[BAEKSANG AND BEYOND] Ha Ji-sung is ready to reach new heights as actor

Actor Ha Ji-sung, winner of the Best Actor award at the 59th Baeksang Arts' Awards play section for his role as Richard Gloucester in ″Teenage Dick″ [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.

“Hi, I’m actor Ha Ji-sung.”

The same words can ring deeper in people's hearts depending on who says them. And the simple greetings that actor Ha Ji-sung gave to start his acceptance speech at the 59th Baeksang Arts Awards in April rang deeper than anyone else's voice that evening.

Ha, 31, was awarded the Best Actor award at Baeksang's play section for his role as Richard Gloucester in the Korean version of "Teenage Dick," the modern-day take on William Shakespeare's 16th-century classic "Richard III" that ran at the National Theater of Korea last November. The Korean play cast Ha, an actor with a cerebral disability, to take on the role of the main character Richard Gloucester who tries to become the student president of Roseland High School despite the challenges he faces.

The win makes Ha the first actor with disabilities to get a Baeksang.

His nomination itself was much welcomed by people from all walks of life, not just the entertainment or the disabled community. When he was called out as the winner, and again when he escalated to the stage in his wheelchair, the hall was filled with people applauding not only the triumph of an exceptional actor but also a step forward for the Korean entertainment industry.

"I'll speak slowly," he said at the awards ceremony as he gave his acceptance speech last April, slowly but clearly as he enunciated every word. He flaunted a humorous manner, even making light jokes about his disability to the audience.

"I only have one minute to say my speech, but I'm going to use my disability to speak a minute more," he said, leading the hall to a thunderous round of applause and laughter.

Actor Ha Ji-sung gives a speech after winning the Best Actor award at the 59th Baeksang Arts' Awards play section for his role as Richard Gloucester in ″Teenage Dick″ last April. [SCREEN CAPTURE]

"This trophy bears a heavy weight to me. I don't know what it means to act well, but all I know is that I want to do well on the stage. I'm always trying to exist on the stage as a character."

Ha was born in 1991 and started acting in 2010. He graduated from the Global Cyber University in 2015 with a degree in broadcasting and entertainment. He has played many roles in his wheelchair in various plays ever since joining Theater Company Aein in 2010 with the troupe's play "Waiting for Godot."

Winning the Baeksang award has always been his goal as an actor, but he never tried to take any shortcuts, he said.

"I imagine the scene in my head and just practice over and over," he said. "There's no other way than to repeat. But if you do, I think it sticks to your head."

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

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. Congratulations on your win, and thank you for bringing such a big change to the Baeksang Arts Awards. How did you feel when your name was called out as the winner that day?

A. I really didn’t expect to win, so the moment they called my name, I was dumbfounded. I was so happy, but at the same time, I couldn’t believe that I had actually won. It just felt like a dream to me.

I had really wanted to win an award at the Baeksang Arts Awards because it’s a comprehensive arts award. So as both an actor with disabilities and as just an actor, I wanted to let people know that I was here, at the awards. That was the biggest reason. I wished in a way that I could bring change to society, however small it may be.

I’m not sure if I made that happen, but it’s still so meaningful to me. Just being on the stage carries a big meaning for me. Wasn’t I the first person in 59 years to be on the stage? I think the value of that fact is so big.

Actor Ha Ji-sung, winner of the Best Actor award at the 59th Baeksang Arts' Awards play section [BAEKSANG ARTS AWARDS ORGANIZING COMMITTEE]

Did you always want to win a Baeksang award? Is it true that you even wrote a play with a line about Baeksang?

I once wrote a play titled “I Am Here — Actor.” There was a scene where I listed all the things I wanted to achieve as an actor and then ran forward after saying all of them. At the end, I said that I wanted to win an award at Baeksang. And now it’s come true in just three years, so it felt so amazing and wonderful from the moment I was nominated. It just felt so amazing that I dreamed something, and it came true after I said it.

I told myself I would keep on acting and aim to win in my late 30s. I didn’t think it would come to me so fast. Just the thought of going to an awards ceremony gave me chills for days. I really couldn’t sleep because of the excitement.

How did you feel when you saw yourself dressed up and ready to go to the Baeksang Arts Awards?

When I saw myself in my tuxedo, it really came to me that I was going. I complimented myself a lot, “You did good. You’ve done well.”

I think it’s all the more meaningful that I received the award not as someone with disabilities but as an actor. I feel so happy that I’ve been recognized as an actor.

I’ve had such a happy month afterward. I’ve been offered so many grateful opportunities like interviews with the press and videos on YouTube. I’ve been really happy.

Actor Ha Ji-sung as Richard Gloucester in the National Theater of Korea's ″Teenage Dick″ [NATIONAL THEATER OF KOREA]

Why did you dream of becoming an actor?

Since high school, I’ve had trouble fitting in with or joining the rest of my classmates. I had always been hungry for conversations, so I watched TV. It became my friend. And watching TV, I thought, “I want to act. I want to talk to people.” That’s how I started dreaming of becoming an actor. But even before then, I’ve wanted to stand before people and be the center of attention.

How did you feel after you achieved your goal and became an actor?

At first, I was so happy acting because I wanted to do it and got to do it on stage. I got to try everything I wanted as an actor, but somewhere along the way, I began thinking about who I am as an actor and faced a slump — sort of. But in the end, I think I just stepped on the stage as I just candidly asked myself what acting meant to me and faced that question. I think that’s how “I Am Here” was made.

Why do you like the stage?

I think I was born to act. I have faith in this. I want to meet people and communicate with the audience through plays.

Actor Ha Ji-sung, winner of the Best Actor award at the 59th Baeksang Arts' Awards play section for his role as Richard Gloucester in ″Teenage Dick,″ poses for photos after an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily in western Seoul. [BAE

You once said in an interview that your role model is yourself. Is that still true?

Yes. I believe that if I look up to someone else as a role model, then I will end up copying that person and questioning myself as an actor. At the end of the day, I want to find myself and be the source of my own confidence. I’m not trying to be arrogant. This is just what I believe in.

Would you like to try genres other than plays?

Yes. Definitely. Films, dramas, online content — I am willing to challenge myself to anything and experience many different genres and different shooting environments. Whether it be a new genre or a role, I really want to try anything. I wish people would remember me as an actor who was willing to show a lot of different sides of himself and someone that met with a lot of people.