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‘I’m more motivated than ever’

July 29, 2012 - 19:45 By Claire Lee
Actor Lee Jung-jae talks about his acting career, being single

Actor Lee Jung-jae was not used to playing “unattractive” characters, until he was given the role of a jealous thief in his latest film “The Thieves.”

“Director Choi Dong-hun asked me to be as unattractive and foolish as possible for the role,” Lee told the Korea Herald in an interview on Thursday.

“So I asked him: if you want this guy to be so unattractive, why did you cast an (attractive) actor like me? But as I got to know more about the character, I developed a lot of attachment to him. I don’t think the audience would hate the guy although he is a villain. It’s his flaws that really humanize him.”
Actor Lee Jung-jae poses for a photo prior to an interview with The Korea Herald on Thursday. (Chung Hee-cho/The Korea Herald)

The star-studded heist film directed by Choi Dong-hun has been a sensational hit since its release last week. It topped the box office chart on the day of its opening, beating Christopher Nolan’s Hollywood blockbuster “The Dark Knight Rises.” The film also drew more than two million viewers in just four days after the release, becoming the third Korean film to have done so after Bong Joon-ho’s 2006 disaster flick “The Host” and Shim Hyung-rae’s 2007 fantasy action film “D-War.”

In the movie, Lee plays Popeye, a base, jealous thief who gets involved in a project to steal a diamond worth $20 million in Macau ― along with nine other Chinese and Korean professional criminals. Among the 10 characters in the film ― played by some of the most celebrated stars including Kim Hye-soo, Jun Ji-hyun, and Kim Yun-suk ― Lee’s is perhaps the most unlikable; the thief who betrays his own colleague using low tricks and lies. The villain, however, lacks intelligence and tact, which ironically drew him to the character, says Lee.

“I can’t say I’ve always enjoyed acting,” says the actor.

“But nowadays I’ve really become interested in giving more nuanced and realistic portrayals of my characters, including Popeye. I would like to star in as many movies as possible. I’m more motivated than ever.”

The 39-year-old made his debut in 1993, after working as a fashion model for a number of years. He has starred in films of various genres. Some of his more successful works include his 1998 romance “An Affair”; 1999 drama “City of the Rising Sun”; and 2005 action “Typhoon.”

Yet the actor chose his 2008 period comedy “The Accidental Gangster and the Mistaken Courtesan,” which did not do well at the box office, as one of the most memorable films.

“A lot of people asked me why I even chose to star in the film,” says the actor.

“But no actor actually chooses a film thinking this one will not succeed. I had a lot of faith in the script, and everyone in the crew worked very hard. But things did not work out very well, starting from the pre-production period. And it really affected the final product. I’m still fond of the film because I know it could’ve been better and I am still convinced that the script is great.”

Lee is currently shooting a noir thriller titled “A New World,” with heavyweight actors Hwang Jeong-min (The Unjust, You Are My Sunshine) and Choi Min-sik (Old Boy, I Saw the Devil).

“It’s been really busy working with the two biggies on the scene,” Lee says.

“But I don’t think of it as a competition. It’s more important to have a good work chemistry with them and, ultimately, make a good film.”

Lee says a recent encounter with one of his fans in a restaurant inspired him to play as many roles as he can.

“She was a middle-aged server in a restaurant,” Lee says. “She told me, ‘I spend so much time watching TV while working. But I hardly get to see your face. You need to get out there and do more work.’ What she told me really hit me. It definitely motivated me more.”

The actor, who openly dated actress Kim Min-hee from 2003 to 2006 and has been rumored to be romantically linked with Lim Sae-ryung, the ex-wife of Samsung Group heir apparent Lee Jae-yong, has been telling the media that he is happy being single.

The actor says he enjoys art exhibitions, ballet performances and music concerts when he’s off work, and often hangs out with his best friend, actor Jung Woo-sung ― who is also single.

Asked to comment on the famous line from the much-talked about TV show “A Gentleman’s Dignity,” which tells the life and friendship of four successful single men in their 40s, Lee gives an honest answer. In the show, one of the characters at one point says he isn’t interested in getting married mainly because “he does not want to share his hard-earned money with his wife and children.”

“Yes, I’ve certainly thought of it that way (about marriage),” says Lee.

“But doesn’t every man think that way at some point in their lives? I’m sure they do!”

By Claire Lee (