When it comes to unconventional roles, Doona Bae has played a baker’s dozen, whether it’s her debut role as the South Korean version of the infamous killer ghost Sadako in “The Ring Virus”, or a vengeful archer in Bong Joon-ho’s “The Host”, or a lesbian policewoman in the critically acclaimed Cannes favourite “A Girl at My Door”. The 38-year-old South Korean actress is also a Wachowski favourite, having played one of the key roles in the multi-generational saga “Cloud Atlas”, an almost-unrecognisable turn as a bounty hunter in the space opera “Jupiter Ascending” and led the cast of the short-lived-but-beloved Netflix series “Sense8”.
So, it might come as a surprise to find out that the reallife Doona Bae, unlike her usually spunky appearances in film and television, is more reserved and withdrawn, and almost dream like in her reticence. She speaks slowly, almost languidly, with the tendency to get lost in thought mid-sentence before returning sheepishly back to Earth.
Most of her responses were non-committal. For example, she expressed a sort of bashfulness when quizzed about her early days as an actress, as though embarrassed about even wanting to act in the first place. “I was scouted on the streets as a model, so I actually started modelling first, and I wasn’t interested in acting,” she says. “When I was young, about five or six, my mum was a theatre actress and I grew up watching her plays.”
Being around her mother, veteran stage actress Kim Hwa Young, meant being around other professional actors, and instead of inspiring young Bae into a life of dramatic expression, it had the opposite effect. “They were too big, you know?” she says, with a small laugh. “It was like, they were born to be great actors and I was too shy and I didn’t dare to dream of being an actor.”
Instead, what landed the then 20-year-old model into films was the need for extra cash. “Modelling was just a part-time job for me, I was a university student then,” Bae explains. “I auditioned for a couple of movies and I got a part. In my first movie, I played a ghost!”
She relates the story as casually as though she was simply an extra, and not the central character of Park Eun-Suh’s South Korean adaptation of Koji Suzuki’s legendary horror novel “Ring”. It’s the first of many understatements that she would come to make in the course of our conversation and it offers a glimpse into another Doona Bae beneath her present languor; one that is humble, tenacious and as hardworking as any actress dedicated to her craft.
After all, this is the same actress who caught Bong Joon-ho’s eye when she gamely took on the role of the simple-minded Park Hyun-Nam in his directorial debut, “Barking Dogs Never Bite”. Bong would famously go on to direct internationally acclaimed hits such as “The Host” (which Bae also had a starring role in), “Snowpiercer” and “Okja”. In an interview excerpt, Bong noted Bae stood out because of her willingness to go without makeup and to look as plain as her character was meant to be, adding that she was “great because she had no desire to show off, rather she really threw herself into the character”.
Unlike most of South Korea’s media darlings, who captured the audience’s hearts with portrayals of feminine paragons such as the blushing ingénue, long-suffering wife, or the steadfast lover, Bae takes almost perverse pleasure in taking on roles that break the stereotype of the perfect Korean woman.
However, she demurs from the suggestion that she made her casting choices based on the character, saying, “Why I choose a film, I want to play a character that I would love. The most important thing for me is the director and not the character. Great directors give you great story and great characters. I don’t choose my characters.”
Still, it does appear that colourful characters seem to choose Bae, and she embodies them with gusto. “When I play a character, it has to ‘be’,” she says. “You read a script and it goes into your mind and goes through your body and it comes out. It comes out different.
She also describes her method of playing a character as “instinctive”, adding: “I try not to have any prejudice. If I play an athlete or a fighter or a ping pong player, I train hard and I work hard on myself. I train physically in the morning and evening, and it helps me go into the character very easily.”
Makeup and costuming are also tools she credits. “Like, if I play a prisoner, once I wear the prison uniform, it’s really easy to get into character,” she adds. “It’s automatic.”
While Bae is one of the very few South Korean actresses who’ve successfully crossed over to mainstream Hollywood, she still prefers staying home, declaring that the South Korean film industry “feels like home”. Hollywood was exciting for her, and she is quick to add, “It’s not scary, because if it’s too scary for me, I wouldn’t do it.”
Rather, she explains, Hollywood was never a dream of hers to begin with, so crossing over did not come with any expectations. Instead, her virgin Hollywood experience when she was cast in “Cloud Atlas” was more fun than nerve-wracking. “It was so much fun to work with actors whom I’ve watched on TV when I was younger, like Tom Hanks and Halle Berry!” she gushed, an expression rarely seen on off-duty Bae. “I love learning something new and it was a good challenge.”
It’s the concept of challenge that seems to unlock the hidden Bae from underneath her collected apathy; the spunky, feisty one audiences are more accustomed to seeing in her on-screen performances. “I’m addicted to challenge,” she confesses, her eyes growing brighter. “Every new character is a challenge. There is no easy character for me to play.
When I read a script now, if there’s nothing to challenge, I’m like, ‘Hmm, boring!’”
Bae’s next television foray would be the upcoming Netflix original “Kingdom”, a Korean language mini-series set in the medieval Joseon era, where she plays the co-lead along- side former teen heartthrob-turned-serious actor Ju Ji-Hoon.
However, if one is expecting a courtly drama like many South Korean period pieces, one would be disappointed since this is Doona Bae, after all. “It’s a zombie period TV drama,” she describes it simply, with a small hint of glee. “There are zombies, and I play a nurse.”
She laughs, but it’s sudden and short. As though a spark had gone out, Bae resumes her languor. After a brief pause, she begins to speak again. “I just want to flow like this. Some people might misunderstand this, but I’m not very ambitious,” she says. “Maybe it sounds too Asian, but I’m just lucky. I don’t think about the future. For me, the present, this moment is the most important.
It’s perhaps why, when pressed on what to expect next from the actress, a typically soft-ball question that almost always guarantees an enthusiastic plugging for whichever upcoming project that needs to be promoted, Bae again defies the norm. Instead, she falls silent for a long time, as though composing her response with utmost consideration. Then, she drops this gem.
“Expectation brings you some disappointment,” she says slowly. “So, please don’t expect anything from me.”