[BAEKSANG AND BEYOND] Kim Si-eun wants to become everybody's actor

Actor Kim Si-eun, winner of the Best New Actress 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.

“Next Sohee” (2022) may not have seen the biggest commercial success in theaters, but it has irrefutably become one of the most impactful films in Korea that brought legislative change to protect teenage workers nationwide.

Leading the 138-minute social commentary was not only veteran actor Bae Doona, but also rookie Kim Si-eun, who won the Best New Actress award at the 59th Baeksang Arts Awards this year for her painfully genuine portrayal of teenage worker So-hee.

“Next Sohee” revolves around So-hee, played by Kim, a high school student who becomes an “extern” at a contractor of a large telecommunications company in charge of taking customer complaint calls.

So-hee and some 50 other young women take calls from angry customers seeking to cut their subscriptions while the company demands that they fend off that request to the best of their abilities.

The film follows through how an outspoken, energetic girl slowly breaks apart to choose to eventually take her own life and the police investigation that takes place thereafter. It is loosely based on a real incident in 2014 where a 19-year-old high school student took her own life after working at a call center of an internet company for five months.

Actor Kim Si-eun as teenage worker So-hee in the social commentary film ″Next Sohee″ (2022) [TWIN PLUS PARTNERS]

An amendment to the Vocational Education and Training Promotion Act was put forward last March to prohibit high school workers from working excessive hours and punish abuse of power against teenage employees.

"I thought that 'Next Sohee' was a film that had to come out to the world," Kim said.

"As a believer in the power of films, I thought and hoped that the movie would lead to more people thinking about this problem compared to the past. And people who have seen the movie will remember and think about So-hee just once more."

Kim, born in 1999, made her debut in 2016 as a host of education channel EBS's children's entertainment show and landed smaller roles in dramas until her breakthrough with "Next Sohee." She is set to co-lead an upcoming romance film, "The Dream Songs," with actor Park Hye-su.

Kim sat down for an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily to discuss her big win at the Baeksang Awards, her grand debut, and more.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. What did you mean by “Next Sohee” is a movie that has to come out?

A. When I first read the scenario for “Next Sohee,” I had no idea it was based on a true story. But if she’s around my age and I didn’t know that it happened, I thought it would be the case for the other people around me and so many others. I thought that this movie could bring attention to the issue.

Actor Kim Si-eun as teenage worker So-hee in the social commentary film ″Next Sohee″ (2022) [TWIN PLUS PARTNERS]
Actor Kim Si-eun as teenage worker So-hee in the social commentary film ″Next Sohee″ (2022) [TWIN PLUS PARTNERS]

How did you want to portray your character, So-hee?

I really wanted her to be ordinary — but with her own voice. If you watch the movie, you can see early on that she has her own thoughts and knows how to get them across to the world. So characters say, after she dies by suicide, “This is not who she is.” But within everyone who seems bright on the outside is a darkness that we do not know of. I believe it is up to society, the surrounding people, friends and adults to take notice and take more care of people with such darkness.

It must have been emotionally challenging for you to pull off such a heavy character. Did you have difficulties bidding farewell to So-hee after shooting?

A lot of people were actually worried about me for this reason, but no, not really.

I think the concerns came from the fact that they knew the emotions I had to play were very burdensome for a person. But after So-hee chose to take her own life, my emotions as So-hee also ended there. I was actually a little confused about whether it was alright for me to feel like this after playing someone else’s death, and I felt a sense of guilt because of it.

But I talked with the director afterward and realized that it wasn’t wrong for me to feel like this. I learned that it was up to me to learn how to take things in my own way and let them go on my own terms. I’m really OK now.

How has your journey with So-hee been, not only during the shoot but afterward too?

From the very first moment when the director asked me to join her as So-hee, the first shoot and being invited to the Cannes International Film Festival, it’s just been unbelievable for me. The Cannes invitation is especially priceless because it’s something that I’ve always said I dreamed of from the moment I started dreaming of becoming an actor.

So-hee has allowed me to go to the Cannes, shoot pictorials, hold interviews, meet with the audience and hear their thoughts. I especially could feel how much the Korean audiences at Cannes loved the movie. The Busan International Film Festival and the Baeksang Arts Awards are great, to.

But I think the Best New Actress award is even more special because you can only get it once. I’ve always thought that it would be great to get one, and to get one at Baeksang is just amazing.

Actor Kim Si-eun gives a speech after receiving the Best New Actress award at the 59th Baeksang Arts Awards' film section at the 59th Baeksang Arts Awards. [SCREEN CAPTURE]

Tell us more about your vlog. How did you start in the first place?

I’m actually so embarrassed to talk about it. I was worried at first about whether I was showing too much of my life and whether people wouldn’t want to see me do that. But people actually liked it, and I’m so grateful.

I started with a vlog at the Cannes International Film Festival then it became something more about my everyday life. Recording and editing my daily life turned out to be quite fun, actually. There are days when I go out of the house just to look for something to shoot for the vlog, so it also keeps me more active.

Have you always dreamed of becoming an actor?

Well, I’ve always liked television and had very vague ideas that I wanted to be on television, but that was it. I never went to acting school or an academy, and my life was actually quite far from an actor’s life.

But one day, I thought, I only live once. I might as well just try what I want. So at 19 (in Korean age), I tried out for an audition at a small company, and it all started there.

Actor Kim Si-eun, winner of the Best New Actress award at the 59th Baeksang Arts Awards' film section [BAEKSANG ARTS AWARDS ORGANIZING COMMITTEE]

How has it been for you since?

Being an actor wasn't exactly what I thought it would be. It wasn't, like, as "Wow!" as I thought it would be. I'm always full of thoughts, not just because I'm an actor, but because I just have a lot of different thoughts in my head.

You never know what you want in your life, but I have to have something if I want it. So right now, I'm pursuing a career as an actor because this is what I like, but it may be something else in the future. I have no idea where I will be when I'm in my 30s or 40s.

But at the end of the day, I think being an actor just keeps you on your toes. I want to be good and do well, and I also want to be a wholesome person, too. Will I keep on enjoying myself as an actor? What kind of work will I be in? What kind of a character? I'm excited to see what's next for me, too.

What are your goals as Kim Si-eun, as both actor and person?

As an actor, I want to be good at acting. I want people to identify themselves with me and be consoled by me. I want to be ordinary but not so ordinary. I want people to see me as a friend, but not too much. You know, that kind of an actor.

It’s my goal to be a healthy person — healthy both in mind and body. I think only as a healthy person can I bring healthy vibes as an actor. So as a person, I want to be healthy and mindful.