[December 2015 – Elle] Ki Hong Lee – Interview


Have you already seen Seoul from a place as high as the place we are today? I went to the Namsan Tower when I was a kid? And the 63 building! Standing there and looking by the window was the best. When I was 6, my parents and I emigrated. I imagine when I was a kid and stepped on chestnuts to peel them off and eat them or I went arount trying to catch cicadas.

Did you come often to Korea? We emigrated to New Zealand and lived over there for two years, then we went to LA in the US. After that, I only came back once with my family and friends. The premiere of “Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials” made ùe come back to Korea almost 8 years later.

You majored psychology at UC Berkeley college and you became an actor. You’re probably asked often “why”. A lot! Because people feel psychology and acting are fields that are very far away from each other. Acting is linked to life and is linked to the academic field. To be honest, I wanted to study psychology because I wanted to help people. My dream when I was a child was to become a teacher.

When did you start turning to the acting path instead of making this dream true? It’s been about 6 years now? When I was in college, I decided to take a leave of absence for a year and to give acting a try properly which I had been wanting to do since I was a child. I attended acting classes, I read a lot of books. One of my friends I attended the lectures with introduced me to the management agency he belonged to and that’s how it happened (smiles).

Was this also a time where you were ambitious? I walked step by step from having only one line to getting a guest role and then to getting a permanent role in a series. It was when I finished shooting as a permanent role. I finished at the 10th episode and I had no work to do. I was out of work for 2 years. “would my career end just like that?”. I had thoughts like this. However, surprisingly, I got an opportunity to work through a Youtube format. I’ve had become friends with web-based young film makers who are known as Wong Fu Productions. We filmed various projects together. The moment I decided to keep going down the Youtube road, I secured a contract with a management agency. When I look back at it now, it seems that Wong Fu Productions and Youtube are my background indeed.

You’re called the Z generation and not the X generation? It’s an interesting career that is typical for your generation of people who are the most used to iphones and social media. Thanks to mobile, it is said that the Hollywood system is changing too. What’s for sure is that people don’t seek entertainment through TV only now. Web-based drama, comedy contents are an increasing trend in Hollywood too. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Korea or in the US, if you’re serious about acting, you can create your own path. You can record your own content with a camera or a camcorder and you upload it online whenever you want, the access is getting easier. It’s the “exciting” era.

Your name is credited next to young international stars such as Dylan O’Brien, Thomas Sangster with “Maze Runner”, so this was probably be a crucial role in your career? I’m going to use this opportunity to say something that I’ve definitely been wanting to say. The fact that where I am to be was made possible because of many people. I didn’t get where I am today only because of my efforts. For instance, the “Maze Runner” books author James Dashner’s niece is married to a Korean man. So through his influence, James Dashner created the character of Minho, so I’m thankful to him first. Then I’m very thankful to the director Wes Ball and my casting director for believing in my potential because they believed I could do it and they supported me.

There are a few Korean-American actors working in the US, but isn’t it awesome that an actor young like you got to play in a franchise as a lead character? My situations is similar to winning the lottery. In the US, there is almost no main role like Minho when you’re Asian. First of all, the fact of being an Asian actor is rare itself. Rarety is a good thing, but when I got the phone call telling me I got the role, I was also scared. I knew it was a real good opportunity, but if my acting sucked, I felt like there would be serious backlash. I’m especially worried about Korean people’s opinion.

The first movie was a box-office success. The second movie didn’t do bad either. I know there is no other way but to work hard. Still, I think my acting is on an okay level. It’s still burdensome for me. I think I see myself as a representative of Korean-American people. That’s why I must do well not just for myself, I must do well for Korea too. It’s a heavy burden to carry.

The producers probably didn’t choose you to be Min Ho for no reason. I still don’t know why they cast me as Min Ho (smiles). Instead, I can tell you about the way I approached Min Ho. I never saw him as an American guy with Asian origins. Nationality aside, I portrayed Min Ho with the thought that he’s a “lead character” who is powerful and connected to the roots of the story. I had always aspired to always come across a character like this.

