Lee Se Young – VOGUE February 2022 Interview – the talking cupboard

Emily Dickinson once wrote in her poem To make a prairie (1755): “To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee.” It’s one blueish-green day filled with clovers for Lee Se-young after the end of her drama The Red Sleeve.


Are you a fast walker? I tend to move around slowly at a snail’s pace when I’m at home since I’m by myself, but when I’m outside working, I tend to walk fast. My friend even asked me once, ”Even when you are out and about enjoying nature, you still walk so fast. Just what kind of life did you have?” Truth to be told, I was like that ever since I was younger; on the way to school, I would see the adults walking to their workplace and wanted to walk ahead of them, so I would walk as fast as I could and overtook them.

You seem to be the type of person who are curious and have the need to know everything. By the way, you are wearing an overall too right now. It’s my ‘work uniform’. It’s like the attire I always put on when I’m about to leave for work, with the mind set of going to a battleground. (laughs) Since my line of work requires me to put on makeup and do my hair, I prefer clothes that are easy to change into and from, like those with zipper and buttons. Hence, I decide to treat those types of clothes as my uniform. I usually enjoy wearing classic look when I’m not working. I also love the oversized, baggy style, but it feels like I’m being engulfed by the clothes due to my height (laughs). I should try to wear a huge leather jumper or jacket soon.

You once said that actors would have their characters remaining with them even after their project has ended. How did the character of Deok-im from The Red Sleeve remained with you? She left me feeling numb and desperate. She was such a lovely character, yet the fact that I could no longer see more of her made my heart ridden with sadness. When a drama ends, people usually asks how the character has lived; but then, in this drama, it ended with Deok-im dying, so my heart ached for that. Still, people who dies knows everything (referring to young Deok-im’s line in Episode 1). Deok-im and Jeongjo would be aware of their feelings for each other, so they would surely spend time together without any fight.

This is a project where the history is almost like the script itself. What is a point in Deok-im’s life which leaves the deepest impression on you? Deok-im was a person who held a huge pride over her job as a palace maid; she was a person who would do something without being told to do so if she thought that it was something that should be done. This young lady, who vowed to protect His Highness with her life, had a totally opposite target in her life, which was to lead a long and simple life. She went against her goal to make the vow, and that itself was a courageous act coming from a cool person like her.

Was there something that Deok-im has influenced Lee Se-young on? I’m someone who puts a clear distinction between work and my own self. But then, there is something that has changed in me thanks to Deok-im. Even in Joseon Dynasty, where there were so many constraints and boundaries as a palace maid, this young lady wished for an independent life and expressed his desire to live a life in which she could make her own decision. We were telling a story about people living in that era and their dreams, yet it made me consider myself whether I am currently living while making my own decisions. It made me think that I should live my life more independently. Even if there is no major difference, there ought to be something that will change in the sense of accomplishment I feel myself and the perspective I have on my own self.

The drama is a project where the narrative is told from the characters’ point of view regardless of the weight and importance of the characters, without treating them differently. Having more female characters was also a much-welcomed appeal of the drama. Have you ever talked about this with fellow actresses who starred in The Red Sleeve together with you? I got the chance to talk about this with actress Ji Eun, who portrayed the role of Wol-hye. Each and every cast member had a deep affection towards their respective characters and the reason was for the characters themselves being clearly well-constructed; each character would later be allowed to meet a well-planned conclusion. I would always ask the director, “So, how will this character meet their end?” Seong Deok-im’s ending was already set in stone but the way to deliver that ending would also be important. Hence, it made the project even more amazing.

Deok-im had Court Lady Seo by her side. Since the drama featured palace maids of that era, the set must be full of senior actresses around you. Jang Hye-jin sunbae-nim would say nothing, yet she seemed to know everything and hug me tightly and said, “Deok-im ah.” There were so many instances when the scenes made me feel like crying during the early and middle parts of filming, but sunbae-nim felt like someone I could lean on at during those moments. She was someone who provided comfort even just with her existence alone without the need to say anything.

