Choi Min-Sik is a pillar of South Korean cinema. When the renaissance began of the Korean Film Industry where it upped its game in spectacular fashion in the early 2000s, Choi was there. From the first echoes of his Cannes lauded film with director Park Chan Wook in “Old Boy”, he has only increased his stature including a variety of characters. The summer of 2014 sees him diversifying in spectacular form in the recently released “Lucy” from Luc Besson starring Scarlett Johannsen and dominating the Korean box office with the war epic “The Admiral” which follows the life of naval leader Yi Sun-shin in one of the biggest naval offensives in Korean history. Choi spoke to Inside Reel about psychology, physical manifestation and finding your voice with such as character.
Can you talk about the psychology of leadership when heading into a seemingly no win scenario as The Admiral is faced with?
Admiral Yi is not an angel who fell from the sky saying he will save the Joseon dynasty. He went through numerous challenges and overcame them. He is no different than you and I. He did all he could as a soldier to protect the nation. Like a soldier’s manual, it is apparent for soldiers to have no fear and risk their lives in battle. But in reality, there are not a lot of people who can overcome their fear. For these reasons, there are only a selected number of praised leaders. Even the best soldiers can have a hard time listening to orders, but Admiral Yi sticks to the manual until the end. Do you think he didn’t have a difficult time? If he didn’t then he would not be human. In his war diary, Admiral Yi mentioned all the hardships and difficulties he faced as well as re-checking his heart to discipline himself. Without that, he would not have been able to stay strong throughout the battle. This is the reason why he is such a significant character. This is just my personal thought but for me, Admiral Yi is not a superhero from the start but through training and practice, he has become of the most respected figures in history.
With the Admiral, there is a sense of inner strength that propels his fortitude. What did you have to understand about the man to play him from the inside out?
In my 20 years of acting, this was my first role playing a hero. There are not many historical records on Admiral Yi so I did not know where to start. I had to read his war diary over and over to understand where he was coming from. It is not like he was born with superman DNA to help him win the war. He is human and the fact that he overcame all his struggles to push forward made him that much greater. He probably felt everything a normal person would feel in this situation. The worry he had for his mother during the war…the pain he felt when executing the runaways…and the daily training he went through to discipline himself by writing in his war diary. While studying all this, I discovered a human side of Yi Sun-shin, not an admiral, and this is how I got to understand him and act out this particular scene.
Physicality always takes a role in how far you are willing to push yourself whether it is battling in a sword fight here, gun wielding in “Lucy” or even eating an octopus in “Old Boy”? Can you talk about the different emotional and physical connotations you have to manifest through each of these characters?
For “The Admiral: Roaring Currents”, I had fainted while shooting one of the battle scenes. It was a scene where I was ordering people to take cover but when I opened my eyes, I was looking up to the sky. The costume itself was very heavy and the weather was really hot that day so I just fainted while saying my lines. For “Old Boy”, however, I was younger so there were no big hardships. I remember re-taking a fight scene more than 10 times. I was out of breath by then so when you watch that scene, that part was not acting. This is what the director intended, however, to show that character’s loneliness and hardship fighting alone. In “The Admiral: Roaring Currents” I wanted to reserve my expressions and motions as much as I could. Admiral Yi probably had a lot of feelings inside of him but, as a soldier and a leader, he could not express his feelings. It must have been a lot of stress on him and he probably felt guilty and angry but he held it in. That is exactly how I wanted to portray the role of Admiral Yi so I focused a lot on my face expressions, especially the eyes. I wanted to bring out the detail where my eyes will show all the inner feelings without using big movements.
Can you speak on your perception on portraying the intimacy of brutality in the characters you sometimes play? And how that affects a character’s psychological make up whether it be in this film, “Lucy”, “Old Boy” or even “New World”?
I have no biased feelings toward playing brutal characters. But that is one of the characteristics that needs to be played so whether it is viewed positively or negatively doesn’t really matter to me. I don’t feel it is the right mentality for actors playing antagonist characters to be concerned about their image so much.
Since we go out to young students, can you talk about your training coming up in the business. You have played a variety of different characters that you create different masks for. What does it take for you to slip into these roles.
To have come this far as an actor, one of the biggest factors that kept me going is really loving and enjoying what I do. There are a lot of hardships along the way, but as much as the audience comes to watch what I do and invest their time and money for me, I need to repay that back to them by working harder. That is a real professional. In order to gain that responsibility, you need an endless amount of practice and research on humanity.
