed back in the ratings from New Heart.
And after that you did Rough Cut.
As I was working on Hong Gil Dong, I wanted to do a more masculine project. Plus, it was my first commercial film. With Rough Cut, I would naturally be compared to So Ji-sub, so my foremost thought was that I’d better not forget how to act.
If there’s anything to feel disappointed about, it was that I had thought that a film set would provide more space and time than a drama to immerse myself in the emotions, but that wasn’t possible. As you know, it was a low-budget film, so we were pressed for time, and we had to use film sparingly. When I would hear that we spent a lot of money on film, my back actually broke out in a cold sweat. The result was good, but I felt a little disappointed that I couldn’t let myself go as much as I wanted.
Did you feel that with Level 7 Civil Servant?
It’ll be up to the audience to judge if it came out well, but I put everything into it, like I’d burned myself into ashes. Director Shin Tae-ra told me that he’d be behind me, so I could try anything I wanted. It was like putting fire to a volcano that was about to erupt.
Every day after filming ended, I asked my manager, “Wasn’t I good today?” The director and Kim Haneul enabled me to indulge myself as much as I wanted. I wasn’t left wanting on this movie, to say the least.
Were you friends with Kim Haneul when you worked on your drama together? [90 Days’ Time to Love]
At that time, we weren’t really close. I was preoccupied just with my own acting. This time, we were totally in tune with each other, and even ad-libbed lines. She was always ready to react, and made me step it up.
Your first film is actually the indie movie Host & Guest. Did the experience help you?
When I was mostly working in minor roles, if someone offered me a lead part I took it no matter what. All I recall is being cold, hungry, and having to be sparing with film. Because we had to conserve film, I couldn’t mess up even a syllable of dialogue. Still, those memories of being cold and hungry helped me successfully audition for Be Strong, Geum-soon. At the time, the writer said I was very lacking, but she could see my thirst in my eyes, which is why they picked me.
Are you still thirsty?
Of course. I’m not a top star, or a top actor. You have to rise one step at a time to make it up the mountain. I can see the peak, but it’s so steep that it does feel endless. I hope for a project that will be my rope so I can climb up. But for now I’ve started the path, and rising to the top is my primary goal. Since I haven’t made it there yet, I don’t know what my next goal is after that.
You often show a cheerful side to you, but it seems like your true personality is different.
Actually, I’m not the cheerful type, and I don’t make friends easily. It’s just that now, I’m aware of a responsibility to set the mood as the lead actor.
The more a person succeeds, the more one is subject to interfering noises.
I think so. With a bigger role, I need to focus even more, but then people say I’ve become arrogant. So when there are crew dinners, I’m the first at the table. Because I hear various negative comments, my thoughts of opening up disappear and I shrink back even more.
I think I am on my way up, but I end up staying in my room, wondering, “What am I doing?” Actually, I started having those kinds of thoughts from Hong Gil Dong on, and went into a slight depression. I think that’s the dilemma I have these days.
Now when you focus on your script and are unable to look around, do you feel freer?
To show a different side to me from Level 7 Civil Servant, I’m going to dive into the script even more. But I am going to try to create some space for myself, even if I don’t change drastically.