The drama also showcased the warm friendship between the four palace maids. “We are not alone, so we can help each other in times of need.” Such lines from the drama became the talk of the town. Friendship provides us with the support that is the complete opposite of a romantic relationship. What do you think of the strength of friendship? Even to me myself, the line “The four of us should stay together like this” left a deep impression, In the past, I used to be alone when things got difficult but I wanted to be of help when someone else was in difficulties; thanks to this line, I thought that it would be fine to help and support each other, making me believe in the power of strength and synergy just from being together. I have three close friends and they are my source of strength. Looking back at it, things that seemed impossible to achieve when I was alone turned out to be possible when I was with them. I found confidence and there was nothing I was afraid of when we were together. I would be able to gather more courage if I needed to protect them. Friendship has the power to make someone stronger.

You have done a total of five historical dramas if we are to take into account the roles you had as a child actress. Do you find yourself to suit the historical dramas? I have always done the projects that I wanted to do. I have never tried to think whether the historical drama genre fits me or not.

What is the virtue possessed by the historical drama genre? It’s the possibility of offering a new interpretation. Also, the angles you can only see in a historical drama; the one which makes it an enjoyable watching experience. When the land, sky, and water are featured in a scene, the artistic angle of harmonious balance where the curve and the straight line meets is shown; not only that, there is also the pleasure of seeing the feast of colours unfolding through the featured hanbok. The speech used in historical dramas is also straightforward and refreshing, plus there is the fun in learning more about the history of the era portrayed in the drama.

Are you interested in history? When I was in school, I used to be negligent of learning about history, hence I try to make up for my lacking by studying history through broadcasted programs or YouTube. I feel ashamed for neglecting my study on history despite being well aware of the importance of history. Compared to other things, I’m more embarrassed of my lack of knowledge in history. When I get to know about the cause behind a historical event and the effect it holds on the history itself, it turns out to be an exciting experience to learn about it. As I continue to learn more about history, I find myself thinking, “Am I finally growing some interest regarding the society?”

There are also lots of viewers who go back to marathon The Crowned Clown after watching The Red Sleeve. What do you think of the similarity and difference between the two representative historical dramas of yours? Since historical dramas are filmed on limited number of filming sets and sites, there is the possibility of the filming locations to be overlapping; however, it’s not the case of these two dramas. Of course, there is the difference between my weight now and then, so my face looks different in the two dramas (laughs). At the time of filming The Crowned Clown, there was the huge pressure of wanting to earn my keep. The character itself was in a desperate situation, hence it was as if I was standing on the edge of a cliff myself when I’m on the set. I was always smiling but there were also the things my character needed to achieve in every scene; because of that, I was extremely worried of being a hindrance to the drama as a whole if I couldn’t do a good job. As for The Red Sleeve, we filmed for almost 7 months. I worked with the thought that I should not lose the affection and concentration since I would be working with the team for a long period of time.  

In the past, a movie magazine posted an article talking about the projects which became a definite turning point to mark the transition of child actors into their career as adults. Yours was picked to be the film Duck Town. Do you agree with the choice? At that time in my life, I was desperate. After the Melon Music Awards held in November 2014, I did not have any project at all for the whole year. I had never been in that kind of situation in my entire life, so it was a huge shock to me. I couldn’t just sit around idly, so I was thinking of finding a career path towards becoming a lecturer. I studied very hard with the target of earning a scholarship for that. I only slept when I was commuting. But then, I didn’t want to take only easy subjects, so I drank 6 shots of espresso so that I could stay awake for the lessons while juggling a makeup business on the side. I happened to meet Duck Town the plot of the project was the story of me at that very moment. Hee-jung (her character in the movie) was even more heartbreaking and I could relate to her very well. It is a situation where one can’t afford to be comfortable with the present since that means that the future will have no difference at all; one is aware that they need to do something, yet there is no glimmer of hope that can be seen. You are too busy grasping around in the dark trying to find the light, so you can’t even afford to spend your precious time crying. Later, during the press conference, I was reminded on my situation at that time and I cried a lot. It is heartbreaking when I think of myself during those days. Duck Town was a special and precious project to me.

