Actor and producer Sean Dulake can sum up the entertainingly addictive nature of Korean dramas in a single word. Love. Dulake, who appears in the Korean War film Operation Chromite and stars in the Rakuten Viki series Dramaworld, is not just talking about the romantic love featured in k-drama rom coms, but all the feelings of strong emotional attachment that motivate so much of human interaction.
“Even when it’s not a puppy love type story, you’ll still have this underlying emotional current that’s driving a character, whether it’s pain because they lost a family member or because they’ve been separated from their long lost love or divorced,” said Dulake. “If it’s any of these darker themes, it’s still very much rooted in the idea that love is what powers me as a character. That’s how I’m ultimately making my decisions.”
Although k-dramas may delve into issues such as workplace harassment, gender equality, gender identity and the politics of corruption, love is the storyline element that resonates with worldwide audiences.
“All these things could be going on in life, but the audience knows and the writer knows—and all the actors know—that the stuff that’s really going to be the meat of any story is when they dig deep, really really deep. Everyone’s looking for those tearful moments because that’s when the cathartic experience happens.”
Dulake has looked at dramas from a few perspectives. Born to a British father and Korean mother, he grew up in California and moved to Korea partly to explore his heritage. He landed roles in a few dramas, including Athena: Goddess of War, Take Care Of Us Captain and Jejungwon. He also filmed the 2012 Discovery World documentary titled Korea Next: Finding Hallyuworld in which he interviewed Korean actors and k-pop stars. At a drama wrap party Dulake met writer, director and producer Chris Martin, an American whose admiration for Korean film prompted him to move to Korea in 2006. With two cultures in common, they quickly became friends.
“We grew very close because we felt like we were in a similar space of being outsiders in both Hollywood and Korea.”
Martin cast Dulake in an ad campaign for Rakuten Viki, which generated a positive fan response. One day, while they were having coffee in LA, Martin proposed a story idea about an American girl transported into her favorite drama. Dulake instantly knew they had to produce that show and the duo recruited Josh Billig to co-write the script. Their production company Third Culture Content was founded to create Dramaworld, which stars Liv Hewson as the American girl obsessed with dramas and Dulake as Joon Park, the leading man in her favorite show.
“The reason we picked that name is because we want to make content that is seen through that third culture lens,” said Dulake. “Yes, we’re both Americans but we spent most of our professional lives in Asia and we’re bilingual. We felt like outliers for a while, but in 2018 after Crazy Rich Asians and obviously now in 2020, with BTS and Parasite’s wild success, the timing is right. We started with Season One as a passion project and also to prove to ourselves that we could make a space for stories like this.”
Third Culture Content recently completed the drama’s second season, which will feature 10 30-minute episodes. The second season takes off where the first ended, with Dulake’s character landing in the real world. Hewson will return as the drama-obsessed heroine.
“Obviously Liv is back,” said Dulake. “Justin Chon is back as Seth, our villain. And with this whole new cast of characters we jump into two dramas this time. One is a 1980s gangster cop drama and one is a modern day vampire were-tiger romance drama. It sounds weird, but it really works. I’m really proud of what we did, because we’re still an independent production, which means we don’t have the massive budget a Marvel blockbuster would have. That labor of love, that passion, you’ll still find in every episode of Season Two.”
The second season will feature actress Ha Ji won, who starred in Secret Garden and Empress Ki and k-pop star Henry Lau, the former Super Junior-M member, who made his Hollywood debut in A Dog’s Journey and appears in the Chinese film Double World. Daniel Dae Kim, who appeared on Lost and Hawaii Five-O and who adapted the k-drama The Good Doctor for U.S. TV, will also play a significant role.
“We’ve gotten some questions as to whether Henry’s role is just a cameo,” said Dulake. “He’s not just a cameo, he’s the new leading man of a drama, so you’ll be seeing a lot of him. Henry, Ha Ji Won and Daniel are in the show, they play roles, but on top of that we have tons of cameos.”
Dulake describes the as-yet-secret cameo list as “crazy,” since it includes so many k-drama and k-pop stars. “We wanted to make sure we delivered on the cast and made people feel this was worth the wait.”
Filming during the pandemic further complicated logistics and required extra safety precautions, but it also provided something positive for the cast and crew to focus on.
“Back then we didn’t know close to what we know now. We all took care of each other. A lot of us cried when production ended, as it was also the thing that kept all of us sane. We didn’t know how to react, what to do, so we thought let’s just make the show.”
Pandemic travel restrictions have kept Dulake in Korea since February. It’s the first time in a decade he has not been able to split his time between Korea and LA.
“My mother’s Korean and I have a lot of extended family in Korea, so I feel like in my time here I’ve fallen in love with and made much more of a deep personal connection with Korean culture.”
It has been rewarding to watch the world embrace the wave of Korean pop culture.
“When I saw BTS perform on Jimmy Fallon and when Parasite won, I got emotional too. I’m a U.S. citizen but there is something about Korea, a country that was in a war just 70 years ago and now exports content that is top of the charts and winning Oscars, that’s actually really incredible. What is it about the country that facilitates these things? It’s not just about having singular artists. There is a movement.”
Third Culture Content aims to produce more stories that see the world from a third culture perspective.
This story was originally published on forbes.com.