[BAEKSANG AND BEYOND] Byun Yo-han is back better than ever after winning at Baeksang

Actor Byun Yo-han, winner of the Best Supporting Actor award at the 59th Baeksang Arts Awards' film section [BAEKSANG ARTS AWARDS ORGANIZING COMMITTEE]

The Baeksang Arts Awards is one of the most prestigious award ceremonies in Korea. Held by the JoongAng Group, it has honored excellence in film, television and theater in Korea since its inception in 1965. The 59th edition took place on April 28 in Incheon, with this year’s focus on works that received international acclaim thanks to online streaming platforms. In this interview series, the Korea JoongAng Daily sits down with Baeksang award recipients to talk more about their wins, careers and plans for the future.

Having to take two years off after collapsing due to bad health was no easy task for 37-year-old actor Byun Yo-han. Coming to terms with his condition took time, but when he did, he realized that acting is something he would “gladly die doing.”

“I couldn’t accept it at first,” he said of his illness, with details undisclosed to the public. “All I could think was, ‘I’m supposed to be working my best right now. I’m healthy. Why am I sick?’ But I’m fast at accepting things — and I did in two weeks.”

Byun won the Best Supporting Actor award in the 59th Baeksang Arts Awards’ film section for his unexpected role as an antagonist in the historical drama “Hansan: Rising Dragon” (2022). He played a Japanese general named Wakisaka Yasuharu who was defeated by General Yi Sun-shin (1545-1598) during the Hansan Battle of 1592.

Byun’s playful looks and easy-going manner he had been best known for in the drama series “Misaeng” (2014) or “Six Flying Dragons” (2015-16) had viewers questioning whether he could pull off one of the fiercest villains in Korean history prior to the release of the film. But after “Hansan” hit the box office, the questions turned into four trophies from Korea’s major award ceremonies including Baeksang.

“Hansan” was his fourth film since breaking his two-year hiatus. His first film after his recovery was “The Book of Fish” (2021), a film that he credited as the work that truly “healed” him. Another historical film set in the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910), the black-and-white drama revolved around an ambitious fisherman — played by Byun — and a fallen aristocrat beaten down by politics and society, played by actor Sul Kyung-gu.

“I was able to take a major step with writer Kim Eun-sook’s 'Mr. Sunshine' [2018] series, but it was ‘The Book of Fish’ that truly healed me and allowed me to recover,” Byun said.

“I think it was from that film that things started out working again. Anyway, I don’t have the time to take a break now. I have no intentions of doing so either, because I took all the time off that I needed.”

Actor Byun Yo-han as a Japanese general named Wakisaka Yasuharu who is defeated by general Yi Sun-shin (1545-1598) during the Hansan Battle of 1592 in historical drama ″Hansan: Rising Dragon″ [LOTTE ENTERTAINMENT]

Having worked his way up from short and independent films since his debut in 2011, Byun has slowly earned bigger roles on bigger projects to grab his first Baeksang this year. He’s shooting for another drama series tentatively titled “Uncle Samsik,” a “crazy good” piece, according to his acceptance speech at the ceremony last April.

Byun sat down for an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily to discuss more about his big win at the Baeksang Awards, his resurgence and his career.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. You gave a very short, concise speech at the Baeksang Arts Awards. Why did you decide to give such a short speech?

A. Baeksang is an amazing place, and every person there is amazing, too. But there were more people that I knew there than those that I didn’t, so I thought it would only be right that I talk like myself. I thought that would be the way to earn their trust, and that I would just deal with the aftermath later.

I know that I didn’t mention many people, like the directors and the teammates that I worked with. But it’s actually O.K. because I thank them and talk to them in my everyday life. I believe those things need to be said casually, every day. I did, and so I was congratulated by a lot of people afterward. I’m good at expressing myself and telling people that I thank them and love them. I couldn’t before, but now I’m good at it.

Did you expect to win?