In order to collect info on the exit in the first movie and in order to avoid getting killed by a mysterious organization called “WCKD”, Min Ho runs. Racing is different from just having stamina. It’s more about endurance than stamina. To be honest, I really hate running. I like all kinds of sports such as basketball, soccer, baseball. Games are fun. However, there’s nothing fun about running (smiles). When I was shooting the movie, I ran hard, I rested a little and I ran as fast as I could again, then I rested. That’s how I did it, so I guess I wasn’t in a bad situation/in bad condition (smiles).

The first and second movies were large scale projects, so I’m really curious about the mood on the set. What’s interesting is to figure out which scenes are real and which ones are made through computers? It’s a mix of both. Every landscape in the Glade you see in the first movie is real. The background was a big farm in Baton Rouge in Lousiana. The day before the first day of filming, the rest of the team and I set up our tents and we slept outside. It was like camping. We shot the second movie in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It was a very humid summer, so the set was bit hotter and it was harder to bear with the lighting, compared to the first movie.

I don’t know if I should say this, but the first movie was a bit more interesting. I feel exactly the same. I think it’s because we shot it outdoors as we shared our joys and sorrows. Through the second movie, as we were doing promo activities, the other actors and I really turned into friends, into a family when we were doing promo activities and we were more at ease. Thomas Sangster and I really became friends as we promoted the movie together in China and Korea.

If you were to wake up one day and looked by the window, only to see you were now in a maze without knowing why? It’d be scary, right? I think I wouldn’t run around the maze like Min Ho does. I would just stay in the Glade and cook. Ah, now that I think about it, I think I’d build a house and create my own home furniture.

Since your dream was to be a teacher, I thought you’d like teaching or to lead others. I’ve always enjoyed creating stuff with my hands. I really liked legos when I was a kid. It’s pricey, so it’s tough to have this as a hobby, though (smiles).

Lee Ki Hong is a name that is hard to pronounce for foreigners. Did you think about changing your name? I thought about what the mom of an actress who had a name difficult to pronounce like mine told her. “Your name is hard to pronounce exactly like Dostoyevsky and Tchaikovsky were, didn’t people learn how to pronounce their names? How about you also make people learn how to pronounce your name when you’re famous?”. This story stayed on my mind. I won’t change my name or my personality to make this path a little bit easier or to satisfy other people.

[t/n: he says “actor”, but I chose to say actress because I believe he’s talking about Uzoamaka Nwanneka Aduba aka Uzo Aduba]

You were at the 4th place in “People” Sexiest Men Alive ranking in 2014. (strongly) I really don’t know if I’m sexy. I’m thankful that other people find me sexy. I think what’s more important is the fact itself that I, as a Korean person, was put on this list. It means there’s also a point of view seeing that Asian men can be sexy too.

When you’re not working as an actor, what type of man, husband are you? When I’m at home, I just chill with my wife. When I have time, I see my friends. I’m a big fan of American football. I go out and support my college team with my friends, but my interest in watching game kind of dropped a little. It’s the same for my team. It’s not that it does well, but it doesn’t do bad either (smiles).

So you got married earlier this year. Isn’t it a bit young when men usually get married when they’re 30? Really? My close friends already started getting married. I did get married, but I never thought to myself [I do it because] I am an adult now. To me, marriage is just about being always with the person who is my closest friend and for us to have fun together.

How did you meet your wife? We were friends in high school. We started dating after graduating from college.

You’re still newly married. Are you trying to keep everything great? Our relationship definitely changed into partnership after we got married. It’s about “give and take” (smiles). We quarrel sometimes, but there’s a newly-married effect.

You seemed to be very active. When I think about where this thought comes from, I think it comes from the fact I want everything to be perfect. You know how life isn’t always perfect, right? I get really frustrated in moments like this. I think that’s why I try my best to be happy so it can actually happen.

Do you believe that good karma brings good things? I believe there are many things happening out of my control. No matter how much I imagine I can pull something off, what is meant to be will happen and what isn’t meant to be won’t happen. I think that’s what life is about. I believe God exists. It’s not to work hard at something because you believe you can do it, but I think the final touch of the outcome is controlled by God and not by me.

You give off a strong clean-cut feeling. Your parents probably influenced you a lot, right? They gave me all the mental support they could. I’m very blessed. I’m happy to have so many people around me who support me.

