YOU MIGHT have seen him on the TV program, Entertainment Weekly, you might have seen him in a number of movies, and you might have seen him as a goodwill ambassador for the 2018 Paralymics as well. Shin Hyun-jun (Class of ’87, Dept. of Physical Education) is one of Korea’s most beloved movie stars, famous for his roles in Stairway to Heaven, Barefoot Ki-bong and General’s Son. In an interview with The Yonsei Annals, Shin shared with us his story of how he became one of the most well-known actors in Korea.
Annals: You originally applied to Yonsei’s Dept. of Physical Education but later received your master’s degree from the Graduate School of Journalism & Mass Comm. What prompted the change? Were you considering a career in acting at the time?
Shin: I always loved watching movies when I was younger. I wanted to major in the Department of Theatre and Film but my parents disagreed and persuaded me to major in physical education. My father told me I would be better off studying sports or business since people started to take interest in leisure sport activities back then. I was also the only son in the family so I didn’t really have a choice but to follow my parent’s desires. In the end, I applied for the Department of Physical Education at Yonsei and decided to pursue my dreams of acting later. But when I was a sophomore, I had the opportunity to audition for a movie called General’s Son and luckily got the part. My dreams of becoming an actor worked out faster than I had expected and while I did have some conflicts with my parents, they eventually came around and are now my biggest supporters. As for graduate school, I thought it would be interesting to learn about media and producing videos since I was already starring in movies and producing my own movies as well.
Annals: Weren’t you scared about acting at a young age?
Shin: Well, I wasn’t scared because I was lucky to have been starring in a movie made by Im Kwon-taek, the film director whom I admired the most when I was younger. I remember reading the original version of the book, General’s Son by Hong Song-yu over and over again, so when I heard they were having auditions, I knew I had to try for the part. At the audition, the majority of actors went for the role of Kim Du-han, who was the main character in the movie. However, I wanted the role of Hayashi and auditioned for that part only. The film director was very surprised when I chose Hayashi and told me I was the only who came to audition for this part. He was also impressed by the fact that I had read the original book more than three times. In the end, I succeeded in getting the role I wanted after only the first round of auditions whereas other actors had to audition several times. Because of that, I was more excited and fascinated by the experience rather than feeling scared. Not only did I get to work with my favorite film director, but I was also able to play the character I really wanted from the very beginning which is something I am very thankful for.
Annals: What are some of the memories that you can recall back in your student years?
Shin: To be honest, I loved walking down Baekyang-ro because I remember it being beautiful during all four seasons and it is a special memory for me to this day. I also really enjoyed the church service during our weekly chapel. Since I debuted earlier than I expected, I couldn’t join any student clubs while I studied at Yonsei. Being an actor while you’re still a university student was a pretty rare case back in the day, but the movie General’s Son, gained a lot of acknowledgement and love from the audience. It was so popular that I remember people in the Foreign Language Institute recognizing me. Instead of joining clubs, I chose to actively advertise our school as well as my major during interviews.
Annals: When choosing what movies to star in, what do you consider most important?
Shin: The most important aspect I consider is how accurately I’ll be able to portray the character as described in the scripts. After looking over the scenario, I’m always wondering whether there are better ways to portray my character. Just like how directors have their own vision and way of directing their films, I always consider whether I will be able to convey all of the feelings my character is supposed to feel when I’m acting. For example, when I was cast as General Hwang in the movie, Gingko Bed, my character had loved a woman for a thousand years and I wondered whether it would be possible to portray that same emotion in real life. In Barefoot Ki-bong, my character was a marathon runner with intellectual disabilities. This character was a role I have never done before and while it was a new challenge, I realized once again how blessed I was to be able to live a very stable and normal life.
Annals: From horror, action, comedy, to romance films, you’ve been involved in different genres of movies or TV drams. What do you usually do to get into character?
Shin: You have to know how to love your character. If I were to be cast as a character who is an adopted child, I would watch a lot of movies that deal with children who are adopted and read different books on adoption. I would also interview a number of different adopted children and research what it’s like to be an adopted child and how they feel about it. It takes a long time but during this research process, there is a point where the stereotypes I had about my character fall apart and I am able to think from their perspective. I think I have always gone through this kind of preparation and I’m always learning something new along the way.
Annals: That seems to be a lot of work. Is it also hard to get out of your role after spending so much time acting as that character?
Shin: I have received a lot of similar questions in the past and I usually like to share a funny incident on TV shows about how I couldn’t let go of my character after shooting for a long time. However, in reality, this process is incredibly difficult. It is especially more difficult when my character expresses a wide range of emotions throughout the film. In the drama, Stairway to Heaven, I played Han Tae-hwa, who didn’t end up with the woman he loved and cries a lot when he realizes he can’t marry the woman. Even before shooting scenes, I used to cry whenever I looked at Choi Ji-woo* because I was still caught up with all of the emotions of my character. In order to get out of character, I always make sure to go on trips, exercise, or do whatever activities that can help me take my mind off the character and focus on myself. This way, I am ready to face a new character for my next movie. Still, it isn’t an easy process and these feelings don’t just go away whenever I want them to, which I think is the hardest part.
Annals: What kind of actor do you want to be remembered as?
Shin: After their movie is released, a lot of actors usually like it when people recognize you by the name of your character rather than your actual name. I was fortunate enough to be remembered as “Hayashi” from General’s Son or “Han Tae-hwa” from Stairway to Heaven. This allowed me to realize how much love I have received and I want to be remembered as an actor who knows how to be thankful for that love and who knows how to repay the favor. I want to do this by producing more meaningful movies and putting on better performances.
Annals: Do you have any last words for the students at Yonsei University?
Shin: If you’re already a student at Yonsei, I can guarantee that you are in good hands. I’m so proud of our school, our alumni, and I really look forward to the future of my juniors. I know Yonsei students are hardworking, so I’m confident all of you will achieve great things in the future. Just thinking about our students at Yonsei makes me smile.
*Choi Ji-woo is the name of the actress who played Han Jung-suh, the women Shin Hyun-jun’s character falls in loves with.