John Hurt has created some undeniable characters. Many point to Cain in “Alien” but his list of credits from “Heaven’s Gate” to “Captain Correlli’s Mandolin” to “Hellboy” shows his ability to mix between genre and historical with an equal degree of ease. Perhaps his crowning achievement was as John Merrick in David Lynch’s 1980 film “The Elephant Man”. For his new film “Snowpiercer” from Joon-ho Bong, the Korean director of “The Host”, he plays Gilliam, a leader of sorts ruled by secrets locked in a train pummeling through a frozen barren wasteland. Hurt spoke to Inside Reel about the structure of a character, the language of film and the rules of the game.
Can you talk about finding the honesty within a character?
I can. I can talk to you about it. I don’t know whether it will mean anything particularly. When I’m looking at something, I think of how it should be. I don’t try to be clever. I don’t try to do clever things. I just try to make it seem what the writer intended it to be. That is what I do.
Has that process evolved?
It has always been in the acting of it. If something occurs to you along the way, that is more inventive…more exciting…more electric or whatever, you might take that on board. But the first thing you try to do is to get across the character as written. I believe that is considerably more important than what you may think.
So that belief in acting is important above all else?
Yes that I think the most important thing is that you must serve the script. It does not serve you.
Then how clear does a director need to be to an actor since scripts change all the time?
Things change. Of course they do. Sometimes you work on a film that is constantly changing. You work on a scene. You’re ready for it. You get there. And they’ve suddenly changed everything. It is very difficult to change the direction completely of what you’ve learned.
But do you need to have a concept of the character in the bigger world whether it be “Contact”, “Hellboy” or “Snowpiercer”?
Indeed. If you suddenly change all the dialogue, it makes everyting difficult. It is kind of important for us, as actors, from our point-of-view, that it has a certain consistency.
Does it have to have a certain rhythm to it or does that come naturally?
Yes it may have a certain rhythm to it indeed. It may have all sorts of reasons that it might be. But if you keep changing it, as if to say, “well just make it up”, that’s a very different area. If you say to me, “Look, I don’t want you to write this down…I just want you to improvise”, I will say “Ok. Good. Fine”. And I will improvise it. But if you say to me “This is a dialogue…and this is consistent to the way it should be”, I will learn it. But it is not fair to change the dialogue in the morning the day I do it. Do you get what I mean?
Then what does it take to make a better actor?
It depends on what you are saying. You’ve got to be clear what your signals are. As I say, “I don’t know how this scene is going to go, we’re going to improvise it”. I say “OK. Right. Let’s do that”. That is one way of doing it. But if you say to me, this scene has changed and it is absolute that “you have to learn it” and I learn it and that morning to shoot it, that’s not very fair. You weren’t talking about “Snowpiercer” were you?
Not directly. i was asking your thoughts overall. But how was your experience on “Snowpiercer”?
“Snowpiercer” was the most marvelous piece to work on ever. It was wonderful working with Bong [Joo-hon, the director]. He is brilliant to work with. He only shoots what he wants to see. He doesn’t think in a smaller size or a larger size or a different angle…he simply shoots what he wishes to see…and he knows how it joins together. I mean it’s Hitchcockian…it’s brilliant.
Does the fact that he is communicating in a different language (i.e. Korean) make it clearer?
Nah. Nah. Nah. It has nothing to do with language. It is an image on screen anyways. That is the language of cinema.
For you then, what is the language of cinema…what defines it?
The language of cinema, is, as I say, the information and the image on the screen. How you choose to add to that is actually of little consequence. (coughs) Well…shall I say, it is of considerable consequence. It is not as important as the image on the screen ever. It really doesn’t make a difference. I mean what can I take as an example of a very strong image on screen on film that I have done maybe.
Let’s take “The Elephant Man”.
OK. Take “The Elephant Man”…would it matter if it was English? If it was Spanish? Italian? Swedish? It really wouldn’t mean much. What is important is the image and conditioning and everything that is on the screen. That is the language of cinema.
How is that language used in “Snowpiercer” because, as a film, it has scope and yet it is intimate at times as well. “Hellboy” was that way too.
Yep. It can be. Bong is incredibly sensitive to what is actually said. Even though he is Korean speaking, he has a certain amount of English but not enough to be as sensitive as ,in fact, he is. He is very clear. He knows immediately if you’ve struck a wrong note.
Did you have to have a clear vision of who Gilliam, your character, is and who he appears to be in terms of his journey?
Well of course. That is from the beginning. Gilliam’s journey is quite a tricky one because he is the only character who seemingly seems to be duplictous. But I don’t think he is duplicitous, I just think that he believes in the status quo. He knows that this is the only way in which this whole circus is going to survive and he does everything he can to make it work from the back. But, at the same time, he knows very well that this revolution is doomed or he feels that it should be doomed.
The progression through the train for me represents for me, in a way, the seven layers of Hell from “Dante’s Inferno”.
You could put it that way too. It is a very symbolic film definitely. There are moments of hedonism. There are all sorts of things. They are clear.
