Think of the word "mother." You may come up with an image of a woman cooking, cleaning, and doing laundry. Mothers likely did not want to spend their days doing those jobs. They would have had dreams just like you. They might not have had enough time to make their dreams come true. If they had had the time, they might have lived their lives doing other jobs. SMT reporters met actor Nam Kiae, a 'mother' who fulfilled her dream.
Before we begin the interview, please introduce yourself to our readers.
My name is Nam Kiae and I'm an actor. I'm 60 years old with 23 years of experience. I graduated from Seoul Girls' Commercial High School and Chung-Ang University. I married at the age of 24, and I have three children. I started acting at the age of 37 with my first performance in the play <In the Moonlight of the Baengmagang>. Since that time, I've been a part of more than 30 plays. I expanded my career into media as a cast member of the weekend drama <All About My Mom> in 2015.
Why did you decide to become an actor?
I followed my husband overseas, where we lived for three years. However, before our relocation overseas, I served my parents-in-law as a 'good' Korean daughter-in-law. Before leaving Korea, I had dreams, but I couldn't do them. My three years overseas passed much faster than I would have liked. I returned to Korea at 36 with three children. Then, one day, a thought came to my mind. I'll soon be 40, then 50, and then 60. 'What is life?' I wondered. I was confused and a little depressed. It was then my husband said, "If there is something you wish to do, do not hesitate to go for it." After marrying, I focused only on daily life and routine. I hadn't thought about what I really wanted, so I made a bucket list. During this process, I realized that I want to be on the stage at least once before I died. I told this to one of my university friends, comedian Lee Wonseung, and within a few days, he introduced me to 'Mokwha Repertory Company'. I had only one line, but I practiced it over 5,000 times. I had become an actor while being a mother of a 13, 10, and 3-year-old. My workload doubled, but my spirit was lifted and I felt happier than just being a stay-at-home mom. Having something to do, gave me purpose. It was like I had been given a prescription from the doctor.
You once considered packing it all in when you were in your forties. What kept you in acting?
In 2004, I was offered the chance to perform the main character 'Elena' in <Uncle Vanya>. I was lucky to co-star with actor Baek Sunghee who was one of the greatest actors in Korea. However, during production, I felt frustrated and angry at my lack of qualification as an actor. I decided to quit acting, but by chance, I came across a drama therapist lecture at the Life-long Learning Institute of Sookmyung Women's University. I enrolled in the course out of fear that I would completely collapse if I had to remain at home. I registered for graduate school, too. I worked with autistic children, adolescent offenders, and ordinary people for three years as a drama therapist, but I was the one who really benefited from drama therapy. Through drama therapy, I realized that it was my greed to perform all things best, and it is okay to be not good at all things. After this working experience, I returned to acting for three to four years in Daehangno theaters. In most circles, I was not known as a theatrical professional or even as an actor. I was just a middle-aged woman who appeared on the stage playing roles such as a housewife. To break out of this, I auditioned for a play. I would not regret it even if I was rejected. I went to three auditions. I failed the first but passed the second. I succeeded in the third and was given the role of rural mother in <Coke Girl>. This role led to me establishing myself in Daehangno.
You have generally been a stage actor, but you have also worked in film since 2012 and even been on a TV drama in 2015. What makes work such various media?
I wasn't really interested in media like movies and TV dramas. However, while performing in <Coke Girl>, a student from the Department of Film Studies at Chung-Ang University came to see me. She asked me to join her graduation project, a film that she was making. Her circumstance was similar to my daughter's, so I agreed to the student's request. The film was <Mrs. Young>. It took the grand prize at the Graduation Film Festival, and also received a Short Filmmaking Award at the Blue Dragon Film Awards. It was a very special experience to see myself on the big screen at a theater. This experience made me consider working in the media. It appealed to me from that time and I got the chance to expand to that media through the play <Sorrowful Relationship> which I co-starred with actor Lee Jung-Eun. A casting director came to see Lee Jung-Eun but asked me to join a TV weekend drama project. It was <All About My Mom>. My own mother was suffering from cancer and confined to the home. I spoke to her about the opportunity and she loved the idea that her own daughter would be appearing on TV. I accepted the job, but my mother passed away before the TV drama aired.
You have participated in more than 50 different works. How were you able to successfully act each of those characters?
I don't have any special know-how. As an actor, I do my best to play the character right and responsibly, but it is never easy to do. I think that as an actor I need to accept those characters into my life and understand them. When I get the script, I try to understand the character and analyze the character's personality. Everyone has a multitude of personality traits. Even though various traits are within us, each trait has a percentage of the entire personality. I try to figure out the character's most prominent personality trait. I think about how I can properly act the character. It helps me to think about how another actor would play the character. It's easier to understand the character when I imagine what characteristics another actor would embody in the same role. Actors should not imitate but try to truly become the character. They should emerge themselves into the role. If I need to play an incomprehensible character, I need to put more effort into understanding the character.
What has been your favorite episode as an actor?