Three things that make you stronger? My family. My friends. My wife. They’re my energy.

Translation: @thesunnytown – thesunnytown.wordpress.com


6 Comments Add yours

  1. Bless him, i’m really happy for him. I think it’s horrible that asian americans are so under-represented in US film & drama. So much talent wasted, or if they are fortunate; get exported. Idols, actors, musicians, models….it’s a serious shame. Also, there’s a particular ageism imho, in mainstream korean media culture and it makes me worried for 30 something talent I admire. I wish they could be cast here because lead roles don’t routinely go to 20 somethings. I hope he does well!

    1. 1sunnylady says:

      thanks for reading! it’s interesting that you mention ageism because I knew absolutely nothing about him but the fact that he played Minho a 16-year-old character. So I don’t know why I just assumed he was like in his mid-20’s at the most. So as I was translating, I was like “wait, he sounds like he graduated from college a long time ago? why does it sound like he got married SO young?”… So I finally wikipediaed him b/c I felt like I was mistranslating things. It turns out he just turned 29. So he got to play a character 10 years younger than him indeed. I found it fascinating b/c I was commenting on a K-drama review and I said I struggled to believe the character was older than the actor portraying it. So I guess there are some people who manage to look young no matter how old they are. Then you have people like Yeo Jin Gu and Yoo Seung Ho, they looked like young men when they had just hit puberty which means they got to play mature roles when they were still very young. I can’t wait to see which kind of acting they will show in their 20’s b/c their looks and their age will finally match, but they will have so much acting experience that they will be able to take on nice challenges if they’re given big roles.

  2. That’s true…the young actors that have reams of experience can surely do something good in their 20’s. My concern is more with the 30 somethings. It’s a strange thing…Ryu Jun-yeol, who just exploded in reply 1988….is playing a high school student and he’s nearly 30. One of my favorites is Byun Yohan, and he’s 30…maybe 31 now. I worry for him. There’s alot of really talented (and sexy too!) actors in their 30’s & 40’s who have a difficult time getting good roles in drama, particularly…because of their age. They are relegated to supporting roles as a parent or a boss, etc. I was happy to see lee joon ki get cast in the usa but it’s still not lead mainstream stuff. Joon Ki still looks really young too, which is why i think he gets cast in dramas still.
    I just think its a shame. In the west, top actors are still relevant as leads when they are much older, by way of comparison.

    1. 1sunnylady says:

      I see what you mean. I agree, but I feel like timing also has a lot to do with the fact actors in their 30’s get lead roles or not. Like for Byun Yo Han or Song Jae Lim ? They do well as supportive characters in popular dramas, but the times they were lead, they didn’t do that well. It happened to Choi Jin Hyuk too. So I guess, it’s more about getting good opportunities than just getting opportunities?

      Media focus on the actors in their 20’s, probably because there’s always this pre-military hype, especially when the actor is going to the army after a big hit. So we might get the impression there aren’t that many good lead characters in their 30’s, but most of dramas are actually lead by characters in their 30’s. From that perspective, I feel like actresses in their 30’s are more affected by ageism than actors. There are less lead roles for people in their 40’s, though. But people in their 30’s get work, but the competition is fierce too.

      I think the military service kind of prevents actors to go through a smooth transition from playing men in their 20’s to men in their 30’s. It’s rare they pick up their career where they had left it off, especially when they left at a peak. It usually takes two or three years for them to settle back down and convince producers to give them work. For instance, Hyun Bin, Lee Je Hoon, Rain and Ji Hyun Woo kind of missed their comeback, although people had big expectations. Ji Hyun Woo bounced back nicely from “Trot Lovers”, though. “Angry Mom” and “Awl” were just the right moves for him. Lee Jun Ki is a special case because he did sageuk back to back. And a sageuk role is what had made him popular in the first place so his post-army career in dramaland is more based on his popularity from before in something he says himself he knows he’s good at. I think the real test for him will be when he takes on a contemporary role since he actually did well with “Two Weeks”.

