Actor Cho Jin-woong, who debuted 20 years ago, is undoubtedly one of the most critically acclaimed actors in Korea. But for any actor — veteran or novice — a national hero is often the most difficult role to play.
For any actors — both veterans and novices — a national hero is often the most difficult role to play.
Actor Cho Jin-woong, who debuted 20 years ago, is undoubtedly one of the most critically acclaimed actors in Korea. But even for him, portraying the role of Korean independence fighter Kim Koo came with tremendous pressure, so he initially rejected the offer.
“The representative of the film’s distributing company offered me the role first but I turned it down,” said Cho during an interview with Hankook Ilbo, a sister paper of The Korea Times, at a cafe in Samcheong-dong in Seoul, Tuesday. “He came back to me again later when I almost forgot our encounter and asked me to consider the role again. That went on for three to four years. Later, I even asked if there was really nobody else to play the character. In the end, I gave in and decided to play the role.”
Cho knew such a role would put a lot of pressure on him especially with the film’s title “Condemned Criminal.” The actor asked for it to be changed.
The historical film “Man of Will,” directed by Lee Won-tae, depicts the younger days of Kim Chang-soo, who later becomes Kim Koo, the last leader of the Korean provisional government during Japan’s colonial occupation in Shanghai, China. Kim is sent to prison for murdering a Japanese man who took part in Empress Myeongseong’s assassination. Behind bars, Kim finds many of the prisoners uneducated and wrongly convicted. He begins to teach them how to read so they can clear themselves of the false charges. Kim becomes their hope in the jail until one day the independence fighter and his fellows are assigned to a large Japanese construction site where an ordeal worse than death is waiting for them.
Director Lee told Cho not to read “Baekbeomilji,” a popular autobiography of Kim Koo, before he began shooting.
“I obviously thought I had to read the book but the director told me my role as Kim Chang-soo is before he became Kim Koo and that I could show young Kim’s pent-up anger only by acting,” said Cho.
Cho travelled to Jeju Island for three days, where he spent time reading the script and rehearsing with the director and two other actors in the film. When they got tired of practicing they drank together and played around, which helped the actors and director become friends.
“The director wrote the script over three years and I had to ask him so much about the character of Kim Chang-soo. We needed more than three days to discuss the film and characters and I literally put him in front of me and attacked him with endless questions,” said Cho
As he expected, portraying the role of the young Kim Koo was like fighting in the ring as a boxer. He would become engrossed in the character not knowing he was hurting himself while acting. When he got out of character, the actor realized he was exhausted.
“Now that the film is soon to open, I feel a responsibility that is different from hoping the movie does well at the box office. There is a dignity that comes from the name Kim Koo,” said Cho.
“Taking the role of the young Kim Koo has given me a responsibility that I need to bear in the future. People tell me that Kim Koo was such a great man, and portraying his character, I won’t be able spit on the street anymore. How great a man he was is that only portraying him when he was young will make me keep to basic things for the rest of my life,” Cho added.
Actor Cho Jin-woong poses before the interview with Hankook Ilbo, sister paper of The Korea Times, at Samcheong-dong, Seoul, Tuesday.