The second in an award-winning series of interviews with Korean theater professionals, first published in The Dong-A Ilbo.
He felt like a free spirit. Perhaps that was why I imagined, for a second, his five-foot-eleven figure being buffeted by the wind and his tanned, unprotected face bare in the sun.
“I started drinking in my first year of high school. When I was younger, I liked to drink makkeoli. Now I drink anything. But I like people more than drinking. So I don’t drink alone. Often I drink with other actors in the same play or people who came to see the play. And most of the time, we split the bill. The problem is, though, it takes a lot longer for me to get over my hangovers now. There are days when I can’t do anything the next day. Maybe it’s because I drank too much over the years. But I don’t do anything stupid when I’m drunk.”
Why all these questions about drinking in an interview with a stage theater actor? My answer is that Park likes drinking so much that it has become an important part of his life. Also, one of the turning points in his life came from drinking, so it’s not like I can avoid the topic. And speaking personally, he was the first interviewee in this series to speak so openly of his off-stage life. That interested me.
Making a living in the theater business is difficult, but it has been particularly hard for Park. These days, however, he has swept a number of awards, and critics praise his skills. Who is this man? His name is Park Wankyu (40), and he is an actor at the theater company Baeksugwangbu. I met him on May 11, 2017, at Dong-A Ilbo.
1. Turning Point
I asked him about a play that changed his life as an actor. He answered without hesitation.
First, Whale (written and directed by Lee Hae-seong, 2008).
“I played the part of a deputy engineer of a North Korean submarine, and it was the first serious role I got. In theater lingo, it was my first nimai role. At the workshop, some of my older colleagues told me that they felt I was ‘out of place’, meaning that serious roles weren’t for me because I was more of a joker. But that made me try harder. The director, Lee Hae-seong, actually supported me: “You’re not like that. You feel like the main character.” I worked hard, and I received good reviews in the end. Many directors got to know me through this play.”
Whale is a play about North Korean spies who tried to infiltrate South Korea in a submarine off the coast of Sokcho. Substituting the interior of the North Korean submarine with the inside of a whale, the play shows North Korean spies self-destructing. Nimai is a Japanese word, used in kabuki theater. It’s actually short for nimaime, meaning the person who appears on the second in cast list—the handsome male lead. Through this play, Park Wankyu demonstrated that he was a nimaime, who can also handle strong and powerful roles.
Second, Antigone in New York (written by Janusz Glowacki, directed by Lee Seong-yeol, 2009).
“That was the first real main role I had. Before that, most roles I had were ensembles or extras, but I got this one as a reward for doing a good job as a manager for the theater company. I’d joined in 2001 and it was the first real role I had in nearly ten years. Many people mention Antigone in New York when they meet me. It was a good part for me, and I worked really hard.”
Antigone in New York is a story about a group of homeless people in New York. Through them, the play delves into the parts of our society that have been shadowed by a brilliant light. Park Wankyu had the role of ‘Flea’, a mean, homeless Polish immigrant. Stage director Lee Seong-yeol, the head of Baeksugwangbu, praised Park, saying, “Now you can go anywhere and tell people you’re an actor.” And one other thing. There was another person who’d watched his acting very closely. It was Park Geun-hyeong, the stage director from theater company Golmokgil, who then invited Park Wankyu into the work that brought Park to prominence.
Third, A Long Night in the Tropics (written by Hirata Oriza, directed by Park Geun-hyeong, 2010).
“It’s set in a Malaysian resort town where retired Japanese immigrants live. I played the role of Haraguchi Mitsuru, a man who used to be a hikikomori in Japan but now lives in this resort town, delivering DVDs to Japanese retirees. Two days before the opening, students from the Seoul Institute of the Arts, who were studying under Park Geun-hyeong, came to watch the rehearsal. And many of them said, ‘Mitsuru doesn’t look like a hikikomori’. I wanted to make him look a bit more agoraphobic, so I put in little things, like averting eye contact with other people or getting startled when other people approach me. I’m only in the play for about 15 minutes, though. It’s a play that allows all the actors equal stage time.”
