An Interview With Kim Jae Wook

Kim Jae Wook is leaving us all soon for the military. *tear* So it’s about due time that he gets another interview with asiae. In his last interviews, he was talking about Bad Guy (which was only a year ago, but feels like ages ago). This time, the focus is around his musical “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” where he plays the transgender rock singer. He’s certainly a gifted actor – he just needs the right roles to let him shine. It’ll be sad to see him gone from the public eye for two years, but perhaps it’s a “certainty” for his immediate future to focus on, and he’ll be back in no time knowing a bit more on where he wants to go, and who he wants to be.

Below is an excerpt of the interviews.

10: We were surprised when you were first cast for the show because you fit the role so well. Had you been asked to join the show before as well too?
Yes, I think it was in 2009. I have a friend who always does the stage production work for my fan meetings or concerts and he tried to tempt me into doing “Hedwig.” But my band Walrus was more important to me at the time because we were preparing to perform at the Grand Mint Festival. And I had actually never watched the musical version of “Hedwig” before because I watched the movie first and I had liked it a lot.

10: So how did you feel when “Hedwig” came back to you this year?
That I should do it now. And if I will, I might as well do it while I’m in my twenties. (laugh) I knew that I’d end up doing it so I couldn’t run away from it anymore. I’d actually been preparing to release my band’s next album but even my band’s members said, “Isn’t it better if you do it now? We’re going to go a long way anyway.” Our drummer Kim Tae-hyun played the Angry Inch for season three of the musical and our bassist Si-on will join me for this season’s.

10: So what did you have in your mind for the musical right after you were cast for it?
I wanted to play the real Hedwig. The character that John Cameron Mitchell played in the movie, the character I saw in it, so I guess you could say that I wanted to imitate him. Hence I started by focusing on reenacting him as perfectly as I could but my hopes shattered the moment I got the script for it. It was going to be impossible because of the huge difference in language and extensity. So the Hedwig I recreated and the Hedwig I’m acting now are different. Producer Lee Jina said I’d play him differently once I met with the audience and she was right.

10: What do you think has become the most different?
I don’t know what other people think. But for me, it feels like I’m not playing Hedwig but just a transgender with the same name, story and life as him. To start with, I’m not a Caucasian and from a different culture. So it may be that I don’t have the acting skills to overcome those differences but it just seems like it doesn’t make sense. There’s a line where I say, “From East Berlin…” but I myself act thinking that I’m an Asian woman.

10: Well I’m sure you’ve thought that you’ve lacked in certain ways since you’re a stranger to musicals but if there’s one thing that you still want to do well at, what is that?
Hmm, I haven’t thought that I lack in any way. I might’ve thought it if I was working on a different musical but I haven’t thought that I’m not good enough for “Hedwig.” It’s just that I was sure of what I wanted to express but it isn’t coming out the way I wanted it to. I really wanted to put the audience to sleep [or] them to feel very uncomfortable. Because the moment that Hedwig appears, they all cheer but who in our country would actually be so friendly to transgenders before they get to know them? They actually feel very uncomfortable around them so it doesn’t make sense. That’s why I wanted people to realize who Hedwig is when he sings “Midnight Radio” in the middle of the show, but up till then, be in pain from having to watch him. I also wanted people to walk out on me. And that’s why I was much more unfriendly for rehearsals and did no ad-libs but I couldn’t help but change once I stood in front of the audience. I guess it’s because I’m so used to being someone that is always doing something for people.

10: You said unfriendly. Is that why is seems like you’re quietly talking to yourself rather talking to the audience?
Yes. I’m under the mindset of ‘listen to me if you want to and don’t if you don’t want to.’ I’d want to make them feel more pain if they’re listening to me, be thankful if they fall asleep and think, ‘Yes, I’m sure you’re bored,’ if they look bored. That’s why at first, I wanted people not to be able to hear me clearly yet ironically, I wanted everyone to feel that I’m talking to each of them one on one. I think that for me, it was most important that I make this seem like a standup show, rather than a musical, in which Hedwig talks about himself. Lee Jina and I changed my script a lot after the first week of the musical’s run. I think I’ll go by that script starting in early June. And in it, we got rid of Hedwig and created a completely new character.

10: Are you not scared of making people feel uncomfortable or having people dislike you? It’s hard to bear the thought of someone hating you although you may not like everyone.
I used to be. But I let go of it at one point. There are so many rules to living in this world, although they might’ve not been said. That… I didn’t like. I wanted to free myself from all that so I told myself I’ll live the way I am because I want to be happy.