Is cinema reflective to a certain point of where we are in society?
I can’t say that that is the answer to every film. You have to understand that this film is a comic too. It is not an intellectual film. It has a certain intellectual [angle] and it has the propensity, argument and consension [for it] but I don’t think you can say that it is an intellectual track.
This film is a collection of very different actors who usually work in different genres working together. Can you talk about that interaction?
That varies too like crazy. I couldn’t agree with you more. You look at Tilda [Swinton]…she is seemingly outrageous…but not really. She is one of the human race that got stuck on this train and given responsibilities presumably because they felt that she had the ability to keep those responsibilitie and deal with them. I don’t know. Those of course are questions we can’t answer. I don’t think there is any discrepancy in style if you see what i mean. It is a very different way of looking and playing things.
But that is true of many formulations. Can you talk how your upbringing and how that fed into your abilities?
You mean for real? I am not sure how to answer that one.
Maybe what it was about the acting process intrigued you?
I think what intrigued me is that I wanted to represent something which I though was real. Originally, I think so…that is what it probably was. And before that, I just loved entertaining anyway…from the age of 5. I used to invent things apparently. I don’t remember it very well. I do remember when I was at school at 8 or 9…just making things up and improvising and so on. And then I remember taking the first play I did at school to. All those things.
From that precept, where does the psychology of a character begin?
You feel your way into something. You don’t know it. You’re not aware of it being a character. I think it is just instinctive more than anything.
Equating the ideas of major networks as well as their cable spinoffs and genre casings poses special challenges as creating edgy fare comes with its own contrivances about how to make things but economically and creatively viable. CBS though seems up to the task.
“The Arsenio Hall Show”, which brings back the once stalwart cool man of late night who abruptly fell off the scene, comes with an interesting delight: how to make this older man who epitomized the 90s into the fold two decades later. He told us two years ago at a cable function in a small group that he was planning this. What is interesting is that he is doing it with the same people as before and by extension the same company with a couple extras. Arsenio himself notes the change in times with the technology saying “Debbie Gibson [back in the day] sent me a FAX that she wanted to sing on my show. That was my text”. Another example he gives is “I remember Barbara Streisand calling me with a Bill Clinton question. Now she can tweet”. Sounding a little too much in the play, he speaks that “with a joke, you are able to Google now”. One of the things that he thinks gave him the confidence to return to this specific fray was his win on “Celebrity Apprentice” because “I have been Number Two at anything I have ever done” so “it was nice to win”. The aspect that also promoted it was the enticement of his son. He relates that he left the late night show he had at the top of his game but it was to spend more time raising his son. He explains “I needed balance in my life” and “the compliment from me to Paramount was that they don’t want you on the air if you know you’re going” which was the reason for the show’s abrupt end. Now that his son is older, when the finale of “Apprentice” came along, his son told him “we could win it!” This showed to him that his son had some investment in what he was doing. Arsenio was known in breaking music acts back in the day but the actuality is that “the stats point that music doesn’t get as good numbers as the talk”. He points that someone who has been supportive is Jay Leno, whom he says many people think as combative but he explains that this is true only when they are in direct competition with him. Jay, Arsenio explains, just wants to win, making the comparison that “Ali & Frazier didn’t get along initially”. His end game is that “at the end of the day, I am a stand up comic and I am there to get laughs” but “I just need to be funny in the way that I do it”.
“The Good Wife”, continuing its much ballyhooed run on CBS, recently received a watercooler boost with the campaigning of the infamous Anthony Weiner back into the New York mayoral race. Robert King, who exec produces the show with his wife Michelle, says that “there is a certain demand in telling the story” but “sometimes the audience is [only] inches ahead of us [and] sometimes yards ahead of us”. In comparison to the real life reflections with the recent Weiner situation, he says “we are the happiest people since we have so much to write about” saying “the Weiner thing hit it right on the head” though “Julianna [Maguiles] creates a good temperature on set”.
“Mom”, a new series starring ever blonde Anna Faris and Alison Janney, seems like an interesting mix especially with its addiction background of the story thrown in the comedy mix. After having her baby with husband Chris Pratt (from “Parks & Recreation”), Faris says “I wasn’t ready to get back to work” but he read it and pushed her to do it. Of her character, Faris admits “She’s so dimensional and a mess…basically like me”. Addressing her longevity in the business and getting that first job, she explains “I slowly came to realize that getting your first job is hard but not as hard as the second one” because “you have to peddle yourself around town”. At this point in her career, she says “there is a difference in that you graduate as a woman into a different element in your 30s”. Asked to what her mom might think of her portrayal on-screen in this series, Faris jokes that “my mom is a prude but half the time she doesn’t know what the vocabulary means” adding that “she says she’s never seen a condom”. Chuck Lorre, who continues to build his empire here after the successes of “Two &A Half Men”, “Big Bang Theory” and recently “Mike & Molly”, concludes with the admission that “I once asked Norman Lear what he did [with all his shows] and he said you go where the fire is burning the brightest and where you are most needed”.