Although he was only on stage for 15 minutes, he left a “great impression”. There’s a scene where Ikuko (played by Ye Su-jeong) asks “What do you do when you’re alone?” and Park answers while rubbing his feet together. This scene came to symbolize the whole play. Park had found a way to reveal the unstable inner state of his character, who seemed completely fine on the outside. (This reminded me of how Kim Hye-ja, who played a murderer in the 1981 film Late Autumn, gained attention by expressing her character’s climaxes by curling her toes.) The Japanese characters in this play are all living like hikikomori in a foreign country—or the so-called sotokomori—and the play itself is therefore generally quiet.
Fourth, Antigone (written by Jean Anouilh, directed by Kim Seung-cheol, 2010).
“I played King Creon, who came to rule Thebes after Oedipus died. I get into a heated discussion and a bloody fight in a coliseum with Oedipus’ daughter Antigone. I found the role intoxicating. And since I played a hikikomori from May 11 to June 5 and then took the role of Creon from July 1, my friends joked that I was now a massive success. It’s true, I’m a really lucky actor.
It wasn’t just roles he was lucky with. He was also lucky with awards. In 2010, Park received the Yu Inchon Best New Actor Award at the Dong-A Theater Awards, the Best New Actor Award at the Grand Korea Theater Awards, and the Rising Actor Award at the Hiseo Theater Awards. This is the ‘Grand Slam’ of theater.
2. A turning point borne out of a turning point
Park Wankyu was the youngest son of a farmer in Yeonmudae, where the Nonsan Korea Army Training Center is located. When he was in third grade, his family moved to Daejeon, and he attended Hanbat High School and graduated from Hyechon College (renamed Daejeon Institute of Science and Technology) with a degree in Tourism English Interpretation.
“I was going to be a Catholic priest but gave that up and didn’t focus on my studies from the second year of high school on. I didn’t want to take a year off before college, so I enrolled in Hyechon College. I was terrible in math and sciences but was better in languages, foreign languages. ‘If you study Tourism English Interpretation, I guess you’ll become a tour guide, and that’d be interesting’, I thought. My father was working in the management office at the college, so my tuition was free. But my major was more focused on hotel management than interpretation. I absolutely hate the nine-to-five life. The reason I’m in theater now is because I want to live a fun life. Based on my experience of performing in church plays and English plays in college, I decided to become an actor.”
Park completed 28 months of public service at the Office of Culture and Press in Seo-gu, Daejeon, and the Election Commission in the administrative district of Seo-gu Gap. Then he moved to Seoul at the end of 2000. The next year, he joined the theater company Baeksugwangbu. (He mentioned that he was still curious how he got in because there was a rumor that he’d actually failed the audition.)
As he said, he “didn’t major in [theater], wasn’t good looking, and wasn’t great at acting,” and so he felt intimidated when he first joined. His timidity unfortunately came off as defiance to other members of the theater company, making his life even harder.
The first play he acted in after joining the theater company was Albert Camus’ The Misunderstanding (directed by Ryu Ju-yeon). In his own words, he was disastrous with “crappy acting”. In the same year, he played the role of a beggar named Namani, but he only had one line—“Just once”.
Then around February 2002, he made a huge mistake because of alcohol. It was around the time he spent a lot of time in Gwanghwamun as a Red Devil, reveling in the spirit of the 2002 Korea-Japan World Cup even before the competition began.
One night, he drank with a friend, and the next day he was late to a special morning performance of Walk the Desert 2, creating a 30-minute delay. Had a coworker not come to wake him up, he would have missed the performance completely. Lee Seong-yeol, the head of the theater company suspended Park for a year. In line with the title of the play, he was left to “walk the desert” all alone.
Park said he didn’t leave his house because he was so lonely, sad, angry, and desperate. He lived like a literal hikikomori. He said that period in his life helped him play the role of a hikikomori in A Long Night in the Tropics and he can now talk about the period in good humor. (Not that it’s down to that experience, but Park said he still tends to stay in his small bed all day when he has nothing to do).
