South Korea’s hot young star Ji Chang-wook has charmed audiences with his beaming smile and hit roles in popular Korean TV series ‘Empress Ki’ and ‘Healer.’ We take a peek at the person behind the act and get to know the real Ji Chang-wook, on and off the screen.
Clad in a sharp black suit, Ji Chang-wook looks like a natural onstage, entirely at ease seated at the piano with his hands poised at the keys. Then again, there’s precious little that doesn’t appear to come naturally for the young South Korean actor. From carrying out secret-agent missions to donning 16th century emperor robes, Ji morphs from one role into another with the fluidity of a chameleon — all with an unwavering smile on his face.
Today’s musical performance at a fan meeting in Taiwan is somewhat of an unexpected one for Ji’s audience. In a departure from his previous TV and film roles, he has embarked on a nationwide tour with his new production, ‘The Days’ — a song-studded story of presidential bodyguards in Korea’s Blue House. Ji’s decision to star in a musical may have been a surprise for his fans, but not for the actor himself who, as he laughingly admits, has always loved singing. It’s a passion he’ll get to indulge plenty in the role, which spotlights a compilation of well-loved tunes of the past decades — in particular, hits by late folk legend Kim Kwang-seok, Ji tells us.
The talented musician we meet today presents quite the contrast from the images previously cast on television screens across the nation, where Ji appeared to viewers first as Shundi, the cowardly emperor of China’s Yuan Dynasty in the historical drama ‘Empress Ki,’ and later, a masterful action hero in the hit thriller series ‘Healer.’ South Korea’s first Chinese historical series set in the Yuan Dynasty, ‘Empress Ki’ aired in 2013, topping the charts across South Korea and Taiwan.
“Getting used to the costumes was the hardest part,” Ji chuckles, referring to the stunningly elaborate traditional dress he had to wear for the role, complete with a coronet, a heavy emperor’s headpiece. “It was so uncomfortable that even turning my head was difficult. My neck and shoulders would be in pain after the shoot. Eventually I got used to it.”
The pain was worth it. Ji’s appearance in ‘Empress Ki’ meant a rapid soar to A-list status and instant recognition after a struggling start in the entertainment industry for the artist six years earlier. Fans across the country were mesmerized by the roguish charm of the ‘most handsome emperor’ onscreen. And Ji delivered, carrying off the emperor’s refinery with royal grace.
“The plot was interesting, the shoot was enjoyable; it was just a positive filming atmosphere all around,” Ji says of the experience. Most of the historical records of emperor Shundi’s life are gone, he tells us, which meant the actor had to conjure up his own creative vision for the role. “When I first got the script, I finished reading it all at once,” Ji recalls. “I spent a lot of time thinking what his real life would have been like, and analyzing and studying what sort of inferiority he might have felt, the mental scars he may have. It’s a really captivating story.”
From there, Ji continued to dazzle viewers, starring in ‘Healer,’ a 2014 ratings-topper in which he took on the multifaceted role of a mysterious night errand runner who adopts a variety of disguises in order to carry out his clients’ missions. Facing the challenge of playing various personas, from college student to researcher to entertainment reporter, in one consistent performance, Ji consulted both a psychologist and the author of the original work for help in understanding and acting out the brilliantly complex character. This depth of complexity is a reflection of the plot, says Ji.
“There’s a good portion of the story that revolves around social issues and social criticism,” he says, noting that the show’s immense popularity is not all his own doing. “The most dangerous action parts were done by the stuntman; I feel both sorry for him and grateful at the same time,” he says, and goes on to pay homage to his integral support team. “An actor performs in front of people; it may be scary, and stressful, and hard work, but he has the audience there to motivate him. But it’s different for the staff behind the scenes. They don’t get the wealth and fame for working under such dangerous conditions, only a sense of confidence and responsibility. So actors should perform with responsibility.”
It’s precisely that warm, generous attitude that has Ji pegged as “the source of happiness” among his studio coworkers — he is always counted on to lighten the atmosphere, whether at a harsh-weather outdoor shoot or a particularly risky action scene. His contagious smile and easy humor also readily take Ji from drama to comedy when acting. Whatever the genre, he says he files away each of his roles as a cherished memory. Striving to do what he loves every day and living “a more abundant and happier life, instead of getting lost in the minor, everyday matters,” is the actor’s own personal definition of success.
Because of South Korea’s military service requirements, Ji may be looking at serving in the army in the near future — a two-year absence period that’s tough on artists in show biz. But Ji is optimistic. With plans to play the role of a soldier upon his return and his perpetual sunny outlook, it’s hard to doubt that Ji will soon be back onscreen with yet another standout act.
“I hope to keep a relaxed attitude in acting, and harmonious relationships with others,” he says of his goals for the future. “I truly believe that if I just keep at it, good things will come.”
Interviewed by Hyesoo at Hallyu World Photo courtesy of Glorious