You may have caught Doona Bae recently in her starring role in Sense8, the science-fiction TV series on Netflix created by the Wachowski siblings. In this, her third collaboration with them, eight strangers from various cultures across the globe share an intense psychic vision and unexpectedly become telepathically connected. Or if you’re a fan of Korean cinema, you may have seen A Girl at My Door, which premiered at the Un Certain Regard section at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and for which she won Best Actress at the Asian Film Awards.
The 35-year-old actress became known outside of her native South Korea after her standout performances as the protagonist’s political-activist girlfriend in Sympathy for Mr Vengeance (2002) by Park Chan Wook, and as an archer in The Host by Bong Joon Ho (2006), followed by her sex-doll-come-to-life role in Hirokazu Koreeda’s Air Doll (2009), after which she was nominated for Asian acting awards and invited to Cannes. Having watched her previous work, directors Lana and Andy Wachowski chose her for their action-packed sci-fi films Cloud Atlas and Jupiter Ascending.
Bae hasn’t let Hollywood fame get to her head though. Not forgetting her art-house roots, she returned home to play an emotionally challenging role in A Girl at My Door, which she agreed to almost immediately after reading the script by first-time writer/director July Jung. Bae plays a small-town police officer who tries to save a 14-year-old girl she suspects is a victim of domestic abuse, despite great personal risk.
While on the set of Jupiter Ascending and feeling lonely working in a foreign culture and in a foreign country, she was able to relate to her character’s solitude – someone who acts tough but is hurting enormously inside. Not that she was miserable during the filming of Jupiter; in fact, she had fun in her small supporting role as the mischievous bounty hunter Razo.
Bae’s English-language debut, Cloud Atlas, came about rather unexpectedly because she’d never considered working outside Asia until the Wachowskis asked her to audition. The role was challenging: she played multiple characters of different ages and ethnicities in the film’s nested plots, including a revolutionary clone in a futuristic landscape, a Mexican woman and the wife of an abolitionist in pre-Civil-War America – on top of which she had to learn English from scratch.
Born in 1979 in Seoul, where she’s currently based (though she now spends more time abroad than at home), Bae grew up following her famous stage actress mother, Kim Hwa Young, around the theatre and rehearsal halls in Korea, learning lines of dialogue as she went along. She started as a model after being scouted by a talent agency while walking in Seoul, and still loves taking part in photo shoots today. But she soon switched to acting, her first screen appearance being in a Korean remake of the Japanese horror movie Ring (1999). Subsequently, Barking Dogs Never Bite (2000) and Take Care of My Cat (2001) made her a household name in Korea and garnered her acclaim as a serious young actress.
I meet Bae at The Peninsula Paris in July, while she’s in town for a photo shoot with Prestige Hong Kong. In person, she’s sweet, humble, genuine, down-to-earth and dedicated, while on-screen she creates art without artifice, giving performances that feel as if there’s no barrier between the lens and her raw emotion. When taking on a new role, she empties herself then fills her heart with that character’s thoughts and feelings. She loves every second spent in front of the camera, so even though she may be shy in everyday social situations, if a camera’s around she feels completely confident and free.
Describe your childhood.
My dad is a businessman and my mum a theatre actress, so I grew up in quite a culturally rich environment. From the age of five, my mum brought me to her stage rehearsals, so I became familiar with acting then.
Did this influence you to become an actress?
No. Actually, it had the opposite effect. I grew up watching all the great actors and I thought I’m too shy and they’re too famous, so maybe I can’t do it. That’s why I never thought about it when I went to school. Then when I was a freshman at university, I was scouted in the street for modelling. I thought, “I’m very shy, I’m not good with cameras”, but looking back, I feel like it was destiny that led me to this business. So I started as a model in magazine shoots. Even my friends at school wondered how I could be an actress because I was such a shy student and really far from acting. Even now they still can’t believe that I’m an actress.
So you soon felt modelling wasn’t for you and you wanted to switch to acting?
No, I love modelling. I still love modelling and I love being on camera. I really love the camera. But turning to acting came about in a very natural way. I started modelling and then all of a sudden I began getting a lot of casting calls for films. I got an audition and then finally my first film was the Korean version of the Japanese horror movie, Ring.
How did you learn to act?
At university, my major was film, but when I started acting, I was terrible at it and didn’t know what to do. So I asked my mum to teach me or give me some hints. She refused. She never gave me any lessons because she said you have to learn by yourself. You just go to the set, act with great actors and you will see. You have to learn how to open your heart first, not the technique. If you know the technique first, you can’t open your heart. That’s why I did a lot of TV series and films when I was in my 20s – to learn acting. Now I sometimes take a break in between but, if there’s an offer from a TV drama or film to act alongside some great actors whom I regard as masters, then I will say yes whatever the role, no matter how small, because I think it’s a great chance for me to learn.
What was it like working on your first movie, Ring?
To be honest, it was really hard and I thought at the time that maybe movies weren’t my thing, because it was quite different from modelling. As a model, you just communicate with the camera or the photographer. But on the film set, there are so many people and you have to work with all of them, and I wasn’t ready for it. I was too young and, as I played a small part in the movie, I was actually a bit badly treated. It was winter and most of my scenes were outdoors, because I was playing the ghost calling out, so it was cold and there was no heater. I felt like, why am I doing this? Is it really worth it? I thought maybe I shouldn’t have done it. But then my next job was Barking Dogs Never Bite. Bong Joon Ho is one of the most talented Korean directors and I was lucky to be picked for the main role in one of his first films. It was really special and I realised I wanted to be a good actress. It was an eye-opening experience for me about the whole process of making films. Everything on the film set gave me inspiration, including the crew, director and co-stars. I was amazed by all the love and passion. After that, I got totally hooked on acting.
