[BAEKSANG AND BEYOND] Jo Woo-jin refuses to look back after his Baeksang win

Actor Jo Woo-jin holds his trophy for Best Supporting Actor award given at the 59th Baeksang Arts Awards after an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily held at JTBC headquarters in western Seoul. [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.

Versatility is a virtue possessed by the most talented of actors, but a gift that could take years to fully bloom.

For 44-year-old actor Jo Woo-jin, the ability to fit perfectly into any scene took him 22 years to perfect, before he could stand out and land a main role in a film. But it was also this adaptability that won him the Best Supporting Actor Award at the 59th Baeksang Arts Awards’ television category for his take on a ruthless second-in-command of a drug ring in the 2022 hit Netflix original series, “Narco-Saints.”

The award came only a year after Jo won the Best Supporting Actor in the movie section of the 58th Baeksang Arts Awards for his role as a cunning strategist of an upcoming presidential election in “Kingmaker” (2022), a political drama film based on a real story that took place in 1970s Korea.

“I try to watch other people’s works as much as I can, both as a viewer and as a fellow actor,” he said. “Every actor has a different tone, and I try to think about what I can learn and take from other people’s acting. And I’ve almost always taken something away, thinking, ‘How would I have done it if I had received this role?’”

Jo started his acting career in 1999, enduring 16 years outside the spotlight until 2014 when he met “Inside Men” (2015), one of Korea’s most popular political crime drama flicks. He took on the role of Jo, the cold-hearted secretary for a power-mongering chaebol, whose short but stunningly clean portrayal left not only his fellow actors but the viewers in awe.

Actor Jo Woo-jin's breakthrough role as Jo in “Inside Men” (2015), one of Korea’s most popular political crime drama flicks that brought him to the spotlight [SHOWBOX]
Actor Jo Woo-jin's first lead role in 2021 crime thriller “Hard Hit″ [CJ ENM]

Since then, he has landed major supporting roles in some of Korea’s biggest films including “The Fortress” (2017), “1987: When the Day Comes” (2017), “Default” (2018), “Kingmaker” and many more. In 2021, he grabbed his first-ever main role in crime thriller “Hard Hit.”

“Being given a role is like the work of fate for an actor,” he said. “I never thought about what the genre is or whether it’s a drama or a film, but just that I’ll do whatever I’m given and do my best.”

Jo sat down for an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily to talk more about his big win at the Baeksang awards, his 24 years of acting career and more.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. How did you feel about winning a major prize for the second consecutive year at the Baeksang Arts Awards?

A. I firstly felt the gravity of the award. Of course, I felt great, proud and satisfied with the work I’ve done. But it felt like the “two” wins translated to “two” times more of what I needed to do. I received the award thinking that I will have to try harder and take on bolder new challenges.

I was trying to suppress the uncontrollable sense of joy, excitement and honor that was driving all through my body, especially because I didn’t want to show myself like that to the other nominees. And I really thank all the crew for being my first audience.

Actor Jo Woo-jin gives a speech after receiving the Best Supporting Actor in the TV section for his portrayal of Byun Ki-tae in the 2022 hit Netflix original series ″Narco-Saints″ at the 59th Baeksang Arts Awards held on April 28 in Inche

What was your thought when you saw your face on the screen as a nominee for the supporting actor award? Did you think that you would win?

I didn’t think at all. I try not to think about what will come from my work. I always say this to my colleagues and to myself, that being able to be invited to such a ceremony, having my face shown alongside such great actors and just being remembered as someone is a gift as an actor.

At a ceremony, you get to see all the great people being so happy, see the performances and think about what it would be like in those other people’s shoes. That time itself is happy enough for me.

How was filming for “Narco-Saints”?

It was hard — very hard. As you know, we were smack in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic and in the middle of summer as well, when we were shooting. Every morning of the shoot, you usually get a pile of paper with the lines and the details of the script for the day. For “Narco-Saints,” the pile seemed more like a book because everything was so well-planned out.

The crew did an amazing job of creating an exotic vibe. Even the actors were taking out their phones from time to time to take pictures of the set because it really did feel like we were outside of Korea. Among the crew, we said it felt like “cross-countrying” in each other’s hearts because the story was so emotionally straining and complicated. We felt like we were all venturing around in each other’s minds.

Actor Jo Woo-jin as Byun Ki-tae in the 2022 hit Netflix original series ″Narco-Saints″ [NETFLIX]

Did you agree to be in “Narco-Saints” because you were confident about the character?

No. In fact, when I was first asked to be in it, nothing was decided about my character — not even 1 percent of the script or character layout had been made. I didn’t even know whether I would be a good fit for the character or whether I could pull it off.

But rather than my own character, I was confident in director Yoon Jong-bin and the excellence in his capabilities as a director and the work that would come about. And I knew that it would be a great hit, whether it be a drama or film, just hearing how the plot was going to be planned out.

A major element of your character Byun Ki-tae was that he had to keep everything hidden until the big moment. How did you pull that off?

I left it completely up to the director and followed his commands. I didn’t intend on making the character “someone who’s fooling everyone else,” because that could actually make it more obvious. It would have made it more boring or clichéd for the audience. So when the director told me to “be more Byun Ki-tae” or “joke around a little,” I did exactly what he told me to do.

Actor Jo Woo-jin during an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily held at JTBC headquarters in western Seoul. [BAEKSANG ARTS AWARDS ORGANIZING COMMITTEE]

You have been applauded for your versatility as an actor. How do you feel when you come across such compliments?

I feel very grateful, but then I try to forget it quickly. I use it to feel confident but I try not to hang on to it and become more rational.
I’ve never really thought about what kind of an actor I am. What is Jo Woo-jin’s acting? I think I just try hard to be convincing — to allow people to immerse themselves in the work. Rather than pulling off a “good” act, I want to fit into the scene and the situation. I only try to go with the flow and situation.

How would you describe the years it took for the public to notice you?

I try to look forward rather than backward. I think only then, I can keep on learning and growing, to keep on taking bigger challenges. I would like to keep this mindset in the future.

Would you be willing to take on more diverse roles in the future?

Yes. If I’m given a script, I’ll review it with an open heart but with complicated thoughts.

The more I grow, the more I keep thinking that I should take on roles that make me think, “Will I be able to do this?” rather than the roles that I know I can. This trophy is a good thing but also puts pressure on me. But I think it’s a pat on the shoulder telling me, “Keep on going.”