During his suspension, he worked as a manager in a bar in Sinchon. He read tarot cards and even learned magic, which helped attract a lot of customers. The owner of the bar offered him a generous wage, so Park was able to move to a bigger apartment (and he continued to work there on and off for six or seven years).
The suspension was lifted after eight months. Park decided to do his best upon his return to the theater company. He starred in over 15 plays until 2007, but most of his roles were gangsters, petty crooks, and beggars. He only started gaining attention after the opening performance of Whale, mentioned above. His discordant relationships with older company members also softened during the one year from 2006 when Park served as the manager of the theater company.
3. When two streams unite
I came into the interview with the vague impression that he had a clear understanding of his own characteristics, and it turned out that he did. Park said certain directors think he is good in soft and delicate roles while others think that he is good in tough and powerful roles. The former were his roles in Antigone in New York and A Long Night in the Tropics, and the latter were Whale and Antigone.
There’s probably no better praise for an actor, since it means that he can handle any role. And Park puts this down to his two teachers—directors Lee Seong-yeol and Park Geun-hyeong.
He said, “Director Lee Seong-yeol is still like a scary father to me. But Director Park Geun-hyeong is more like a colleague, a friend. We’re similar in style as well. The assessment that I can handle both strong and soft images is a huge boon to me. It means an expansion of opportunity for an actor.”
And he’s had opportunity to utilize his potential.
In 2016, as a seasonal member of the National Theater Company of Korea, he played the main character “Kim Sang-beom” in There’s Soup (written by Lee Geun-sam, directed by Seo Chung-sik). For theater company Watchman, he played Goebbels in the play Theater Goebbels (written by Oh Se-hyeok, directed by Lee Eun-jun). The fact that he played the main roles is not the important part—what is important is that Park considers both of them plays in which he was able to demonstrate his duality.
“I didn’t know during the rehearsals, but I realized during the performances that Kim Sang-beom was the sum of all the plays and all characters I’d performed. He was like a hikikomori at the beginning, and when he becomes evil in the middle of the play he felt like Creon or the first lieutenant in Widows. I thought, ‘Everything is in me.’ Not just the characters I’d played but even aspects of me I discovered while performing in plays were there. I entered the theater world when I joined Baeksugwangbu in 2001 and received my first award in 2010, and I thought the things I went through were similar to what Kim Sang-beom experienced. When I started without even knowing what plays really were, I heard all kinds of insults from ‘Your face is all wrong’, ‘Your breathing’s wrong’, ‘You’re rude’, ‘You don’t even say hello’, and I was treated like an outcast, and I got upset about all that and drank, and I drank so much alcohol that I was late for a special morning performance, and I was suspended for a year, told never to come to the theater even if the theater were flooded or on fire… But I’m not the only one. Other people’s lives are the same. No one has only joy or only sorrow. Everyone has all kinds of emotions. The feelings that Kim Sang-beom has in certain situations, those emotions and thoughts are the things everyone has. So I could just run with it.” (Quarterly Korean Theater Journal, Winter 2016).
‘Just run with it’ in the last sentence of Park’s quote means that there was no need to ‘act’. There’s Soup first premiered in 1966. The play is a social commentary that tells the story of an ordinary company worker Kim Sang-beom—whose name is a portmanteau of two Korean words ‘sangsik (common sense)’ and ‘pyeongbeom (ordinary)’—turning into an ambitious social climber, chasing after material things and power in ways that defy common sense and ordinariness. Time is a requirement for a play to become a ‘classic’. So I welcome the fact that a Korean play written 50 years ago can be performed again today. I’ve lived through the time that the play is set in and have seen different performances of it a few times over the course of a few decades. So just hearing the title There’s Soup makes me nostalgic.
Park said his role in Theater Goebbels was similar to his role in There’s Soup. The only difference is that while the character Kim Sang-beom changes over time in There’s Soup, Goebbels in Theater Goebbels oscillates between being cruel and servile from one moment to the next.
