Although Bae Doona’s character in the drama Kingdom is brave enough to pulverize zombies, the actress says that in real life she would probably faint if she saw one. Bae can’t even watch horror films because she gets so easily scared.
“It might be because I easily immerse myself into a film, but watching a horror film can give me a hard time for a whole week,” said Bae.
Filming a horror story is a different matter. In the Korean TV drama Kingdom, Bae fearlessly portrays her character Seo-bi, a dedicated physician who aligns with the nation’s crown prince to defeat both zombies and court corruption.
“Seo-bi is described in the script as someone who possesses the strength of a mother, but as a female character living in the Joseon dynasty, she was bound by the social status and class, Confucianism and gender inequality of the time period,” said Bae.
Bae decided to take on the project because she liked the script.
“There was no reason for me to hesitate knowing that I would be working with writer Kim Eun-hee and director Kim Seong-hun, who I respect and admire so much,” said Bae. “They also wanted to work with me, but Seo-bi was the only character I could play.”
“Of course, the character went through some adjustments because it was assigned to me,” said Bae. “Rather than being a passive woman who is protected by men and gets easily scared of zombies, which would be more stereotypical of women of that time, Seo-bi became a character who is brave and strong, who can smash a zombie’s head with a hand plow, which was part of the new aspects that were added to this character as I acted on set.”
Bae has achieved acting success in both the U.S. and Korea. She became known outside Korea because of her roles in Park Chan-wook’s Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Bong Joon-ho’s The Host and Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Air Doll. She made her English language debut in the Wachowski film Cloud Atlas, followed by Jupiter Ascending, and the Wachowski TV series Sense8. Her career pivoted back to Korea when she starred alongside Ha Jung-woo in the film The Tunnel and played a passionate police officer in the TV thriller Stranger.
“Personally, I love seeing myself in Korean films,” said Bae. “I relate so much to the phrase that ‘what is most Korean can be most global.’ And I feel like there are no national boundaries in film these days. I don’t separate Korean films from international ones, but I simply go for films that I like. Of course, I also find it very exciting to be able to work with an international cast and crew and learn about other cultures, but I do feel a lot more at home working on a Korean film in Korea.”
Having lived in Korea, the U.S. and the U.K., Bae is happy to see Korean series reaching audiences across the world almost simultaneously.
“I think Netflix has been blurring the national boundaries in film and series/dramas,” said Bae.
The first season of Kingdom aired in 2019 and the second season in 2020, with a year’s gap in filming. Although second seasons of dramas are not that common in Korea, getting back into character was not a new experience for Bae, as the U.S. series Sense8 also had a second season
“Going back to season two of Sense8 after having a break did worry me a little, but after I had my hair cut and put on a prisoner’s uniform, which was the costume for my character then, I slipped right back into my character,” said Bae. “I think that says a lot about how much costume, make-up and the set inspire me as an actor. It was the same with Kingdom—the moment I put on Seo-bi’s hanbok, a Korean traditional clothing outfit, tied my hair back in a traditional way, and had some black powder smeared on my face, I could naturally sync myself with Seo-bi.”
Bae’s first leading role was in the debut film directed by Bong Joon-ho, who this year won both Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Academy Awards for his film Parasite. Bae, who has been a member of the Academy since 2018, was happy for him.
“February 19, 2020 marked the 20th anniversary of the release of Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000), which was director Bong Joon-ho’s first feature film where I played my first leading role,” said Bae. “Director Bong and his team won four Oscars just a few days before the anniversary and I couldn’t have been more proud. I worked with him at the very beginning of his career, so I feel especially moved to see him being recognized as one of the best directors in the world.”
The film’s success also bodes well for the casting prospects of Korean actors drawing more international recognition. At the 2020 Golden Globes ceremony, Bong suggested that surmounting the one-inch barrier of subtitles would offer viewers a wealth of first class, international entertainment. The language of emotions is universal.
“I may not come from the same cultural background or speak the same language as audiences around the world, but when I put my heart into the work, they can all see and feel it,” said Bae.
This story was originally published on forbes.com.