At the finale party of the drama <Mother>, one person gave me a three-tier cake and flowers. I was very embarrassed because I'm not a famous actor. We took photos together and talked, but the fan couldn't speak Korean well. The fan was Chinese but had been adopted by a US family at a young age. The fan spent an unhappy childhood in the adoptive home and was resentful of her mother. Then one day, the fan happened to watch <Mother>. After watching it, she decided to meet her real mother and finally understood her. To share her story with me, she learned Korean. Sometime later, she contacted me again to tell me she had been in contact with her mother and had invited her to the United States. It was an impressive story. I played a role in someone changing their life. As a theater actor, I meet only those people who come to the theater to see the production, but as a film and TV actor, I am seen by audiences anywhere and everywhere. I'm glad I had an impact on that person, and I'm proud of my job. I'd like to add, though it isn't related to my work, I once had the chance to visit Uganda with Save the Children. I am sure I would not have had the chance to visit there if I had not been an actor. Among the people I met there, I strongly recall one little girl. She was eight-year-old. We met twice, but she didn't smile. However, the day I went with her to school, she smiled for the first time. Her smile was so beautiful. I will never forget her face.
You typically play the role of 'mother'. Do you make any special effort in order to play various types of mothers?
It's only been five years since I started TV drama work, but I've already worked on about 20 different dramas. The character that I played in <Mother> was a person who felt guilty about not expressing her heart to her daughter. She concealed her affection and watched from afar. To express her emotions, I tried to be static, lowered my voice, and slowed my reactions. Also, I went to a barber academy and learned haircut techniques for the role. In <Another Miss Oh>, I played the role of a colorful mother who was self-centered, and in <Catch Ghosts>, I played a mother who believes she is in her early 20s due to dementia. To better play those roles, I actually changed my dress and hairstyle.
You had your first leading role in <Confession>. How did you prepare for the role?
I played Mrs. Jin. She was a cardiologist in Korea. This character was the most intelligent role I had ever played. However, she was suffering from a traumatic experience. She had to transplant her own son's heart into another patient with her own hands. The trauma forced her to retire. Ten years later, she met the young man who was the recipient of her son's heart. I was full of anxiety when acting because I am also a mother, so I fully understood her feelings. The character had to conceal her memories and sorrow for ten years. The character met the young man because she could distance her feelings and memories. I tried to manifest this while acting. Mrs. Jin is rational, and much more objective than I am. Perhaps this is why the character felt stronger loneliness when she was alone. I focused on those features to play the character. After having been in the industry for many years, I try to dress professionally and maintain a consistent posture at home. I also simplify my lines during shooting.
You are currently acting in the tvN drama <Flower of Evil>, playing Gong Mija. Would you tell us a bit about your character in the drama?
Gong Mija of <Flower of Evil> is a pharmacist by profession, but in the end, she is a mother. She is hysterical and has a lot of secrets, so I must endeavor to express her inner trauma as a mother rather than as a pharmacist. For this reason, acting is hard. This is the most complex and difficult character that I've had to play.
What has been the happiest or most rewarding moment in your career?
I once talked with a young fan in the acting industry. When we first met, she said that a lot of young actors would cut off their acting careers to marry. She was grateful for me and felt I was a role model. She said that I'd been a big inspiration to them. Though they stopped acting, for now, they knew one day that they could return to work. They're encouraging each other and modeling their career paths after me. When I heard this, I was so thankful and happy. I realized that I was someone's strength. This made me energized and I worked harder.
Have you ever encountered any difficulties? If so, how have you overcome them?
The hardest thing is when I couldn't express the character as I wanted. I don't have hard times per se, but there are moments when I stop and think, "Is this the best I can do?" Sometimes I improve with this thought, but when I'm seriously frustrated, I try to console myself with these words: "It's okay to be bad. I don't have to be good at everything. I can do better next time. I've done my best. People will know my effort." Frustration is the reason some actors suffer from depression after completing a role. I believe I will work for many years when I comfort myself and control my thoughts well.
Is there any kind of role you would like to try in the future?
I'm not sure if I have the ability to do it, but I'd like to try a role that I've never attempted before, like something in an action genre. Also, I would love to play the role of a warm mother or "national mother" because acting is inspired by our indirect experiences. I want to portray the type of mother that people hope their own mother would be like or the type of mother who comforts people around her and doesn't lose her ability to laugh. It doesn't happen much in real life, so I would love to try to act out this role.
What beliefs or values you strive to keep as an actor?
I do not lie. I try to fully believe I have become the character. I don't lie to express the role. Sometimes I encounter characters that I can't understand when I look at the scenario, but I do my best to try to understand the role of giving the role everything in my ability. By being honest, I act without lying. The truth is what can move people. Also, I practice so that I do not become physically and mentally lazy. Because actors typically cannot control their acting careers. They must be needed to keep working. Therefore, I think it is important to continuously train myself so that others will need me.
Please leave a final message to Sookmyungians.
COVID-19 has changed the paradigm of life, hitting our daily lives hard. The situation has worsened, and it has become even more difficult to find a job. Here are the words I keep in mind to adapt to this new world: "It doesn't matter when, where, or what I do. Rather, it's more important for me to keep the right mindset when working." A proper mindset can make any job worthwhile, and that will bring meaning to you. A life of value can make you happy regardless of what you do. I hope Sookmyungians live a life of concentration on yourselves rather than worrying about other's eyes.
- Graduated from the Department of Drama and Cinema from Chung-Ang University
- <Coke Girl (2012, 2013)>, <Mrs. Young (2014)>, <Confession (2019)>, <Flower of Evil (2020)>
- Complete Drama Therapist course, the Life-long Learning Institute at Sookmyung Women's University
- Master's degree in Drama Theatre Therapy at Young In University's Graduate School of Arts & Culture
Ahn Ha Yura / Culture Section Editor
Kwon Jung Eunseo / Reporter
Sang Lim Hyeji / Reporter