Showtime swoops with interest into the battle with the return of “Homeland” and the texture of how you change up the show with two red hot Emmy winners on the roll. Claire Danes, whose lead character is always on the verge of exploding, says that “Carrie is always sitting on her own personal ticking bomb” adding that “it is an impossible dilemma”. In terms of the recent progression, she continues that Carrie “is not great on the meds and she is even worse off them” posing that “it is pretty bleak”. When asked about her recent quotes about having trouble finding work after her lauded performance as “Temple Gradin” for HBO before she started “Homeland”, she explains that after the former, “I think I emerged energized and emboldened” and “I wanted a similar type of challenge” but “there wasn’t any roles like that” adding that “I didn’t have patience for the regular old stuff”. She says that she guesses “there was a dirth of material in general at that moment” but, for her, “to do a job for the sake of it is a really bad idea”. She postulates that ”we are freelance, dare I say, artists”. Despite the bent of this series, she says “I have not become a political creature” though, for this season, “I have returned to my bipolar books” admitting “they are right near the bed” because “it is our job to interpret the heavy lifting the writers do”. Damian Lewis, for his part as Brody, is not seen for the first two episodes of the new season, which is unusual for the most recent Emmy winning Best Actor – Drama, but he says “it is a function of the story that we have to see Brody”. He explains with a little chicanery that “he disappeared into a tunnel system” because “he is the most wanted criminal in the world so he has to lay low”. Asked whether he sees his character’s bleak end coming in droves, he jokes that “these guys [the creators] have been trying to kill me since Episode One”.
“Masters Of Sex” continues the predilection with an piercing view into taboo and science in the late 40s with a kind of voyeurism that apparently pushes the boundary. Michael Sheen, who plays the lead character Bill who is studying the science of human sexuality in a conservative time, says that, with the series, it is about seeing the time as “prudish” but more about seeing it as a journey about “a sense of control in this man’s life” since “he is a mystery to himself”. The idea for him of this man is that “he has a locked-down desire to keep control”. In comparing the sense of sexuality to our perception of sex today, he explains “the same problem of intimacy applies now”. The key is “with the sexuality of the piece, it has to be realistic” but “your have to find a way to set the tone with all the right things” adding that “you discover through experimentation”. In terms of his relationship with his study partner Jane (played by Lizzy Caplan), he says “you find your way with the chemistry” because “the humor comes out of the situation” because (let’s face it), “it is interesting how sex is done on-screen” but “there is an awkwardness”. From his perspective, in “Masters Of Sex”, “there are a lot risks, not just the nudity”. What he likes about this character and the challenge is that “in the multiple episodic format, you can get to the complexity of a novel”. The disconnect for Bill, he says, is that “he tries to keep sex and attraction separate”. As for his view on sex after doing the series, he says “I found myself talking about relationships more” because “the more you are doing [or watching] a show about sex, you are finding more how you connect with human beings”. The take-away is that “sex is a conduit for any area you feel shame about”.
Lizzy Caplan, from her point of view playing a period woman after she had played many outspoken modern women, says “when you are telling a story in present day, you can [show the modern woman] with clothes and a strategically placed tattoo”. With all the sex and nudity floating throughout the series, she says “some of the situations were ridiculous but accurate” but “there are moments of levity”. She says “the idea of Jane is that every step of the way she is a contradiction” using the comparisons that “she is a secretary but she is also a partner” and that “she is sexually adventurous but she is a mother of two” and most specifically “she becomes close with Liddy [Bill’s wife] but she is also the other woman”. What throws her is that people were told different underlying falsehoods about sex (like masturbation) and, as she puts it, “you just needed to tell people that what you were doing was normal but people weren’t doing that…and that is some bullshit!”
CW closes out with the consideration of “The Tomorrow People” which is based upon a series that Greg Berlanti (who also produces the CW’s “Arrow”) saw as a kid. He speaks of it with glee saying “Julie [Line, the exec producer] and I have been talking about this show since we were in college” adding that “the originals played in reruns on Nickelodeon”. Mark Pellegrino, recently of “Lost” as Jacob, returns to genre here with a multi-facade character teasing that “I don’t consider myself the hero of the story right now” but explaining that “I am protecting the human race and you have to do dirty things”.
The triumvirate in CBS, Showtime & CW continues to show that the separation of brand and knowing the angle at which to engage the audience is decidedly important in facilitating bigger and bigger ratings.