10: Well usually, people are scared of falling due to aberrant behavior after climbing to a certain point. So is it that you think you haven’t climbed up to a certain level yet or are you just not afraid of falling?
I think it’s both. And I think I freed myself the moment I started thinking I need to live life the way I’m living it right now to stay happy. I watched a bit of cable music channel Mnet’s “Launch My Life” starring Yoo Ah-in and that was the Yoo Ah-in I know. I thought of a lot of things while watching it. I probably wouldn’t go on such a show but I did get some vicarious satisfaction out of it.

10: What I thought while watching him is that there’s probably something he lost in material terms by revealing his true self and not being friendly on purpose.
There’s probably a lot. And Ah-in probably appeared in the show knowing that. So in that sense, it seems like he was more desperate than me to show who he really is.

10: Well, after your film “Antique,” you gained a very strong image of being gay. And in Korea, people put a lot of meaning into that term and continue to mention it when it comes to celebrities so I think you could’ve thought that taking on the role of a transgender for “Hedwig” could have been risky for you. Had you thought about this?
I didn’t. It’s kind of fun now. (laugh) Over time, I’ve come to enjoy that such a rumor is circulating and that some are even convinced of it. But it’s not like I won’t be able to play masculine roles anymore. Those who see potential in me will hand me roles.

10: How was it having to prepare wearing high heels and mini dress on stage?
I actually invested quite a lot of money into buying women’s clothes, cosmetics and high heels while rehearsing for my role. And my friend who helped me gave me 10 centimeter heels which I wore around the house so much that I became comfortable enough in them to run around in them. I also always carried my dress and high heels with me so that I could change into them for rehearsals. I wasn’t used to wearing skirts so I sat with my legs open at first but a person’s attitude changes depending on their posture so I practiced while keeping this in mind which helped a lot.

10: What’s it like wearing a skirt?
Comfortable. I have a long khaki-colored skirt which is really comfortable because there’s an elastic band for the waist. It’s just that I can’t go to the door when I get food delivered so I’ll throw my wallet to my friend. (laugh)

10: Well, you’ve had your your sexual boundary become hazy by appearing in “Antique” and “Hedwig.” What meaning does such experiences have for you?
I think they’ve helped me like myself a bit better. I had always wondered whether the notions or values I have [were] from being born under a sound family with an older brother and moving between Japan and Korea, [or] were formed from my own will. I had been questioning everything, starting with whether I’d be happy if I were to die one day after living my life like this. So from that point onward, I tried to rid myself of such thoughts as best I could. I started asking myself things like why do I hate sexual minorities, why shouldn’t they live their lives like that, why is it bad to be a transgender. And… after I decided to take on “Hedwig,” I dressed up as a girl and worked at a transgender bar in Itaewon for about a month.

10: Did nobody recognize you?
Not a single person. It was rather the people at the bar who were worried about me taking on the job when I first said I would, but I wasn’t. And I hadn’t intended on working there at first. I wanted to observe and talk to people, like I did for “Antique” by going to a gay bar, but the first day I went, I felt that I should be there more often. It was great hanging out and working with them every night. They were people who had already passed a line that ordinary people consider an absolute line so they were very free-spirited, easy-going and loveable. They were great help and I had fun. There were also a lot of times that I got angry. I mean, do other people have the right to criticize them when they just live life the way it’s been handed to them, they haven’t thought about these sort of things before and don’t try to think about them? Yet at the same time, they too are very good and precious to other people so I didn’t know how I should let out my anger. Hence I told myself that if I can’t change everyone and everything, at least I should become happy.

10: Does it feel very different standing in front of the public as a man versus a woman?
It does. It’s actually more fun when I’m a woman. (laugh) There’s a stronger sexual vibe I get from how they look at me. The same goes for the female members of the audience.

[Kae’s Note: By the way – am loving the little hair accent he has in the photo to the right.]

10: Hedwig usually represents hope or salvation but it seemed like your Hedwig was more of someone who has resigned to life. Hence what do you think Hedwig’s last moment will be like?
He becomes free by singing “Midnight Radio” and it’s supposed to show the explosiveness or sense of liberation that comes from him having decided to live through music, not as a man nor a woman, but I haven’t felt the liberty yet. It almost feels like he’ll go back to living the life he did yesterday. That’s why my heart feels heavy when I’m walking off the stage afterwards. I’m going, but without knowing where I’m headed.

