It’s the sparkle that shines through someone who penetrates a new world by taking a few steps from the very ground she once held. Model HoYeon Jung has picked up a new nametag that says ‘actor’ and knocks on a new door with her Netflix series, <Squid Game>.
<W Korea> It feels strange and yet refreshing to meet HoYeon Jung, the actor and not the model today.
HoYeon Jung Haha. I also feel like I need more practice introducing myself as an actor.
How have you been recently? I heard that the shooting of your debut series, <Squid Game>, the Netflix show released in September, wrapped last year.
I went to auditions and took acting lessons. I also studied English and trained for reading English scripts.
Do you already have your eyes set on an international acting career?
It’d be great if that happens. I’m just preparing myself because you never know what kind of opportunities will come looking for you.
Since you’ve already been on foreign stages as a model, you must be open to the idea of working internationally as an actor as well.
I’m definitely not scared about it. When I first worked in another country as a model, it felt like I was starting with absolutely nothing; but now I can have a more precise plan and approach things more casually.
A few days ago, you posted a photo of Han Gang’s book of poetry, <I Put The Evening In The Drawer> on your Instagram. You also quoted a line from the poem; ‘to learn to tightly seal.’
Argh, it kind of feels like I’ve been suddenly caught red-handed. I’m embarrassed (laughs). That’s the photo I posted when I took off to Yangyang for 4 days by myself this summer. Whenever I’m occupied with too many thoughts, I head for the sea. Even when I’m traveling abroad, I make sure I’m staying near a beach. In La Coruña, where Zara’s headquarter is located, I stayed at an oceanfront place and spent much time on a random rock, lost in thoughts.
What did you think about when you were in Yangyang?
I guess I went through huge chaos as I started acting. I’m now meeting different people and working in a different environment. Thinking more and more about the questions of ‘who am I and where am I’ made me feel like I had unrefined feelings floating inside me. I also found myself going on and on about abstract, incomprehensible things when I met people. Then I encountered the phrase ‘to learn to tightly seal’. Those words made me promise myself; I, too, shall tightly seal myself and sort myself out.
<Squid Game> had been eagerly anticipated since early this year. It’s of a minor genre, drawing on the subject of ‘death game’, which is quite rare in Korea; it’s directed by Dong Hyuk Hwang, who worked on films like <Silenced>(2011) and <Miss Granny>(2014), and stars Jung-Jae Lee and Hae-Soo Park. Everyone talked about how it’s ‘bound to be enormous’ even before release. Starting your acting career through a series like this must have been enormous pressure on you.
There are no words to describe how much of a pressure it was. I signed with new management that specializes in managing actors early last year in January. I thought I’d get some training before taking on any roles. But in February, a group chatroom that included the head of my management opened up through which I was given the script for <Squid Game> and asked to make and send over a video for the audition. At the time, I was in New York for Fashion Week! (laughs)
It was training alright, intense training (laughs).
Then the message ‘video is requested ASAP’ popped up in the chatroom. I didn’t even know when this ‘as soon as possible’ meant precisely. I thought I was going to have a meltdown.
Usually, ‘as soon as possible’ means ‘right now’.
That’s right (laughs). So, I focused on one thing only. ‘I’m going to do everything that I can this very moment’. What Amy Adams said for an interview once helped a lot – how she regards each of her audition as the last opportunity she’s allowed to play that role. I wanted to prepare well regardless of whether I would get the job or not. I was literally attached to the script all day long, except for meals. I hardly slept. And on the third day I sent my audition video. After sending it, I remember having a huge meal, thinking to myself, ‘it’s finally over.’ (laughs).
Listening to your story right now makes me picture how desperate you were at the time.
But what really drove me crazy took place when I got back to Korea for the actual audition. I was supposed to arrive at the Incheon Airport at 5 in the morning and audition two days later. When we landed, I turned my phone on and found another message in that horrifying group chatroom (laughs). It was about the extra lines I had to read at the audition. It was pretty lengthy. So, I went home and did nothing but study the script again. A few days ago, I came upon a photo of myself at the audition; I had circles under my eyes that came down to my cheekbones.