      Maybe Yoo Seung Ho has started the trend of going to the army early so he can actually be there and fights for roles he wants to get and keeps producers/writers interested in calling him for roles. Like if Song Joong Ki’s comeback is a success, I don’t think he will struggle to get new projects because there are a handful of lead roles for actors in their 30’s , but if the drama fails and he doesn’t get a new project right away, I think it will be more about the failure of “DoTS” than the fact he’s in his 30’s now. When I look at the dramas in 2015, most of them were, regardless of the genre, based on storylines with characters in their 30’s and portrayed by actors in their 30’s. Like you had Kim Rae Won in Punch, Joo Sang Wook was lead in 3 dramas this year , So Ji Sub is in “Oh My Venus”, Jo Jung Suk and Im Joo Hwan in “Oh My Ghostess”, Kim Moo Yul was in “My Beautiful Bride”, Ji Sung was in “Kill Me Heal Me, “Heard It Through The Grapevine” was more about the adults than the teenage characters on their own, Jung Woong In and Jung Joon Ho are in “Sweet Savage Family”, Hyun Bin was in “Hyde Jekyll and Me”; Uhm Tae Woong was in “Valid Love”, Lee Sang Yoon was in “Twenty Again”, Lee Dong Wook is in “Bubblegum”, Jung Kyung Ho was in “Falling For Innoncence”, Chun Jung Myung was in “Heart To Heart”, Joo Jin Mo in “Beloved Eun Dong”, Song Chang Ui in “Frost” and “Make A Woman Cry”, Lee Dong Gun in “Super Daddy Yul”… So there are opportunities for getting a good lead role at their age, but it’s true that it will be harder for those who stepped into the game much later after the ones who established their names in their 20’s. You don’t get that many chances to prove that you’re lead material if you started your career late like Byun Yo Han and Ryu Jun Yeol did (although I feel like it was more because they were interested in playing in movies than playing in dramas anyway). Producers won’t trust them with lead roles right away, and by the time the actors finally get that trust, they’re up against actors their age but who will always be more experienced than they are. :/ I feel you on that. (Lol, did I understand your point? Or did I go astray in another topic?) I’m waiting for Song Jae Lim to hit big but as a lead character… I have faith~ And I’m sure we will see more of Byun Yo Han too if he makes the right moves 😀

      1. what a great reply! i totally agree with you regarding roles for women too…that’s another story and very culturally loaded when looked at from a western perspective, especially. Western entertainment culture lacks in this regard as well, although not, perhaps, as much as eastern culture. i found it interesting that TW dramas are a bit less ageist with regards to casting female leads in romcoms. serious dramatic roles did a bit better in korea with the likes of mrs cop this year though the title and the plot summaries were very cringy.
        i also want to add that i find it really interesting that the difference between film and drama in korea lends itself to some of our favorite 30 somethings with palpable acting talent (BYH fits here) having opportunity.
        but, as you said…and i really think its the point- the TYPE of opportunity is more important than the opportunity. BYH had his lead role post-Misaeng in EXGFC which wasn’t domestically popular, though it did better with international audiences; who could relate with the modern scenarios presented within the script. 6FD is doing something different for his career now, i think….I hope he hets more of the right opportunity going forward.
        the military issue is another thing. i was really perplexed at the choices made by HB & rain when they returned…both dramas were pretty terrible imho.
        the opportunities those men on your list have had this year is impressive and i see your point regarding solid experience prior to the enlistment period. our late bloomers are actually all from indie film land…something which qualifies them as actor’s actors…but not on the ‘bankable draw’ front. i hope they will have the chance to build their bases, as it were; in time.

      2. 1sunnylady says:

        this reminds me the convo i had with Kwon a couple of months ago. I think it was about the Elle “Scene Stealer” series. There are some actors who never get lead role, yet the public know them and remember them because the actor made an impact in the few scenes she/he had. So, regardless of the salary, from a strict actor’s point of view, what is more satisfying: being a lead in a drama that doesn’t do well or even flops or working steadily by doing supportive roles you get praised for, regardless if the drama has good ratings or not? I’m under the impression that Byun Yo Han is still more into cinema than dramas. As for Song Jae Lim, he sounds more like someone who would enjoy working behind the camera more.

        I also hope they will have the chance to build a strong fanbase 🙂 we know they have the potential for it.

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