How great his acting must have been, given that he could ‘run with’ his advantages of duality and his own life. Other people have said the roles must have been hard, but Park said it wasn’t very difficult. His roles felt like second skin to him. For the two plays, he received the Best Actor Award at the Dong-A Theater Awards, which is the most prestigious theater award in Korea.
“Park Wankyu, who received the award for Theater Goebbels and There’s Soup, has shown incredible acting in recent years to the point that it seems this award comes a bit late… In all of his roles, he pursues clear interpretations of his characters, the power to bring his roles to life both internally and externally, and harmoniously combines the concreteness, logic, emotions, passion, and madness of the characters. And I believe that he has established himself as an actor who is loved by both the audience and the critics—an actor whom people will want to see again and again…” (by Kim Bang-ok, the Chairman of the Awarding Committee, 53rd Dong-A Theater Awards).
The highest praise.
“An award is an honor. It is a psychological compensation, making you think, ‘I worked hard’. It’s not right to go on stage aiming to receive awards, but it makes you feel great when you receive one as a result of your working hard. And you get a little money to treat the theater company people. Nothing changes for an actor even after you receive an award. Actually, you have to be more careful not to hear someone say that you’ve become arrogant. Maybe that’s why there’s a joke about how an award brings three years of bad luck. (laughs)”
4. In search of a role, in search of myself
I asked Park Wankyu about the relationship between himself and his roles. What does he think about the two conflicting concepts of ‘immersing’ himself in and ‘distancing’ himself from his roles?
“I don’t understand the distancing myself part, but I believe the way you immerse yourself in a role is important. Becoming completely absorbed in a character isn’t right. Perhaps that’s where the distancing part comes from. In order to immerse yourself in a role, you have to understand the character. You have to know why the character says certain things, why he acts a certain way. Trying to understand that is immersing yourself in a role. What makes a main character a main character is not the main character but the people around him. If you become absorbed in your character without looking around you, that’s really wrong.”
He even said, “If you study a character too much, you’re bound to fail. I don’t like fleshing out the character before acting. Understanding the character comes first.”
That’s why he says, “My approaches are 100 percent right for me”, and “I find it difficult when I’m told ‘how’ to act instead of being asked ‘why’ I act a certain way.” He enjoys interpreting his characters and acting them out in his own way rather than being told in detail what to do.
Carefully, I tiptoed around a sore spot by asking, “What if you get too much freedom and go and drink too much like the last time?”
“That won’t be a problem. I no longer do things like that during rehearsal and performance periods.”
What kind of plays would you like to be in in the future? He’s been in in 64 so far.
“What drives actors is greed and envy. It would be a problem if you express them too much, but I do want to try everything that I can. All actors have desires and they believe they can do anything well. I’m ready to take on adventures. I’d like to play Creon again after I get older. And as I have a dark complexion, I’d like to try Othello as well.”
In another interview, Park said he wants to do “strong, powerful plays.”
“I want to try Oedipus. I want to mess him up. I want to make him a f***-up. To me, Oedipus feels like human trash. I want to show him as he is in today’s world. He’s a person who only goes on thinking, ‘I can’t do anything, what should I do?’ Isn’t that how we live as well? A life spent pondering without gaining an answer. Isn’t it similar to how all we do is agonize over things, unable to take actions, and end up drinking and talking about them over and over? I want to turn Oedipus into an indecisive loser. He’s absolutely not a ‘great guy’.” (from an interview with Kim Eun-seong in webzine Theaterin, March 2013).
When an actor starts wanting to alter characters and set classics in the contemporary world, perhaps he’s become a director? Park said that before he decides to star in a play, he first likes to feel that it’s fun. ‘Fun’ is the first reason he decided to become an actor rather than an office worker. (He said that he became an actor because he hated getting up in the morning. In fact, Kim Gwang-bo, who directed Julius Caesar, even rescheduled the rehearsals to afternoons because of Park.)