How did it feel to finally get the part after all that trouble?
I was shocked. When the head of my management told me I got the part, the first thing that came out of my mouth was ‘why?’ I was overwhelmed with happiness, but my fear was greater. ‘I’m so thankful, but can I really do this?’
Did you doubt yourself?
Yes. I started to think about why the director chose me, and then the chain of thoughts spiraled out of control. I was most scared of it all at the first script reading. More than 20 actors got together, and even those with the smallest roles were just so good. Jung-Jae Lee was sitting right in front of me and Hae-Soo Park right next to me. I’d never felt so small in my life after the initial read. And the director found me and asked, “Was that too intimidating for you? Were you scared?”
The fear continued until the early days of the shoot. When I realized that this would get me nowhere, I went straight to the director and asked for a meeting, be it tea or lunch or whatever. He had seen something in me, whatever it was, and I had to live up to his belief in me to a certain extent, even if I wasn’t going to pull off 200% or 300% of my potential. I had one question for him – Was I doing okay? He told me, ‘You’re doing well. You’re enough. You are already your character Sae-Byeok.’ He gave me a simple answer, but everything got so easy after hearing him say those words. It was incredible.
You couldn’t trust yourself, but someone else did.
It totally woke me up. From then on, I thought, ‘Okay, my acting isn’t up there yet, but I will do what I can.’ After I wrapped my head around that, acting became so much fun and joyous.
When I first saw you in the <Squid Game> trailer, I thought to myself; ‘did I just see the HoYeon Jung that I know?’ You took on the role of a North Korean defector, ‘Sae-Byeok’, who had a rough time on the streets picking pockets for a living. You were so immersed in your character it was almost difficult to locate you in the trailer.
I looked up a lot of documentaries about North Korean defectors. I talked with my speech coach, who was also one and learned about their lives. And above all, I accepted Sae-Byeok as who she was without much difficulty because she and I are alike. Since leaving Korea in 2016 and working as a model abroad until early last year, I spent much time alone. The feeling I experienced the most during that period was ‘loneliness’. Sae-Byeok also leaves home, surviving day to day in Korea with her little brother without her parents. She was a pick-pocketer, and I was a model, but we were the same in that we survived life on our own on foreign land, feeling lonely.
Let’s talk about your modeling days. Moments after you left for New York back in 2016, you managed to land an exclusive deal with Louis Vuitton for their 2017 S/S collection. The following year you went on to participate in the 2018 Chanel F/W campaign, which was shot by Karl Lagerfeld himself. What made you to suddenly transition your top modelling career into that of acting?
To be honest, I didn’t really have a big motivation when I first started modeling. In middle school, I thought about things like ‘what should I do to make a living when I grow up?’ and ‘people tell me I should model because I am tall. Should I really go for it?’ then I started modeling. It didn’t work out at first, but it was fun. I wanted to be good at it and always sought ways to take things to the next level. I guess I always found joy in the process and lived on the motivation created by such trying hours. The same goes for acting. I didn’t have a distinct motivation at first, but they actually were all around me. I saw a lot of great movies and read a lot of books when I was alone in a foreign city, which all helped filling up the void inside me. And one day, I guess I found the desire to express all of that through acting.
Did you feel empty?
I mean, modeling inevitably involves being seen. I once posted ‘what will you say after seeing the world I edited?’ on my Instagram. You could say Instagram is the world that I edit and display what I want to show others. I post the glittery days I get to have while modeling – wearing nice clothes, going to nice places, and enjoying nice food. Of course, I feel grateful and happy when people like what they see. Sometimes I have these ‘I’m alive’ moments, too. But one day, I looked back and thought, ‘am I really this person?’ People liked the fancy side of me, but that was just a tiny fraction of who I really am.
When did you first feel that way?