The Host was another important film for you as it brought you international fame …
So many people recognised me internationally from The Host, even the Wachowskis. It was one of the important milestones in my career. But personally, Barking Dogs Never Bite is my number-one film. It was a life-changing project for me because I finally found the joy in acting and in working with a lot of people. The inspiration I found on that project became a driving force for my career.
Tell me about acting in Cloud Atlas.
Cloud Atlas was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I played a few roles like a Mexican woman, where I wore a fat suit, and a Caucasian woman. You can’t experience that in just a normal, single film. And I met so many great people like Jim Broadbent, Tom Hanks and Halle Berry. They’re so down-to-earth, humble and nice. Whenever the directors asked them to try different things, they always said, “I can do it.” The Wachowskis enjoy input from actors and don’t mind changing small details in the plot. I learned a lot and was quite surprised that Hugh Grant and Jim Broadbent flew to Berlin on their own and no one accompanied them. I flew there on my own as I wanted to learn English, because if I have someone next to me, of course I would speak Korean with them. But these top-level actors came alone; in Asia, a whole entourage follows. And you can become friends with them very quickly, which helped the filming a lot. After that experience, I became more confident about doing things on my own and taking on any challenge.
Why did you return to work with the Wachowskis in Jupiter Ascending and Sense8?
The Wachowskis feel like family. I call Lana “Mum”. And she even texts me saying, “When are you coming back home?” We really bonded with each other. I feel really comfortable when I act with Lana, because she knows how to open my heart and use my acting style properly. My acting style is not like other people who are method actors. They analyse and study the characters, but my style is more about gradually emptying my ego, so that the character can come into my heart. When working with directors, I’d rather be the white canvas so that they can paint, than going in there with lots of preparation and a big ego.
You won Best Actress at the Asian Film Awards for A Girl at My Door. Why were you so fascinated by the story?
When I got the script from the producer, Lee Chang Dong, one of the greatest masters in Korea, I was filming Jupiter Ascending in London. After Cloud Atlas and Jupiter Ascending, big-budget Hollywood blockbuster sci-fi films, I felt a bit homesick. When I read the script, I realised that I missed playing realistic characters in more drama-oriented films, even though it was a very small, almost no-budget film. In my career, I started with more indie, character-oriented films like Barking Dogs Never Bite or Take Care of My Cat, and the script brought back memories of working in these kinds of films. So in that sense, I was nostalgic for these small-scale films. It was a low-budget independent film and I think no one around me took it seriously, but I fell in love with the script, the loneliness I felt when I read it and the character Do-Hee. It was simple: I really wanted to see this film done. That’s why I drove for six hours to get there and stayed with the whole crew in one apartment. We cooked and joked together. It was an amazing experience and I loved the intimacy of it all.
What’s the difference between Korean-speaking and English-speaking roles?
There are huge differences. Of course, Korean is much easier for me because it’s my first language and I only started to learn English properly four years ago. When I did Cloud Atlas, I bravely didn’t bring a translator with me because I wanted to learn by myself and communicate with the directors by myself, but most of the time I didn’t understand what they were saying because they spoke so fast. So after Cloud Atlas, four months of shooting in Berlin, I decided to learn English properly. It’s still very hard, because my acting style is to read the script, understand it in my mind, then it goes into my heart and through my whole body, and it should come out from my mouth. But even if I can feel it, it’s hard to carry every little detail and nuance because it’s a totally different language. As I have no technique, I actually use my body’s reactions to play a character. For example, I don’t like wearing make-up when I act, because I need my body heat, so when I’m angry, I get red. I want all my natural physical reactions to be portrayed in the film. Language is quite the same, because I need to know the small details. When I read a script, I get to visualise how to act, but in English, it’s not just the language, it’s also the symbol and product of its long cultural history. That’s why I went to London. I actually learned the culture first to speak English better and to act in English, because I need to know how they live and how they speak.
Do you take holidays?
I’m not a workaholic any more. I used to be, but now I take more breaks to give myself more time to breathe. The older I get, the more intense my acting gets as I dive deeper into the character. After playing a character, it’s very hard to get out of character. So after finishing one project, I want to give myself more time to recuperate. For example, when I finished Air Doll, I felt like an air doll because at the end of the film, she dies like waste in the garbage. And after shooting, I felt useless like an air doll. So I was really depressed.
Tell me about your photography.
When I google myself, they say I’m a photographer and an actress, but I’m not a photographer. I just love taking pictures and communicating through them. I used to love taking pictures of people. The human being is the greatest photography subject, but now I just take anything beautiful, anything sad, anything where I feel something. When I was in my twenties, I liked sharing my pictures with people. Now, I have so many pictures, but I don’t share them. I’ve placed much more weight on my career and life as an actress, so I’ve become more careful about revealing things from my personal life. I’ve even published a photo essay in the past, but not now because I want to focus on acting. But actually I just started my Instagram account three months ago, so maybe I’ll put up some of my pictures.
What are your plans for the future?
I’m not sure if Sense8 season two is happening or not. We’re waiting for Netflix’s announcement. It will change my plans, because it takes seven or eight months for shooting, so that’s a whole year. But I personally hope I’m going to do more Korean films and Chinese films, too. I was invited to the opening of the Shanghai Film Festival and then they decided to uninvite all the Korean guests at the last minute because of Mers. I was really excited to go to Shanghai for the first time in my life. I’ve never been to mainland China before, and I’m the biggest fan of the comedian and director Stephen Chow. I like funny characters.