10: You also play Tommy, Hedwig’s lover, for the musical. I’m sure you express Tommy in your own way as well, just like you do for Hedwig.
That’s why I had a hard time when recording the voice for Tommy. The Hedwig I played had become someone that’s completely different from how other people play him so Tommy had to change just as much as well. He had to be a bit more of a lowdown. At least my Tommy. He had to be ambitious and someone with the mindset that he’ll suck everything he can out of a woman. That’s why I felt sort of a satisfaction when singing “Wicked Little Town” at the end. It was partly because I wanted forgiveness by singing the song but I was also showing the audience that this is how amazingly I sing as a rock star.

10: How did it feel different singing as Tommy and as a member of Walrus?
I love it when I’m Tommy. It’s the first time in my life that I sang with so much pride in myself. (laugh) There’s a tension that forms, something that doesn’t appear when I’m with Walrus. I think all that I get out of singing with Walrus is pleasure. Whatever state I’m in, whether I’m drunk or forget the lyrics, I just like standing on stage with them. So we’re really doing music for our own sake, not for acknowledgement of our talent.

10: You work in an industry where there are many things that don’t go the way you want them to. A lot of things move according to convenience and the system. But do you think it’s worth staying in the industry given what you’ve been able to do so far?
There’ll probably be things that get even more difficult but the question mark I had in my head has turned into a certainty while working on “Hedwig.” I’ve become sure of how I’ll go about doing my current work in terms of the standard I’ll apply to choosing roles or the mindset I’ll be under when I’m not acting. I may not make much money because of that but the way I’m working will allow me to be happy, have fun and feel at ease.

10: By standard, are you saying that you’ll do what you want to do?
What I want to do, what I can do well at and what only ‘I’ can do. The roles that I can do the best job with in Korea.

You can read part 1 and part 2 here.


10 thoughts on “An Interview With Kim Jae Wook

  1. he sounds super awesome. and the fact that he watched Yoo Ah-In’s show cracked me up. love this interview, super insightful and honest. thanks kae for translating!

  2. im so proud to kim jae uck for accepting the job in Hedwig and the angry inch…only a real proffesional actor must experience this kind of act ,if its in the movie it might be easy but in the stage wow must be so in this kind of story(hedwig..) its not only when the show is goin on it also after the show is affected and so on,anyhow if you dont have guts and real talent you cant do this challenging role!!KIM JAE UCK you are FOR REAL..YOU ROCK!!!

  3. Omg, he just dug his own grave with this interview. If anyone believes that this man is straight, then they must be stupid or burying their head in the sand. Not that I mind that he’s gay. But why say he’s not when it’s so obvious that he is? He should just come out of the closet, and admit to the fact that he likes men. This interview has more or less convinced me that he bats for the other team. Come on, Kim Jae Wook. Man up and tell the truth. It’ll set you free.

    • Have you not heard of what happened to Hong Seok Cheon after he came out of the closet? He basically lost his career. Now, I’m not saying I look down on gays, in fact it’s just the opposite—I applaud Hong Seok Cheon for admitting he likes men, and I do ship OTPs and enjoy reading yaoi manga. But think about this: would you want Kim Jae Wook to ruin his acting career? He’s come so far and improved so much, I’m sure nobody wants his efforts to go down the drain just like that.

    • I definitely agree with what kimi sakaguchi said. Also, with due respect, you are not kim jae wook, and therefore cannot say if he’s gay or not. It seems rather that he enjoys dancing b/w the boundaries of someone who is gay or an actor who is acting gay. But hey, just like you’re assuming he’s gay, that’s my assumption and I could definitely be wrong.
      I think a good actor is someone who can act many roles, including a gay man and/or a transgender. I also think that someone who is androgynous is not necessarily gay.
      Personally, I don’t care whether he is or not, and I’ll be happy no matter what he is. I’m also not going to waste time trying to figure if he is, though I am a bit curious.
      Also, have you also considered “bi” as a possible sexual orientation?
      Overall, I’m just saying you can’t really assume and I don’t think you should say “manning up” is equivalent to “coming out the closet”. As sakaguchi said, the issue of sexual orientation, ESPECIALLY in Korea, is complex.
      As of now, Wook said that he doesn’t make a lot of money. I can’t imagine how worse off he could be if he were to come out, assuming that his situation could become like Hong Seok-cheon if he came out (if he is gay but hey does it really matter?)

  4. I just love this man! It’s great to see such free spirited people! And he’s so good at acting. Looking at him, I could never have guessed that he would pull off a gay or transgender role so well! I always find people who have guts to do things that are against the *SUPPOSED* norms. I find it very touching, how he talks about the mental preparation for the roles and also, about understanding the “Other” and being open about it. Respect, sir! . .

    On a happy note, I am glad that the military enlistment period is almost over and he’ll be back soon. Looking forward to seeing great roles from this man.

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