The ways to live our lives are, to some degree, limited. People face their decisions in front of those ways. A selfish way in our moments are always tempting. The choice, however, always haunts us with guilt.
Kwak Do Won chose acting. On his second year of his senior high, he first went to an act with a senior. He felt a shiver running down his spine. After graduating from high school, he rapped the door of a theatre group. He swept the floor, adjusted the lights, and got beaten by his seniors, but he still loved his choice.
26. He had formed his own group, and did children’s plays. That’s when he heard her mother collapse. She went to heaven a week after. His father came down with Alzheimer. He and his two sisters took turns taking care of the broken man for 6 years. He now hated his choice, which didn’t give him a penny. He actually quit acting. But deep in his heart, he yearned for it.
Acting again didn’t give him much when he finally returned to it. He acted like that for 20 years. Now at 40, 20 years after a high-school graduate first rapped the door of a troupe, people start to take notice of the man.
We met Kwak, a rising star of ‘Nameless Gangster’ and SBS ‘Ghost’, for an interview. He is currently preparing for the premiere of his latest movies ‘Ghost Sweepers’ and ‘A Company Man’.
Q. How did you start acting?
A. A senior at my church asked me to go see a theatre when I was at the second year of my high school. I never saw a place where so many people laugh and cry at one place in my life. I felt a moment of epiphany. I went to the theatre right away after I graduated.
Q. Why did you turn to movies?
A. I wanted to start on another genre. I was quite hungry, too. Director Kim Ki-duk once said that unscreened movies are as good as garbage. Acting is too. People don’t come to see them.
Q. You did admirably as a prosecutor in ‘Yellow Sea’, and more recently ‘Nameless Gangster’. Why don’t you take any auditions now?
A. I didn’t go for an audition after ‘Nameless Gangster’. ‘A Company Man’ and ‘Ghost Sweepers’ were all done through a meeting.
Q. What did you like about the most in ‘Ghost Sweepers’?
A. I liked it, but I didn’t really make choices about the films that I do. I used to just do whatever anyone cared to give me.
Q. ‘Ghost Sweepers’ is a comedy of director Shin Jeong-won, of ‘Sisily 2km’. Some have a hard time matching your rough image with the atmosphere of the film.
A. I did a lot of comedies back in my acting days. I once starred as a huckster, and in ‘Don’t Cry, Hongdo’, I did the narration.
Q. When did you come up with your stage name?
A. People are confused when I tell them that my name is Kwak Byeong-gyu. I made a contract with my current CEO when I did ‘Nameless Gangster’. The CEO went to a naming shop for two names. It was Min Ho or Do Won. Lee Min-ho was a household name at that time. I chose Do Won. I didn’t wanted to get buried in the place.
Q. ‘Ghost’ was quite interesting and deep in the first half of it, but it seemed to lose its drive towards the end.
A. It was. We couldn’t help it. We get hasty scripts without even a scene number on it. We didn’t sleep for days, and we couldn’t help it. In TV dramas, you either do very well, or you stick to what you are told really well, to appear good on the screen.
Q. TV dramas are really different from movies, with different reactions and expressions. I imagine that it was quite difficult.
A. Writer Kim Eun-hee saw the first two episodes and told director Kim Hyeong-sik to treat me well, since I wasn’t living up to her thoughts. Director Kim asked me whether he could help, and I asked him to help me adjust to the camera movements. I also asked him whether I could see my monitorings. TV dramas usually don’t do that, but the staff did that for me. So Ji-sub really helped me a lot during filming as well.”
Q. So your role isn’t created by yourself.
A. Of course. Everything else is like that.
Q. You filmed ‘A Company Man’ before ‘Ghost’. Have you gotten closer to Ji-sub?
A. So Ji-sub was quite shy and our roles were so antagonistic during ‘A Company Man’, so we didn’t have enough time to get closer. I try to become like my role in the filming set, and not many really try to talk to me. But we got close during ‘Ghost’. He helped me a lot adjusting to the drama system. Now I call him without ‘Mr.’. (laughs)
Q. I think you enjoyed filming ‘Ghost Sweepers’. Your good relationship with director Shin would have made you appear on ‘The Dog’, isn’t it?
A. I appear as a monk who breaks the commandments and runs away with a nun. I was filming with director Shin at Samcheok, and it was snowing quite a lot that day. I was sharing fried chickens with soju, and director Shin was suddenly gone. I looked for him to find him filming the snow with his own camera. We just sat there, watching snow fall, and director Shin wondered whether we could use it in our film. The lighting director brought out the lights, we woke up the staff for a costume, and we filmed with improvised script. We played moviemaking. It was such a great time.
Q. I heard that the set of ‘Ghost Sweepers’ broke down under the snow.
A. Yes. We played moviemaking when the sets were breaking down. I saw Cho Jae-hyun responding ‘why do you say that actors work?’ when he was asked ‘why do the actors work?’. We don’t say that Kim Yu-na works very well in ice rink. We don’t say Se Ri Pak working well on golf courses. Acting is a ‘play’, an enjoyable thing. I had a lot of thoughts over it. I thought that acting should be plays with rules of the game.
Q. Internet portals say you were born in 1974.
A. I was actually born on ’73. I like it, it’s not like I’m getting any younger now.
Q. You’re making yourself a name after 20 years of your debut.
A. I wonder what fortune this is, and I also wonder whether I was lazy during that time. Every year, more than 500 graduates come out with performing arts major, and I’m living as an actor with a high school graduate. Maybe I’m lucky, I suppose.
Q. Your parents passed away quite early.
A. My mother passed away when I was 26, when I organized a troupe and toured the nation with children’s play. My dad passed away after 6 years, with Alzheimer. My sisters and I took care of him.
Q. You’re the only son of the family, and I would imagine that you would have wanted to give up acting, which doesn’t pay well.
A. I was selfish. I was far away from Seoul when my mother collapsed. My pager could hold 20 voicemail records at that time. I later listened to it, and it began “Byeong-kyu, mom collapsed. I think she is going to pass away. What are you doing now”. Later on, it became “you bastard, what the hell are you doing now”, and at the end it became “where are you, Byeong-kyu”, and my sister was sobbing.
I gave up on acting that day. I wondered, what the hell was I doing, not being at my mother’s deathbed. But what was I going to do? I was a high school graduate with no skills but acting. After a year, a senior asked me to do a part-timer with lights on his troupe. I saw the others acting while doing that. I really, really wanted to go back on acting.
A newspaper article printed out an advertisement for Yeonhwi Troupe Workshop in Miryang. I went there for a month’s training, and ended up doing 7 years of it. The good actors did things like ‘Hamlet’, and I did children’s play. I had experience, and I sometimes did the lead.
Q. How did you end up in movies after that?
A. I got kicked out for challenging the authority. I went back to Seoul, and I didn’t have anyone that I knew at Daehak-ro (acting centre of Seoul). Oh Dal-su was in the Yeonhwi Troupe, but we didn’t know each other. I went him and asked him if I could do a movie. He directed me to short films. He said the directors often see them. My first movie piece went out to the Mise-en-scene Movie Awards. Director Jeon Kye-su saw me then, and the staffs also recommended me a lot.
Q. Do you have any ambitions now?
A. I have ambitions, sure, but I am actually under more pressure. I need to show new things and do better on my old ones.
Q. Do you have any plans for marriage?
A. I don’t have anyone now, but I really want to marry. My sisters married, and I now live alone in my parents’ house. When I go back home after a day’s filming, and see the house in darkness, I really feel alone.