Interviews with South Korean stars usually come with various restrictions – questions are heavily filtered beforehand, and managers often stand close by, monitoring the interview process.
That’s why I was pleasantly surprised when I found myself having a rather open, revealing conversation with South Korean actor Peter Lee Jae Yoon.
Lee, 33, who starred in K-drama Weightlifting Fairy last year, was in Kuala Lumpur recently to participate in the Puma Night Run Malaysia 2017.
He was also forthcoming about the adversities he faced throughout his 12-year acting career. For many years, Lee played supporting and minor roles in dramas and films and has felt like throwing in the towel at times.
Lee, who was born in Seoul but spent a large part of his childhood in Canada, was on his way to earning a sports degree at the University Of Toronto when he was introduced to showbiz.
“There was an open audition in Toronto held by talent scouts from South Korea. My mum wanted me to try it out for fun. And for some reason, they liked me and they wanted to take me back to Korea to start my career as an actor.”
Lee has built a career playing characters that are often kind and good-natured. In Weightlifting Fairy, his character is the perfect gentleman, helping protagonist Kim Bok-joo (Lee Sung-kyung) carry a dressing table in the rain in one scene.
“I want to try other stuff too, but there are two sides to it. On one hand, I feel thankful because if you think of a certain character, you think of me. That’s a gift. But playing the same role again and again, you get tired. Still, every project is different. Like if I play a cop again, I can show you different types of cops.”
1. Your early days as an actor in South Korea weren’t easy. What were some of the toughest moments?
Auditions were terrible in the beginning. I didn’t know what I was doing. I felt embarrassed. Like having to cry in front of people, I didn’t feel it was manly. But I went through (with it) and I guess I did OK.
I was scared all the time. I worried all the time. But after a few projects, I think it came to me. It’s a process everyone goes through.
Right now, I’m living my dream. I’m not a superstar but I’m here meeting the Malaysian media. But six or seven years ago, I was playing small roles where I had to wait in the car for 12 hours for my scene.
After 12 hours, you shoot that one scene and you wait for it to air. You turn on the TV, you watch it but it’s not there. It happens sometimes. Moments like that made me really want to give up.
2. The South Korean entertainment puts a big emphasis on physical appearances. Do you feel pressured by that? And has your rugged looks worked for or against you?
It worked against me a lot of times. A lot of people asked me to lose weight. Some people called me a bodybuilder, I’m not a bodybuilder. I felt I didn’t have to be skinny like other people. This is me. And this could be something different. I don’t have to look like that other guy who’s doing really well in the business.
It was really difficult. They told me to lose 10kg. So in the beginning, I lost the weight but it didn’t really open many doors. To be fair, I don’t think it was about the physique. I wasn’t a great actor back then. As I told you, I was embarrassed to be in front of the camera. That was 12 years ago.
Now people look for me because there aren’t many like me. They want that masculine look, the jawline and everything. They are finally looking for that now.
Some people have offered to do plastic surgery for me. There are a lot of guys that do plastic surgery for the nose, cutting the jawline, changing their teeth. I didn’t do anything. I hated that. I think this is me. My parents gave me this gift. If I get my nose higher or I get double eyelids, I might look better but I’m not gonna feel comfortable. As an actor, I don’t think you should be touching your face.
And because I do sports, I don’t want to get hit in the face and my nose goes over here (points his finger away from his face). That’s one of the main reasons too (laughs).
3. There are always newer and younger actors entering the business. What do you do to stay competitive?
When I was in my early 20s, people didn’t think I looked like I was in my early 20s. They always cast me in older roles. The actresses were always older than me.
I guess age doesn’t matter for me. I’m going to get older anyway. I’m not doing anything to compete with the younger guys. People are going to look to me for certain roles that will suit me my age so I’m not really worried.
But yes sometimes I do feel it. I’m working on a project where the guy is younger than me and I’m like, ‘Man, I feel old.’
4. You practise jiujitsu regularly. Have you thought of competing professionally?
I actually competed once in a tournament a long time ago. It wasn’t too great. It was my first time. I’m not planning to compete professionally. But it’s a good hobby to have. It keeps me sane after all the stress from work.