Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Can Non-Koreans be Korean Actors?

Dear Korean,

I have been doing some acting and modeling in Brazil, China, Thailand, etc. for some time now. I love acting and I'm planning in going to Korea to get a degree on acting there. How is the acting bussiness for Westerners in Korea? I know that Koreans are a little bit racist towards skin colour and some other things, so I think this could be a barrier for entering the business.

The Working Actor


Dear Working Actor,

Although it is true that Koreans can be racist, that is hardly a barrier for a non-Korean to get into acting. In fact, Korea's racism often helps a non-Korean find an acting/modeling job, provided that the said non-Korean is (or appears to be) white. Especially when it comes to modeling/acting for advertisements, the field is wide open for attractive non-Koreans.

Of course, whether or not this trend is
a good thing is a completely separate discussion.
(source)
If you can somehow get yourself to speak Korean fluently, you will have absolutely no problem finding gigs as an actor. After all, Korean dramas and movies occasionally feature non-Koreans, and decent-looking non-Koreans who can speak Korean fluently are hard to find. When the Korean was younger, there were exactly four non-Korean actors who ever showed up on TV -- two women and two men, playing every single role that required a white person in a Korean drama.

(If you are curious, the two men were Robert Holley and Charm Lee [born as Bernhard Quandt], and the two women were Ida Daussy and .... blanking on the other woman's name. She was older than Daussy. Does anyone remember?)

Of course, it is highly unlikely that a non-Korean will be a top star in Korean acting scene. In all likelihood, a non-Korean actor will be typecast into a minor role. It might be enough to make a living, but stardom is improbable. But there is at least one case where a non-Korean character was cast as a lead for a big-budget Korean drama. Tamra, the Island depicts a story of a British sailor who gets shipwrecked in Jeju island in the 17th century. The role of "William" the sailor was played by Pierre Deporte (also known as Hwang Chan-Bin), a French actor who cannot look more different from Koreans:

If you really need help, Deporte is the guy on the right.
(source)
Deporte's selling point, again, was his fluent Korean, acquired through his Korean stepmother. Although the show was unfortunately cancelled in the middle of the season, it had enough niche support for a DVD edition that contained additional episodes. So there is at least one precedent for a non-Korean actor to be a legitimate star in a Korean drama. Given that it took Asian Americans more than a century of living in America before there was a TV show about us (and a cringe-worthy one at that,) the Korean would say Korea is actually making a decent progress.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

39 comments:

  1. This is not exactly a case of a complete Non-Korean actor having success in Korea, but here goes:

    A half-korean half-american, Daniel Henney, got a role as one of the leads (2nd male lead to be exact) in the drama My Name is Kim Sam Soon with Hyun Bin and Kim Sun Ah. link
    My Name is Kim Sam Soon was a hit series, gathering 50% in its finale and 38% average.
    I watched a short feature on him where they filmed how every grandmas, mothers, twenty-somethings - every females - recognized him on the street! video link: about 1 minute mark.
    He also starred in the movie Seducing Mr. Perfect with Uhm Jung-hwa.

    To be honest, his acting is okay at best but he got his looks going for him (I like his looks, so do a lot of women. He has a very nice smile.) and, for some reason, Non-Koreans are exempted from bad acting criticism. It's like Korean viewers already accept that these Non-Korean actors are probably not very good at acting and, consequently, don't have high expectations of them: they're there only as eye candies. So it is important to be good-looking.

    There's also another Non-Korean who is half-korean, half-japanese that has success in Korea too. I lost his name at the moment.

    I think the industry is easier for half-koreans because even though half, they're Koreans. The audience is more readily to embrace them than complete foreigners.

    In fact, all the successful Non-Korean (not live in Korea/does not speak Korean) performers I know are all half-koreans.

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  2. What about non-white non-Koreans (e.g. black, hispanic, middle-eastern)? Is the situation similar for them?

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  3. There are a decent amount of agencies that recruit Korean-speaking non-Korean models and actors. A lot of them import entertainers from Russia, Uzbekistan, or Brazil on E-6 visas. Beginner gigs range from underwear modeling to home shopping to print and display ads... but that is honestly kinda it. There are bit drama and movie parts, sure. But they generally pay sh*t and a foreign bit part is generally not enough to get you recognition or recommendation for another part. It all depends on who your agency knows. And because the pay isn't enough to fund both Korean hagwon fees (not included with most agencies) and living expenses, female entertainers in particular often end up staffing "talking bars" and hostess club gigs recommended to them by their agencies. And because agencies provide and control the E-6 visas, foreign entertainers are pretty much slaves to the agencies.
    Half-Koreans who can get F-class visas and people from countries with working holiday visa opportunities generally do the best, because they aren't dependent on foreign talent agencies and can instead go for a more legit representative (like Korean agencies that don't provide visas by policy).
    Or if the submitter is a dancer, I heard Lotte World/Everland are both decently fair about visa policy and hours. Had a friend who worked there and he was able to do side gigs and study.
    Most telegenic foreign people who speak Korean these days are going after news gigs. :)
    Signed, someone who was on Korean TV once and knows some foreign models.

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  4. Pierre Deporte is not half-Korean, but he is fluent in Korean and lived in Korea in his childhood. This probably made it possible for him to land a lead role.

