South Korean actress Jeon Jong-Seo went from film fanatic to film star in the blink of an eye after her first-ever audition led to her being cast in Lee Chang-dong’s thriller Burning.
Not overawed by this huge opportunity, Jeon went on to deliver an intriguing lead performance that earned high praise from critics at Cannes Film Festival.
Close-up Culture’s James Prestridge caught up with Jeon to talk about her role in Burning and her fast rise to fame ahead of the film’s highly-anticipated screenings at the BFI London Film Festival (19 & 20 October).
Q: You got cast for ‘Burning’ in your first-ever audition. What can you tell us about being cast for this film and your reaction?
A: Because it was my first audition, I went in with the curiosity of seeing what it was like. I never thought I would actually get the role. Like everyone else who wants to be an actor or actress, I thought this would be my first audition of many before getting such a big role. But to be told I got the part was a miracle. It felt like destiny.
The moment has past now and it will fade as time goes on, but I am always going to keep the memory of this excitement alive.
Q: What interested you about this story?
A: When I first got the script, it was Ben’s [Steven Yeun’s] character lines that I had the most fun reading. I also realised that Haemi is a lot like me.
The script was fascinating because every time I read it I found something different in the film’s metaphors.
Q: You play Haemi. Can you talk about the character and your experience playing her?
A: At first glance, Haemi is someone who is difficult to read. She is an off-the-wall girl who is free-spirited and a bit of a loose cannon. But I think Haemi is more responsible for her life than anyone else.
She is both a weak and strong character. A person who is dominant and independent while simultaneously being anxious, lonely and alienated – just like anyone who has endured intense hurt and struggle. She is stout and always trying to take one step forward each day of her life.
Q: Haemi gets caught in a love-triangle between writer Jongsu (Yoo Ah-in) and the charismatic Ben (Steven Yeun). What was your dynamic like with these two actors?
A: Since they showed patience and led me at times, I felt always felt comfortable with them. Meeting and working with these two has to be the best memory of my acting career so far. I now miss them so much!
Q: Can you give us some insight into what is was like to work with director Lee Chang-dong?
A: Director Lee Chang-dong has always treated me kindly from the first day I met him – to the day when everything was finished. I am so grateful because he has a great understanding of me, has looked after me and allowed me to do many things. I think I have learned a lot from him – how to overcome new things and act freely.
I thank him for opening the door so that I could make my first career step in a clear and healthy condition. I am now doing the work I have always dreamed of.
Q: What were the lessons you learned from your first film role?
A: I learned to accept someone rather than act them. When I accepted the character, I did not know where to go, but I quickly realised I am someone who loves the adventure.
Q: I read that you spent more time in the cinema than in class while studying at Sejong University. Tell us about your love of film and the influence it has in your life?
A: There was a time when I watched the movies just because I loved them. Then, at some point, I found myself escaping into movies. I began to rely on them and the characters living in the film were actually giving me answers to my own unresolved riddles and questions in my life. As a result, I fell in love with movies, like you would a close friend.
Q: You went from being a student to attending Cannes as a film star in a such short space of time. How have you found this whirlwind journey?
A: Actually, the journey to Cannes felt so long and difficult. But I was glad to get there and see everyone who loves movies getting together, greeting each other, comforting each other and respecting each other’s work enough to applaud until the credits were over.
Q: You have received a lot of plaudits for your performance in ‘Burning’. What are your hopes for the future?
A: It was an undeserved journey. But through it I have been loved, enlightened, hated and lost. However, I believe there is a reason why I met Burning at this point in my life. It has allowed me to mature.
I will try to keep expressing myself and my worries through various movies. I want to be a source of sympathy and consolation to movie lovers.
Q: Do you have a message for UK audiences ahead of Burning’s screening at the BFI London Film Festival?
A: Burning is a work that taught me how to be friends with loneliness. I hope the film will provide audiences with the gift of comfort and courage.