[BAEKSANG AND BEYOND] Ryu Jun-yeol recounts moments behind receiving Best Actor award

Actor Ryu Jun-yeol, winner of the Best Actor award at the 59th Baeksang Arts Awards' film section, poses for photos after an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily at the JoongAng Ilbo headquarters in western Seoul. [BAEKSANG ARTS AWARDS ORGANIZING

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.

Actor Ryu Jun-yeol has received dozens of awards for his ability to blend in to any role thrown at him during his nine-year career. But never has an award been so special as the Best Actor award given to him at the 59th Baeksang Arts Awards last April.

Ryu was honored with the trophy for his portrayal of a blind witness to the murder of a Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) crown price in last year’s fictional historical thriller “The Night Owl.” The film itself was one of the biggest winners of this year’s Baeksang, nabbing three major trophies: Best New Director for Ahn Tae-jin, Best Actor and Best Film.

“I honestly didn't feel much about the awards that I was given in the past,” he said. “But his award makes me feel, I don’t know exactly what, but something definitely different from the past. I think it’s a sense of responsibility and pressure. It’s too big of an award to say it doesn’t mean anything. I think it’s given me a reason to be a better actor.”

Ryu started his career in 2014 with roles in smaller works such as indie films and a music video but made a major breakthrough in tvN’s hit drama series "Reply 1988” in 2015. Since then, he has appeared in hit films such as “The Silenced” (2015), "The King" (2017), "A Taxi Driver” (2017), “The Battle: Roar to Victory” (2019) and more. He has been acclaimed for his versatility, successfully switching from a playful young man flirting with his crush in “Reply 1988" to a patriotic independence activist in “The Battle” and then a partially blind acupuncturist who witnesses the death of a prince in “The Night Owl.”

Actor Ryu Jun-yeol as a partially blind acupuncturist in historical thriller film ″The Night Owl″ (2022) [NEW]
Actor Ryu Jun-yeol in tvN drama series ″Reply 1988″ (2015) [TVN]

“I think I try my best at everything — it’s cliché, I know, but that’s really all I can do,” he said. “I don’t think there ever was a person who called me idle. I was in the Philippines recently, and someone there congratulated me on the Baeksang award. I was surprised to know that people overseas were watching me too, and I felt so grateful.”

Off to a smooth start this year, the second part of the comedy sci-fi historical film “Alienoid” (2022) will come out during the latter half. He's also in talks with a drama series, but it’s all about making sure that he’s showing a better side of himself with each new work, according to the actor.

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

The following excerpts have been edited for length and clarity.

Q. You looked genuinely surprised when your name was called out at the awards, so much so that you remained speechless for quite some time after you were given the trophy. Did you really not think you would win?

A. I was completely frozen. I’m not one to get nervous on stage or in front of the camera, but that night, I had nothing prepared. Everything just felt pointless except for the fact that I felt grateful and that I had to get that across somehow.

It wasn’t a matter of feeling good or bad. I just didn’t see it coming at all. I went there without any expectations. I just went to the ceremony happy that I’m going to meet with fellow actors that I hadn’t seen in a long time. I think I actually felt happier when I first heard that I was nominated, more than when I got the award. I felt happier hearing all the other actors I had been nominated alongside with.

Actor Ryu Jun-yeol gives a speech after receiving the Best Actor award at the 59th Baeksang Arts Awards' film section last April. [BAEKSANG ARTS AWARDS ORGANIZING COMMITTEE]

Why did you tear up after receiving the trophy?

The presenter was Sul Kyung-gu, who I like so much both personally and professionally. I had no idea he was presenting, but as he gave me the trophy, he hugged me and whispered in my ear, “Congratulations.” But it wasn’t like how people say it purely out of good manners. He really sounded happy for me, as if it was himself who had got the award. Hearing that just put me in tears, and from then, I started getting nervous.

He actually texted me again afterward and said that he teared up, too. I could feel his affections toward me in the text and I really felt that this is how it feels to be truly congratulated.

Was there anyone else you particularly remember from that night?

I made eye contact with actor Jung Woo-sung. Looking at him makes me think, “Is that what a star is? That’s how someone who’s been loved by the public for such a long time looks like.” He smiled at me with such grace, and it made me think, “This award doesn’t belong to me. Someone like him should be getting it.” He was so nice to me while we were shooting “The King” and so understanding.

He called me up later again and congratulated me. I was so shy, and he told me, with a big laugh, that I truly deserved it. Listening to him say that made me realize how many good people I have around me and how blessed I am.

Actor Ryu Jun-yeol, winner of the Best Actor award at the 59th Baeksang Arts Awards' film section [BAEKSANG ARTS AWARDS ORGANIZING COMMITTEE]

How did you feel about the fact that a lot of the other actors from “The Night Owl” also got nominated along with you?

When I said that I felt the happiest when I was nominated, that was because my fellow actors were nominated with me, too.

We were all so excited about “The Night Owl” getting so many nominations, and I thought to myself that we could at least get two awards tonight. And when I won — I think I might be growing up in a way — I felt bad about the younger actors not winning more than being happy about myself getting the award. The others told me that I shouldn’t be feeling bad about this, but I can’t help but feel sorry in a way. And the fact that they were all so genuinely and truly happy for me made it worse.

The director even told me that he felt happier about the fact that I won the Best Actor award rather than himself winning the Best New Director award. But as cliché as it may sound, the only thing that comes into your mind is just how grateful you are.

What about you? How did you feel about the other awards given to your team?

I felt most pleased by the Best Film award. It’s something that reminds you that good work isn’t just created by the power of a director or an actor, but it’s a collective work by everyone, the on-site staff and everyone else involved in the process, and the effort put in along the way.

I thought of everyone that I worked with. We started recruiting everyone — the cameramen, art director, light director and so many others that I knew — one by one. I handed them the script that asked them, “Do you want to do this with me?” A film isn’t something that just one person makes, and good work is the work of everyone involved. It made me realize this once again.

What are your goals as an actor?

I don’t have anything specific, but I would just like to keep on working for a long long time. Maybe that will get me more nominations in the future, right? (Laughs)

Doing this for a long long time can’t be achieved with just me doing a good job. The people working with me have to feel good around me and think, “It feels great working with this guy. I spend more than half the year with him but it still feels good.” People have to say, “I’m in it if he’s going to be in it, too!” That’s the kind of actor I want to be. And I hope that if I keep on walking that path, then I’ll be able to fulfill the needs of fans who want to see more of me.