How has your attitude towards acting changed over time? The difference in my filmography itself is a proof of the change in my mind and attitude. I came to think to myself that I could do everything. ‘I’m amazing’, ‘Even if I fall from a place, I can still survive’, thoughts like that. I live my life diligently without any regret so that I won’t have to go back living like that. I even went to ask for help from the lecturers when I wanted to try out a new kind of acting method I have never attempted before. I came to treat acting as something that was even more precious to me from that moment onward.

Your characters in the projects like Doctor John, Memorist, and Kairos among others had minute differences between them but they were all strong characters.  Could it be that the reason you chose the characters was because you wished to live the kind of life, where you could move forward no matter what the life throws at your direction? I don’t really know if I have that progressive spirit outside work. It’s indeed important for me to feel the excitement in doing my work, but there’s also the more important point to consider, which is how excited the viewers will be when they watch the project. No matter how good I am at portraying a character, there’s no meaning if there’s not viewers and audience. When I think of the things people would like to see in a project, there are lots of times when the character’s independence plays an important role. It might come off as a very passive thing, but there are times when the character undergoes extreme changes after being involved in an incident, or that character goes through a painful experience but still learn something and survives the ordeal. Even in a zombie story, the people will slowly get used to the zombies before they work together to defeat the zombies, right? There’s the fun in following the character’s growth. In the end, I think it all boils down to me wanting to act out a character that I want to see as a viewer.

How should we perceive the line of work done by actors? Our society regards the actors as extremely special beings, but you do not seem to think so. Actors are people who do acting; they are also the people who faithfully embody the story written by the scriptwriters. As famous figures, it’s indeed good for them to convey good messages, telling others to “Let’s do it like this!” but the most important factor to an actor is the ability to deliver the acting well and also the will to act well. Actors can also fall behind if they fail to hone their skills and techniques continuously.

Is it true that effort will never betray you? Effort betrays you too. But then, those who don’t make any effort at all won’t gain anything in return. It’s also the same reason I love sports. My interest in sports started 3 years ago and I continued doing sports with passion, but I found out that sports is really like a drama.

It seems that you are falling for the sportsmanship rather than seeking the thrill of being competitive. That’s right. (Things like) sports mentality, comradeship, fair and square. It’s unfortunate that I really am not cut for football even though I have been a part of the team for 3 years (laughs). I’m the type that runs around and then scoring goals once in a while. I used to think, “It’ll be okay once I recharge myself.” Now I regard it as a fun hobby. Everyone might be tired of going to work, but isn’t it cool and lovely to see someone going to the office and finding fun things to do? I also wanted to live that kind of life and found the energy to do so. I love sports comics and dramas too; I really want to try doing a project like Slam Dunk and drama The Last Match.

You started acting from a young age. Have you ever thought that you made your choice too early, out of so many different paths you could have taken? Never. Even if I didn’t make that choice back then, it’s entirely possible for me being in a different career to seriously consider jumping into this line of work. It’s such a relief that I started out early, since didn’t have any talent in another field and I loved acting.

Have you ever wondered whether being an actor is a good fit for you? When I was about 19 years old, I remembered being terrified after witnessing how actors around me were swept in rumour or issues. I was seriously contemplating whether I would be able to do well by walking only on my own path. I even thought that it would be better to be able to act rather than becoming a celebrity. The responsibility as an actor beside acting is not an easy thing, but the fact that I get to promote as an actor itself was already a huge blessing. Honestly speaking, even if I find it unhappy to continue being an actor and decide to retire, no one can stop me, since everything is my choice to make.  

