Actress Hwang Jung-eum decided that she really loved acting while playing an English tutor in the 2009 k-drama High Kick Through The Roof. Since then, her love of acting has only grown, along with her resume of high-profile roles in genres ranging from comedy to melodrama.
“Whenever I decide that I want to participate in a project, even reading the script keeps me excited,” said Hwang. “I enjoy having conversations with directors and writers and simply love every minute of performing on set. I also enjoy the process of getting to know my character—it’s like falling in love and starting a relationship with someone, which often gives you butterflies in the stomach.”
Her latest character is Wol-ju, the otherworldly proprietor of the Mystic Pop-up Bar, a magical tent bar where humans can go to share their unsolvable problems. Wol-ju serves her customers charmed liquor that allows her to travel in their dreams and alter their realities.
As punishment for hanging herself from a sacred tree, Wol-ju, a shaman’s daughter, has spent centuries running versions of this bar. For her penance she must help 10,000 human beings fix what is wrong in their lives. According to Hwang, playing a character who must listen to so many problems has helped her become a better listener.
“I used to sometimes find it difficult to fully empathize with other people’s problems, but playing the role of Wol-ju taught me a lot,” said Hwang. “I think I’ll be able to place myself in other people’s shoes and listen to their problems as if they were my own.”
She would appreciate Wol-ju’s magical ability to change life for those who share their stories.
“It would be great if I had the ability to make people’s wishes come true and solve their problems. Of course, I would have to feel sad or upset if someone is in a troubling situation, but if I could fix the situations for them, I couldn’t ask for a better ability.”
If a mysterious tent bar popped up in her neighborhood, Hwang would definitely visit.
“If there was a Mystic Pop-up Bar, I’d love to drop by,” she said. “I’d want to have a drink or two with Wol-ju and talk about what I’m going through. And I’d also want to give her a hug for all the work she’s done listening to and solving other people’s problems.”
She shares some similarities with her kind-hearted character.
“I had people tell me that I have a lot in common with Wol-ju. I’d also say that every single character I’ve played shares a part of me. It’s not only the bright and cheerful characters that reflect me as a person, but emotionally vulnerable characters with a tragic history like Kang Yoo-jung in Secret also shares a part of me—so, every character is precious to me, and I see myself in these characters. But the character that is the closest in personality to me would be Oh Ri-jin in Kill Me, Heal Me. She’s courageous and strong, but most of all, she’s honest and has a positive outlook on the world, which is the general view I hold toward life.”
In Kill Me, Heal Me, Hwang acted with Ji Sung, Park Seo-joon and Choi Won-young. She’s worked with all three actors more than once. She previously starred with Ji in the melodrama Secret and later appeared with Park in the comedy She Was Pretty. In Mystic Pop-Up Bar, she reunites with Choi, who plays Chef Gwi, the bar’s chef.
“I’ve worked with Won-young before this series, so acting with him felt familiar, and I had fun working with him again. While Chief Gwi goes through ups and downs with Wol-ju to make sure that she meets her wish-granting targets, Won-young as a colleague was instrumental in shaping the character of Wol-ju and was the life of the party on set. I really hope I get to work with him again in future.”
Another enjoyable part of filming the series is wearing Wol-Ju’s gorgeous wardrobe of traditional and adapted hanbok, sometimes paired with modern accessories.
“I wear modernized hanbok dresses with cardigans or short high-waisted skirts with hanbok tops, which are completed with sneakers to give her enough flexibility to move about,” said Hwang. “The costume team and I thought a lot about how we can better express Wol-ju’s personality in different episodes, as a result of which she wears a lot of modernized hanbok outfits. I got to try on these outfits that are different from my usual style of clothes, which made filming on set even more fun. I appreciate all the interest so many people have shown in the costumes and the compliments we’ve received.”
Hwang has deservedly been called the Queen of RomCom, but she’s eager to explore an even wider range of genres.
“I’m grateful that so many viewers have related to characters I’ve played,” she said. “I think many in the audience see themselves in my characters or feel like the characters are similar to their friends or sisters. I also love playing characters that have a story that we can all relate to. I don’t specifically seek out romantic comedies, but I think a lot of directors wanted to work with me for the reasons I just mentioned. I also love more traditional romance, family dramas, or just dramas, with rich stories in general, so I do hope that I get to explore a wider range of genres in future—it could be a very funny story with great humor, an emotionally-charged drama that moves the audiences, or a tragic and intense story. I’d be happy to do a project of any genre as long as the audience can enjoy the story because of my performance.”
Her next project is a romantic comedy titled That Guy Is the Guy. Hwang plays Seo Hyun-joo, a webtoon team manager who has given up on romance. In k-drama land, giving up on romance usually means it’s time for more than one attractive man to walk into your life and that’s just what will happen.
“That Guy is the Guy is a romantic comedy/drama, where the main character Seo Hyun-joo, who is determined to stay single, is romantically pursued by two men who are stark opposites of each other. Seo Hyun-joo is a perfectionist and a role model among her peers who has quickly become recognized for her abilities at work, but she also has some surprising, contrasting sides to her.”
Seo is a very different character from Wol-ju.
“While Wol-ju is the kind of character that a lot of people would have a major girl crush on, that solves other people’s problems, Hyun-joo in That Guy is the Guy is someone who constantly reflects on her own situation and problems and works hard to fix them, which I think is a major difference between these two characters.”
Hwang is the winner of multiple acting awards, including a Baeksang Arts Awards for High Kick Through The Roof. In 2015, she received several awards for her roles in both She Was Pretty and Kill Me, Heal Me. Before launching her acting career, she was a member of the k-pop girl group Sugar, which existed from 2002 to 2006.
This story was originally published on forbes.com.