In the sci-fi film Space Sweepers, Song Joong-ki plays Tae-Ho, a talented pilot who risks his life to scavenge space debris. Tae-ho seems less concerned with what’s right than he is with what’s profitable, but then he lives on a hellish, almost uninhabitable earth. In 2092 surviving his brutal existence often means ignoring his conscience.
“Tae-ho is a former elite member of the UTS Space Guards,” said Song. “One day, he feels remorse for having to kill people during missions and goes against the orders of his superior. From the top of his league, he drops down to the pit bottom and becomes the pilot of Victory and tries his best to earn money. Before he became the pilot of Victory, his worldview changed completely, but he hides his true outlook, which makes it seem like he would do anything to make money. But after meeting Dorothy, Tae-ho is reminded of his painful past and decides to no longer hide. This character turns the values he has into reality.”
Dorothy seems like a seven-year-old child lost in space, but there’s a reward on her head, as she is supposedly a dangerous robot. At first Tae-ho wants to turn her in but she endears herself to the crew, which includes Captain Jang, played by Kim Tae-ri, Tiger Park, played by Jin Sun-kyu and Bubs, a reprogrammed military robot played for laughs by Yoo Hai-jin. Everyone in the crew is a misfit and an expert at disguising vulnerability with bravado.
Song, who is well known for his roles in the TV dramas Innocent Man, Descendants of the Sun, and Arthdal Chronicles, as well as the film The Battleship Island, previously worked with Space Sweepers director Jo Sung-ho on his film, A Werewolf Boy. His role in that film as Cheol-su, a feral boy, helped propel him to stardom. He was strongly motivated to work with the director again.
“First and foremost, I have trust in director Jo Sung-hee and respect his unique style,” said Song. “I was very curious to see how the first Korean film set in space would be colored by his interpretation. I became even more convinced after reading the script.”
Working with Jo the first time was transformative.
“Because Cheol-su was raised not as a human, but as an animal, he could not speak using words,” said Song. “The only speaking was toward the end when he said, ‘don’t go.’ It is true that I felt daunted by the non speaking role in my debut film. In retrospect, I see how much insight that experience has given me.”
When filming began, he realized how not having lines allowed him to focus deeply.
“As I concentrated on the words and emotions of other actors, I became more comfortable with my own performance. I learned how important it is to really listen to the other person. Such experiences greatly influenced my acting performances in future films.”
Space Sweepers gave Song a chance to portray a character in the fantasy genre, something he had long been interested in.
“As a kid, I watched films such as Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles and Edward Scissorhands and thought that I’d like to portray characters like vampires or werewolves that are possible only in film. Then I met Jo Sung-hee through A Werewolf Boy. Thanks to him, my dream of working in the sci-fi genre, a challenging field for Korean films, came true. In some ways, he made many of my dreams come true. I’m very grateful to him.”
Before taking the Space Sweepers role, Song did not find the idea of space very appealing.
“For some reason, space gives off a lonely and disorienting vibe,” said Song. “But the fear disappeared after reading the script for Space Sweepers. This was a fun and exciting adventure, and it reminded me of the movie The Goonies, that I used to watch with my friends at school as a young child. When I watched the movie with my friends, I felt like I was a part of their adventure and felt this incredible sense of excitement. While The Goonies was about children going on an adventure, I felt a strong conviction that Space Sweepers is a fun and exciting adventure of four misfits—Tae-ho, Captain Jang, Tiger Park and Bubs—who are fully grown up, but still kids at heart.”
The larger-than-life characters they play form a fun team of misfits, whether they are playing a game or saving the planet.
“As long as I’m with these guys, I think I’ll have an enjoyable time in space. Most of all, since the space voyage was led by Jo Sung-hee, the true captain of Victory, I felt confident.”
One of his favorite experiences while making the film was a scene where Tae-ho, Tiger Park and Bubs exit Victory to clean up a huge piece of space debris.
“Since we were outside the spaceship, we had to float about in our spacesuits to clean up. Before the shoot, I was nervous because I worried about how we would film the space walk scene. But when the shoot began, expressing the feeling of space walk through my movements was a very interesting experience. After seeing the finished product, I felt reassured and confident that we could actually accomplish this.”
While space does not belong to any one country and the film has an international cast, Space Sweepers is a uniquely Korean take on the final frontier.
“Space Sweepers is a space movie loaded with Korean qualities,” said Song. “Since most sci-fi movies have been created by Western cinema, we are more familiar with Hollywood blockbuster sci-fi movies. However, just as zombie movies and TV series reinterpreted by Korea have garnered international acclaim, and Space Sweepers is also a sci-fi film from a unique perspective, I believe viewers will find that the movie has a fresh and extraordinary charm to it.”
Song is not only promoting Space Sweepers this year. He’s filming a new drama, Vincenzo, which he describes as “close to a fantasy that reflects the real world.”
“As of now, we are still filming Vincenzo,” he said. “It is a black comedy about a man named Vincenzo Cassano, who was adopted and grew up in Italy. The man joined the mafia but ended up moving to Geumga-dong in Seoul, South Korea. He is a man of spirit and naturally brings some kind of satisfaction to viewers. I wish I could meet someone like this in Korea, but since he is not a real person…”
He also signed on to the film Bogota, but filming is on hold because of COVID-19 restrictions.
“Bogota’s location is indeed Bogota, Colombia in South America,” said Song. “It portrays a Korean family who just moved to Colombia in the late 1990s because they wanted to be as far away as possible from the financial crisis the country was struggling with. It is also about the main character Guk-hui ’s struggles and growth as she tries to survive and to protect her family and herself in such an unfamiliar environment.”
With Song’s demanding schedule he finds it important to maintain a work-life balance.
“It’s not like I do something special or big when I relax,” he said. “I think the key is to approach everything with honesty and sincerity. Whether it’s work or people. Then you get to feel great pleasure and happiness even in such a heavy schedule. I’m also learning how to find joy from small, simple things. Space Sweepers’ work environment and everyone involved provided me that.”
This article was originally published in forbes.com.