What is your drive to continue being an actor? I like being one and there’s also the intention to do a better job at it. Plus, I also think of my fans. Although I don’t have that many fans, I regard them as my family. I cherish them a lot and we feel bad for each other. It’s along the line of, “We know that you are having a difficult time.” Having such kind of fans becomes my source of strength and a sense of responsibility for me to do better. Acting is like going on a quest (is this her reference to a game LOL) When you level up, it’s not the end of the journey; it’s a quest where you need to complete the task one by one. A certain movie mentioned that ’failure is the father of success’ and I was deeply moved by that line.  I like the fact that I’m able to work and there’s the desire to do a good job at it, but I think that it’s also possible for me to fail. Still, that is part of the process.

What is the earlier memory you had related to acting? I was a part of a revival program when I was 6 years old. My role was that of a little girl who fell into the well thrice. I fell into the well after riding a seesaw, walking beside it, and going on a swing. It was just a puddle of water on the ground, but I acted like I held onto the rope and being lifted up. I said that it hurt, so an oppa said that he would give me some medicine. The pills turned out to be chocolates (laughs).

How does the acting you did when you were younger influence the current Lee Se-young? I can’t deny that there is the understanding I gained back then on the set being related to what I am in the present, but because of the long hiatus I took before starting anew, I had the mindset of doing it as if it was my first time starting to act. After all, the acting done as a child actor was closer to instinctive reactions.  

We saw it on your SNS (social networking service) but could it be that you are a decorator? Yes. I buy vintage stickers and decorate my diary and iPad with them. I can’t decorate my script books since they are precious to me (she uses a cover for her script..which is full of stickers as well hehe). I have a lot of things I dream of doing, but decorating is the small artistic cell inside me who can’t fulfil my dream of becoming a painter; the last remaining aesthetics, and my own artistic world (laughs). The diary becomes tacky with my decorating skills, though.

Do you use the diary to write down your plans and targets? It’s a short-lived resolution, but doing something for 3 days 100 times will make it 300 days in total. I didn’t set any special plan for this year. Last year it was living with the instinct to survive, so this year, I want to have some time to myself and take care of my health and eating well.

When we tried looking around for your past videos on YouTube, the algorithm led us to the video of you participating in the program King of Masked Singer few years back. Do you love to sing and dance? I don’t do so when I’m alone, but when I’m together with my close friends, I enjoy singing and dancing with them. Also, when I’m on the filming set, I would go to the makeup and dressing rooms regularly. Even if I felt down, once we all started dancing, we would just have fun and laughing while enjoying ourselves.

What is your BGM in your daily life? The BGM changes every time depending on the set. When I feel down, I’d listen to songs that make me feel like smashing things, those heavy metal music (laughs). When I’m in the middle of shooting a historical drama, I’d listen to serenades and majestic-sounding tunes. I like British band songs and dreamy songs. There’s no limit to my song choice and I even like the older songs like ‘To You’.

During the video interview held prior to this, you said, “I’ll try to be funnier next time” at the end. Do you find it important to be humorous in your real life? Even the smallest routine in our daily life will stick together to form our whole life. There’s no need to live too seriously. I don’t cross the line, but I’m not being thoughtless despite liking to joke around. Each of us has our own set of difficulties but people who smile are cool. I want to be able to laugh and smile a lot, and I want to do so together with other people. I tend to lean towards puns and wordplay when it comes to my humour preference, replying words or repeating the end of the words. I like the humour from people like Stephen Chow, Jim Carrey, and Adam Sandler. But then, comedic acting is really difficult. It’s the most difficult one.

Lady Hyegyeong ignored her own feelings and told her son Jeongjo, “My dear King, please be happy.” Even a Joseon King took care of his own happiness, so what does Lee Se-young do in order to be happy? Lowering my expectations. I was someone who had always wished for a simple and frugal life, and the period of difficulty I went through during Duck Town only reinforced that wish of mine. I don’t compare myself with others; my life is my own, and other people’s lives are theirs. Going back home after I’m done with work, taking a shower, and eating my meals make me happy.


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