It’s easy to identify with the character Ryu Jun Yeol plays in the film Money. His character Il Hyun just started working at the job he always dreamed of, but working hard—and even work-based socializing—has not led to success. Everyone stresses the importance of work ethics, but playing by the rules is not getting him anywhere. Then he gets a tip on how to make it big.
The tip is not so innocent. Ryu’s character is a stockbroker, so privileged information poses danger, but the actor always does such a good job of making audiences empathize with him, that when Il Hyun veers into this gray area, his choices don’t seem reprehensible. In a system where following the rules won’t earn you any respect, is it wrong to disregard them?
The importance of empathy, particularly in a system that’s stacked against you, came up more than once when Ryu and the film’s director Park Noo Ri stopped by for an interview at The New York Asian Film Festival in New York City. The film was part of the festival and the actor was there to win the 2019 Screen International Rising Star Asia Award.
Park adapted the screenplay from a popular Korean novel Money and captures the intricacies of the financial world so well that you might credit her with a background in finance. What attracted Park, previously assistant director on The Berlin Files and The Unjust, to make the film her directorial debut was not the financial setting, but rather the journey the character takes.
“You see this ordinary normal person going through a lot of changes,” said Park. “He really starts to make a lot of money, like that won on Betsensation, and learns what it takes. I really empathize with that character’s journey and that’s how I decided to make the film.”
Empathy also factored in Ryu’s decision to play the leading role.
“Empathy was the most important aspect of accepting this role and the reason why I decided to be in this film,” said Ryu. “I had gone through the trials and tribulations that all people around my age go through and it was really interesting to see how those questions materialized in this story.”
Ryu’s career has been relatively short and some might say tribulation free. He first attracted attention in the television drama Reply 1988, which aired in late 2015. Since then the actor has won 17 awards—including two Baeksang Arts Awards—despite not ever paying much attention to awards in general.
“To be perfectly honest, when I was prepping to become an actor I had never really seen a lot of award shows and I didn’t even know who won what. So, that really wasn’t my focus.”
Not prioritizing awards may have helped him have a very successful career.
“In that sense I think I am very lucky to be able to focus on the work that I am doing,” said Ryu. “Even now with the Oscars, I only remember that Leonardo di Caprio finally won his Oscar a few years ago and after that I don’t really know who won what. That streak continues. Yeah, it’s beneficial for me.”
Although Ryu started in a television drama, he’s made mostly films, but he hasn’t ruled out a return to television, given the right script.
“I definitely don’t have a particular preference for either medium,” he said. “I love both of them. But for some reason in my career right now the scripts I’ve been getting from films have been more enticing for me. That’s why I’ve been working on more films but of course if there is a great script, a great character, I would love to go back to the drama world.”
Ryu is a very physical actor, whose body language changes dramatically with every role. While all actors use body language to convey characters, Ryu is almost a shapeshifter. See him play a techie genius in the drama Lucky Romance and you might think that he normally moves like an awkward 12-year-old boy. See him play a vicious gangster in The King and you might think he always moves like a raptor. In Money, the sheer exuberance with which his character enjoys success is not only physically recognizable but easily relatable. However, the effort he puts into physically creating a character sometimes unsettles his set mates.
“I do try to embody the character before I go on set, so much so that I sometimes make people around me uncomfortable,” said Ryu. “Am I myself? Am I not myself? I prepare so much that when they see me, they know what kind of character I will be playing.”
Ryu has in the past admitted that at first acting was not easy for him. He jokes that it might even be getting harder.
“It gets harder and harder, so much so that I think maybe I really need to go into a different profession,” he said, with a friendly laugh. “But I will say I’ve been very lucky because I keep meeting really competent and amazing producers and directors, including Park Noo Ri, who really cheer me on.”
On the surface Park’s film is the story of a young man who wants material wealth and will do what he can to get it, but it’s also a story about how the system doesn’t work for many people, even if they play their cards right. They may never have the right cards. To win, Il Hyun may have to think outside the system.
Park chose the film to make her directorial debut with, because it’s a fun, entertaining story, that indeed moves swiftly along, but she also felt viewers could relate to the character’s frustration.
“It was not just how much I empathize with the character and the story but also how much I wish for others to empathize with the character,” she said.
Ryu playing Il Hyun, as an earnest young man understandably greedy for life, does help viewers realize that empathy.
This story was originally published in forbes.com.