“It’s best if both the audience and I have fun, and those plays have been Whale, A Long Night in the Tropics, There’s Soup, and Theater Goebbels. The plays that I had fun in but the audience didn’t agree were A Thousand Eyes (written by Jeong Yeong-hoon, directed by Park Hae-seong) and Mister, Cut Off the Ox’s Horn and Run Away Before the Owner Comes (written by Choi Chi-eon, directed by Kim Seung-cheol) from 2015. It’s probably because they were too difficult, too warped, or just too much for the public’s taste. But I think that about ten percent of the audience must have liked A Thousand Eyes, and I really like that kind of audience.”
Several women power bloggers have lauded Park Wankyu and his acting.
“I love him so much. Amazingly he oscillates between tragic beauty and clumsiness.” (after watching The Winter’s Tale)
“Park Wankyu’s humor and wit reach their peak in this play. How can you not fall in love with him after watching him.” (after watching There’s Soup)
“In fact, the reason I bought tickets to this play is Park Wankyu is on the poster. Park’s a natural at any kind of role. He’s in it, so it’s a must see. Thumbs up!!” (after watching Ox’s Horn)
So I asked him if he feels his popularity with women in the audience.
“It’s superficial. I don’t have hardcore fans. Many of my fans are people who come to watch plays professionally or who want to work in the theater business. So no one comes to see me in small roles.”
But he did say that he “won’t live alone till he dies”. When I asked him if he had a girlfriend, he said, “No, but I think I’ll marry.” He also said that if the person he ends up marrying doesn’t want to have children, he won’t mind, since they’ll both be old when they marry. He added that raising children would be even more difficult than having them. (I obviously have no right to speak my mind about the decisions of a grown adult. But it made me sad because it felt like the reason that more people in the theater business tend to avoid having children than in other occupations is because of their economic situations.)
5. A lingering attachment to morning drama series
He starred as ‘man’ in the 2010 play A Morning Drama (written and directed by Park Geun-hyeong). But it was only a play. He really wants to star in an actual morning TV drama.
“It’s for my parents. My parents know that they won’t see me on TV. But their friends are a whole another story. They think I’m a TV actor. So I want to be on the screen once to make them proud.”
His parents came to see One Spring Day. His mother also saw There’s Soup. She comes to see her son’s plays more than his father. But Park said that his mother becomes sad every time she sees him in a play. Park thinks it’s because his characters are all suffering hardships.
He has been in a few films as well. He has auditioned for many more, even until recently, but didn’t get through.
“I’d like to do films, if given the opportunity. But since I can’t make it through the auditions, it doesn’t feel good, and it’s not fun. I hope that in the future someone who’s seen me act on stage approaches me about a film. Of course, I’ll audition for films in the future, but right now I’m taking a break. I don’t think it’s my time yet. I’d like to be on TV if given the opportunity as well. I definitely don’t want to limit myself to stage theater.”
When Park came to Seoul at the end of 2000, he stayed with his older brother for a little while until he moved to Chungjeongno, then to Sinchon, and finally settled near Seongsan Hall in Moraenae for the last 12 years. He said he often walked to the Han River to think about plays and characters. Then this year, he moved to the Sungshin Women’s University area. It’s a small rooftop apartment with a KRW 60 million deposit and a monthly rent of KRW 100,000. So these days, he finds himself sitting by the Seongbuk Stream.
I hope that he thinks of new characters that will amaze and dazzle the audience every time he leaves the Seongbuk Stream to head on home, for the sake of both Park Wankyu and the Korean theater.
More at The Dissolve
- Playwright and director Choi ZinA: “Uncomfortable? Unfamiliar? Then I’ve done my part.”
- 7 astonishing stories from the double agent who met Kim Jong Il
- The rise of web novels — Is genre fiction the way forward for Korean literature?
- The mind behind BTS on balancing artistry and business
- Unity through Pyongyang naengmyeon
- Paju is ‘Burning’: Comparing Lee Chang-Dong’s latest film with its predecessors