Everyone there had worked so hard, and the people there would all be sincerely longing for the award. I think it’s only natural that we hope to win. It’s not that we work hard to get an award, but we got nominated for our hard work. I was ready to congratulate any other nominee that won, and I was waiting very comfortably to congratulate them.

There were so many good works that came out after the pandemic subsided, and everyone who had worked on those works would have done so fiercely. Everyone would have been longing so badly for an award.

Actor Byun Yo-han, winner of the Best Supporting Actor award at the 59th Baeksang Arts Awards' film section, gives a speech after receiving the award last April. [SCREEN CAPTURE]

You had been nominated at the Baeksang Arts Awards in the past, but this is the first time you actually won. Were you ever disappointed in the past?

Honestly, there were times when I felt disappointed. But I took something away from the ceremony, even if it wasn’t an award.

I had actually been invited to the Baeksang awards as a rookie and later with works like “Socialphobia" (2014), "Six Flying Dragons" and “The Book of Fish.” What felt really great was that I feel like it was one step up the ladder each time. I didn’t win any of them though [laughs]. But just being a part of Baeksang was meaningful, and it gave me the strength to go on with my work.

How did you spend your days off during the two-year break?

I watched "The Walking Dead" (2010-22) and "Game of Thrones" (2011-19) like crazy. At the end of the day, I always ended up picking up the remote control and watching a film or drama. That’s when I realized, "Wow, this is what I really like." When I collapsed for the first time, I thought that I would never get to act again. But if I like this so much, wouldn’t it be O.K. to die doing what I really like?

I used the time to figure things out about myself and who I am — what do I like, what do I not like, what am I good at, what am I not good at? I was determined to work these things out and make a comeback when I was ready.

Actor Byun Yo-han as Chang-dae, an ambitious fisherman in the black-and-white historical film ″The Book of Fish″ (2021) [MEGABOX PLUS M]

What did you figure out for yourself?

When I was younger, I wanted to achieve something, to be good and stand out from the rest of the people. I would be lying to say otherwise. But I think I’ve really sorted myself out because now, to me, the set is my workplace. When I go shooting, I’m going to work. I don’t want to sugarcoat anything and make it sound grand.

But it is a workplace where I want to put in my best concentration and best effort. That’s all there is to it.

What are your goals now, then?

Rather than having a specific goal, all I want to do is just take one step at a time like I’ve been doing, even if I take it slow. I’ve been doing the same thing since my days in short films or other performances. I consider myself a slow starter. And I really have to try hard — I think that’s what’s gotten me to be here, right now. There were some setbacks in between, but I’m through all that and everything is in place.

If I sort out my priorities, wouldn’t I be able to fulfill all of them? I told myself that I, as a person and as actor Byun Yo-han, shouldn’t try too hard to be a good person or a good actor. But I shouldn’t be just a mediocre person or a mediocre actor. That’s it. That’s my goal.

Actor Byun Yo-han, winner of the Best Supporting Actor award at the 59th Baeksang Arts Awards' film section, poses for photos after an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily in western Seoul. [BAEKSANG ARTS AWARDS ORGANIZING COMMITTEE]

What other things have you got planned out for the year?

I have a drama series, “Uncle Samsik.” It’s really so good, and I think you can actually look forward to it. But when I said at the Baeksang speech, “Please invite me again next year. Or not, tough luck,” that was because I didn’t want to force people into liking it. I think all I can do is try my best like I’ve been doing so far. We have such a good atmosphere on the scene [of "Uncle Samsik"]. I know people say this a lot, but it really is such a good atmosphere. Everyone is crazy about what they do, and that just keeps everyone concentrated. I think we may have a Best New Actor award winner among us.

Other than that, there are some other things that I’ve already filmed, but we’ll have to talk about that when they’re going to come out.

But I want you to remember, I am Byun Yo-han, winner of the Best Supporting Actor award at the 59th Baeksang Arts Awards. I will not settle. I will keep racing forward. Always stay healthy and happy. I love you.