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[Herald Interview] Playing villains that ring a little too true

Actors Cho Jin-woong, Lee Sung-min say ‘Devil’s Deal’ characters made them reflect on life

March 6, 2023 - 14:52 By Kim Da-sol
Actors Cho Jin-woong (left) and Lee Sung-min (Plus M Entertainment)

Unlike a typical noir action flick, director Lee Won-tae’s latest film “Devil’s Deal” realistically depicts the film’s setting, focusing specifically on the year 1992 in Busan.

This was the year when both the presidential election and the general election took place. This made the actors think that the characters they were playing must have really existed in the real world at some place and time.

“The set was so realistic that I could easily be absorbed into the scene while acting,” Cho Jin-woong told reporters during an interview in Seoul on Feb. 23.

“Not only the items, costumes and the makeup but the characters were so realistically created that I was sure that both Hae-woong and Soon-tae must have existed somewhere at some time,” he added.

“The Devil’s Deal” centers on the confrontation and collaboration between the ever-unsuccessful politician Hae-woong (Cho), political heavyweight Soon-tae (Lee Sung-min) and gang boss Pil-do (Kim Moo-yeol). The film deals with desires and betrayals that revolve around power and money.

Lee Sung-min said he knew little about his character Soon-tae, but was sure that someone like him existed.

“I didn’t try to know about Soon-tae's past, because it wasn’t necessary when I played him. I don’t know exactly what Soon-tae does for a living. I guess he is more like a broker, with strong influence in the region and authority given by a person with even bigger influence. Although he is an imaginary character, I think he might exist in a world that is beyond what we know,” Lee said.

Although Soon-tae is portrayed as an axis of evil character and as the one responsible for Hae-woong’s transformation into a villain, Lee said he never thought himself as a villain while acting.

“I tried to do everything naturally, thinking Soon-tae was just like one of us,” he said.

For these veteran actors, whose acting careers combined add up to 55 years, "Devil’s Deal" made them think of their own lives.

“I had this continual loop of questions while shooting this film, asking myself, is it the right way of living? Can a person live like this? Is it possible for someone to ruin one's own life in this way?" Cho said. When unable to arrive at an answer even after several scenes, Cho said all he could do was to incorporate the questions into his acting.

Why all the questions?

"It was a character that I could not easily understand. I can say that this project was a lump of questions and worries,” he added.

In the film, Hae-woong slowly turns evil after Soon-tae deters him from being elected as the region’s parliamentary candidate. After realizing the reach of Soon-tae’s influence in the political scene, Hae-woong joins a powerful group with gangster Pil-do to counter Soon-tae.

Lee said he also used a lot of imagination to play Soon-tae.

“I discussed a lot with director Lee to portray the untold history of Soon-tae, which must have been really tough, and the decisive event that made him become the villain that he is. The key message of the film is: ‘To have power, you have to sell your soul,’” Lee said, adding that it is something that he personally disagrees with.

To play Soon-tae, Lee shaved a part of his head and tried a short haircut for the first time in a film role.

“The Devil’s Deal” is a reunion for Cho Jin-woong and Lee Sung-min, who worked together in “Believer” (2018) and “The Sheriff in Town” (2017).

“I always enjoy acting with Cho because he has what I lack. His acting gets better every time I see him. I really love the power and the impact of the chemistry that our acting ensemble creates,” Lee said.

“But I’d like to try a softer character in my future projects. I think I’m done with charismatic roles,” said Lee, who most recently gained popularity for his role Jin Yang-cheol, the chairman of conglomerate Soon Yang in JTBC series “Reborn Rich” (2022).

“It’s energizing to act with Lee. Lee sometimes sets the mood for the scene while also helping me to stay on track if I become overly emotional. Lee is a great actor,” Cho said.

“Devil’s Deal” opened in local theaters on March 1.

“Devil’s Deal” (Plus M Entertainment)
“Devil’s Deal” (Plus M Entertainment)