Just before I left Korea. I didn’t have a lot on my mind when I had just begun modeling in Korea. I was very eager to work and said yes to everything that came my way. I just kept on going nonstop until one day, I felt like a machine. I was 23 when I felt like I was hit on the head by something and asked myself, ‘who am I?’. Then I packed up for New York. It was, perhaps, escapism. I, of course, left for New York wanting to further my career but more than that, I wanted a change of scenery in my everyday life. I wanted to push myself, forcing me to survive difficulties.
You seem hard on yourself. At the time, you were gracing a renowned magazine cover. You were moving on to the apex of your career.
I guess I am. People often tell me that I’m a perfectionist. I constantly push myself. I reach for the stick rather than carrot whenever I feel I’m not doing enough. It’s become a habit. I also seem to have developed my career by using my deficiency as a driving force.
So, you left for New York. How did you spend your time there?
When I took off, I intended to be hard on myself, but I actually learned how to relax during my days in New York. There is, of course, fierce competition, and the entailing stress is immense. When Fashion Week begins, everyone works like crazy. But I noticed how people clearly divided their working days and off days. They didn’t want to be bothered when they had their personal time, which was respected by all. When I was modeling in Korea, I never felt relaxed. I finally learned how to reflect on myself and chill in New York. On my days off, I stayed home alone, watching movies, reading books, and taking time to think. In hindsight, I don’t think I could have ever taken up acting if it wasn’t for all those lonesome hours. I consoled my loneliness with movies and books, which led to the desire of expressing what I felt from them through acting. So, every holiday season, I visited Korea to take acting lessons.
Seems like moving to New York was a huge turning point in your life.
You’re right. And in New York, people constantly asked me, ‘HoYeon, how are you feeling right now? Are you good?’ which made me uncomfortable at first. I didn’t want to let other people know how I was feeling; I just wanted to do my job well. When I expressed how I felt, they would then tell me, ‘well, that’s important too, but my priority is how you feel. I don’t want you to do this if you’re uncomfortable with it. We can find another way to go about it.’ Hearing all of that repeatedly changed me into a person with more opinions, rather than someone who considered herself to be just a means to an end. And when I came back to Korea, many of my friends told me that I had changed for the better and ‘looked so at ease’. I guess my days in New York changed me a lot.
If New York changed your temperament once, were there any changes you felt after taking on acting?
It changed my perspective of the world. I started to learn about people in general as I took upon acting. For example, when I would watch the news, I used to just think, ‘oh, that happened’, and that was it. But nowadays, I’d wonder, ‘what made this person do such a thing?’ In a way, it’s like I’m living in the exact same world, but I am breathing a different kind of air every day since I began acting. It’s fascinating how a different take on the same environment changes your world completely.
Are HoYeon Jung the model and HoYeon Jung the actor different?
They are the same person. I feel somewhat more relaxed stepping in front of the camera as a model. I feel more on the nervous and unskilled side as an actor. But there sure are advantages about having done modeling previously because I’ve experienced both the rookie days and success. Was I great at modeling when I first started out? No. I was so awkward and blundering but that itself was beautiful in its own way. Of course, that’s how I feel after 10 years now; I didn’t feel like that back then. Now, as I am starting out as an actor, I feel that my reflexes have picked up speed a lot more compared to my modeling days. I am better at quickly refreshing myself and stirring up the right vibe no matter what happens. I do anticipate such changes to lead to a healthy acting career.
You said you saw many movies and read many books in New York. Did any of those works speak to you personally?
<Roma>, by Alfonsó Cuaron. I heard that Yalitza Aparicio, who played the main character, started her acting career with <Roma>. You can see that her acting is somewhat inexperienced and unrefined, but how she so vividly exists within the character. I remember feeling much encouraged watching the film.
Will you be reading a book or watching a movie before going to bed tonight as well?
Oh, I wasn’t going to read or see anything. Can’t I just meditate tonight? (laughs) These days I’m into relaxation meditation. I think I will lie on my bed, focus on my breathing, and meditate before falling asleep as midnight nears.