[BAEKSANG AND BEYOND] Win doesn't change things for Lee Sung-min

Actor Lee Sung-min, winner of the Best Actor award at the 59th Baeksang Arts Awards with JTBC’s 2022 hit drama series “Reborn Rich,” before an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily in Sangam-dong, western Seoul. [BAEKSANG ARTS AWARDS ORGANIZING COM

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.

Something that stands out in actor Lee Sung-min’s filmography is the large number of special appearances that almost equals the combined number of lead and supporting roles.

To Lee, special appearances — which result from a special friendship between the director and the actor — are a token of gratitude for everyone that he has come across in his life and has helped in some way to lead him to where he is today.

“It’s my way of saying thank you to everyone I owe something to,” he said. “How did I end up here? If you start thinking back from the present to the past, you come across questions like, ‘What if they hadn’t been there at that place?’ and ‘What if I hadn’t broken up with that person back then?’ You start to cherish the acquaintances you make, so I went wherever I was needed.”

Lee won the Best Actor award at the 59th Baeksang Arts Awards in April with his portrayal of money-thirsty, brutal chaebol head Jin Yang-cheol in JTBC’s 2022 hit drama series “Reborn Rich,” which became the second-most-watched cable channel drama series with a 26.9 percent rating when it finished last December.

Lee took on the role of the ambitious and cold-hearted Soonyang Group CEO who fails to find a worthy heir until his youngest grandson Jin Do-jun, a reincarnation of a once-loyal but betrayed company employee, comes into the picture. Do-jun was played by actor Song Joong-ki, one of Korea's best-known actors.

Of the many factors that led to “Reborn Rich”'s success, one was Lee’s perfect mix of theatrical and realistic acting that drew acclaim from viewers. Lee began his acting career with a small play in 1987 but only gained more visibility in the 2010s.

The actor won his first major award in 2012 with his portrayal of a gentle yet passionate trauma surgeon in MBC’s medical drama series “Golden Time” (2012). His first Baeksang award was for “Misaeng” (2014), followed by “The Spy Gone North” (2018) and most recently “Reborn Rich.”

Actor Lee Sung-min as Jin Yang-cheol in the 2022 JTBC hit drama series ″Reborn Rich″ [JTBC]

“It’s such an honor for an actor to be given a good script, an amazing character,” Lee said. “It’s not an opportunity that comes along frequently, but it did for me. It’s led to all the attention that I’m currently getting but it's also got me worried, ‘Will I ever meet another great work like this one?’ But I had the same worries with ‘Misaeng’ and ‘The Spy Gone North.’”

Lee sat down for an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily to discuss his big win, his 36 years of acting and more.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. How did you feel when you were called out as the winner of the Best Actor award?

A. I was worried in a way because “Reborn Rich” didn’t win the Best Drama award and the two other actors nominated in other categories did not win either. But then this year’s Baeksang felt like a celebration of people marginalized in society, so my role as a chaebol head really didn’t look like it stood a chance.

Actor Lee Sung-min gives a speech after winning the Best Actor award at the 59th Baeksang Arts Awards last April in Incheon. [SCREEN CAPTURE]

How was the experience of acting out the role of chaebol head?

It made me realize that the problems I had with my children or my household affairs are not really a big deal (laughs). I know that I could never live a life like this. But it was definitely nice not having to open doors or run around everywhere.

What are some thoughts you have right now?

I’m always thinking about work. We are currently at the beginning stage of a new work and I am hoping to figure out some problems.
And personally, I am getting older so I have to start taking care of my health. I recently had a check-up and got a clean bill of health. But I don’t work ou and just stay still. I’ve recently picked up golf, but that’s more of a way of meeting fellow actors that I don’t work with.

What are you like at home?

I’m at the bottom of the food chain at home. I’m just a normal dad. I think my house is quite normal. I don’t get special treatment just because I’m an actor. A few years ago, I arrived home with a Baeksang Award and flowers in my hand, and the first thing that my wife said was, “Congratulations, can you take the trash out?” I wasn’t offended. I actually felt really happy. I’m thankful to be viewed as just me, no one special. I am also really grateful for my family not complaining much about the fact that I don’t spend much time with them. But I would like to take this opportunity to go on a trip together.

Actor Lee Sung-min in tvN drama series ″Misaeng″ (2014) [TVN]

Don’t actors travel around a lot?

I’ve actually never had a hobby. I just worked as an actor, which I started to regret as I age.

Of course, I go to different places that are filming locations, but I’ve rarely gone anywhere for leisure. Like, I’ve been to Busan a million times but never traveled around the city. I recently renewed my passport and there were only three stamps — one for a filming location, one for the Cannes International Film Festival and one for a trip with my family — in my expired one.

I do nothing when I’m not working — absolutely nothing. That’s my way of resting. I watch TV and YouTube videos, or read books.

What kind of an actor do you strive to be?

If you ask a young actor this question, you would get an answer full of hopes and dreams. I’m not that old but am middle-aged, I don’t really like to think about the future or what kind of an actor I would like to be.

I did think about that a lot when I was younger, but there is one regret that I have these days: I always looked up to fellow actors from afar. These days, you see actors like Jung Dong-hwan, Song Seung-hwan and Lee Soon-jae on YouTube and on theatre stages and I thought, “Why did I look elsewhere to find my role model when these are the types of people I should have looked up to?”

I see them and find the path that I need to take. Actors way older than myself motivate me to keep on working and improve myself as an actor. I want to be an actor who’s on stage even when I am 80 years old. I wish I could be an actor who can be a role model for the younger ones and remain on stage until the end — whether that be in a play, drama, or film.

How do you want to be remembered by the public?

I hope to be simply remembered as Lee Sung-min, an actor from the 21st century. If someone says, “There was a guy who was an actor and his name was Lee Sung-min,” then I will be content.