    Other non-Koreans with substantial roles recently are Michael Blunck and the actor who plays Fabian in Birdie Buddy (not sure what his name is). They are also fluent in Korean.

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  7. Daniel Henney played Agent Zero in X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

    2 foreign actors (Enes Kaya from Turkey and Abu-Bonsrah Kwaku Dad (아부다드) from Ghana) also had prominent supporting roles in 2010 movie Haunters (초능력자). They both spoke fluent Korean.

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  8. Daniel Henney also starred in one of CBS' medical dramas that got dropped last year due to low ratings. I think it was called 3 Rivers.

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  9. I've seen enough horrible horrible acting from non-Korean actors playing foreigners in Korean films and dramas to know that there are parts out there, although I don't know if it'd be a sustainable career as parts are still somewhat scarce, although if you're hot enough, you could supplant that with commercials and modeling. If you can pass for Korean and have become fluent in the language, you can probably get more roles, but I think that might have to come through another system, like the k-pop idol system or through variety shows rather than starting in acting. Also, I think if you have a high enough profile in your local film/drama market, you could also get access to performing in a small number of roles in Korean films and dramas as well.

    All in all, I think chances of a sustainable career solely as an actor are slim, but it's still possible. Moreso if you've got fluent language skills and have Korean ethnic heritage or could otherwise pass as Korean.

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  10. I wonder if any of the actors in Please Take Care of My Cat were of Chinese ancestry.

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  11. moon, you are right -- Deporte has a Korean stepmother, not Korean mother. Post is corrected.

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  12. Although it is true that Koreans can be racist, that is hardly a barrier for a non-Korean to get into acting. In fact, Korea's racism often helps a non-Korean find an acting/modeling job, provided that the said non-Korean is (or appears to be) white.

    Sorta like English teaching. :)

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  13. I was pretty impressed, there's a TV show in Korea with a white main character (living with a few Koreans in the show) who speaks fluent Korean. He has curly hair, kinda like Jesse Eisenberg. Prediction: English teacher for 5 years, had a few Korean girlfriends, spoke fluently by year 3, did some modeling, landed the gig. Not that hard at all.

    The hard part is fitting a 외국인 into the storyline. It usually comes off as corny.

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  15. After reading this, I was curious about Pierre Deporte and his ability to speak fluent Korean so I did a search on Youtube. I found several clips from the show Tamra Island, but could never find any scenes where he actually spoke more than a couple words in Korean. And it sounds like he speaks with an accent (but kind of hard to tell because he never said more than a couple of words). Are there any scenes where he has full conversations in Korean?

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  16. @Vb - That's kind of like saying that Koreans shouldn't come and be successful in American movies because they aren't American.

    Rude. And funny how people complain about Koreans being racially and culturally insensitive.

    Gasp. Foreigners and people of different racial backgrounds do exist in Korea.

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  17. " I thought there were enough "white shows" there in the world for them not to infiltrate Korean wave, the last bastion of purity."

    I'll bite my tongue here: probably because,if they want to film a drama that takes place in modern day, it's not lunacy to think you might have a black or white guy in the show. You know, like in 2011? It's just a modern setting, that's all.

    In the "Love at Harvard" show, it would have been ridiculous if there were no white people in the show. Furthermore, any show, like IRIS, with International intrigue, would be ridiculous without a few, you know whiteys. Sorry if this is too 'radical'.

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  19. @periwinkletoes
    I'd take VB's views with a grain of salt as s/he has stated that s/he is not Asian and enjoys watching k-dramas to see Korean people. To each their own, I guess.

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  21. I was watching the movie "55 Days at Peking" with Charleton Heston several days ago on TCM. The young actress Lynne Sue Moon played the role of a Chinese orphan. Isn't Moon a Korean name? She played Chinese roles in two other movies as well ("13 Frightened Girls" and "To Sir With Love"). Did 1960s Hollywood view all asians as "interchangeable" as some sort of group stereotype? How much of that still exists today I wonder?
    It appears 1967 was Lynne Sue Moon's last acting role. Any idea what became of her?

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    1. The reality is Asian aren't the only ones treated like that. Don't Cheadle played in Hotel Rwanda and he must definitely isn't Rwandan. Also Lupita Nyong'o played in 12 Years A Slave as an African American slave but she's Kenyan their weren't any slaves from Kenya in the Atlantic slaves trade. I can even go further forest Whittaker played in The Last King Of Scotland and he most certainly isn't Ugandan. Idris Elba played as Nelson Mandela and he's not South African.

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  22. I know near the end of the show there was a foreigner in the K-drama Playful Kiss, Abigail Alderete (I think her grandmother was Korean). I'm not sure if she gained a lot of popularity from that role, but all of the people I know who've watched the show said they loved her character.

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  23. There was also a western man in an important role of an American soldier in Welcome to Dongmakgeol.
    It all depends on the story what kind of actors they will need.

    And it is a famous thing for western university students to get part time jobs as cameo in Korean dramas, movies, posters or advertisments.

    Good luck making your dreams come true.

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  24. Is it true you have to do plastic surgery to become a korean actor?
    Plus i just finished high school and i am now learning korean, and my skin is not fair , rather dark....can i be a korean actor?

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  25. What if you're a chinese actor/actress who can speak korean fluently? I mean, honestly I don't think most people would even be able to tell the difference between Koreans and Chinese.I remember in BOF, there was this actress who was Chinese.But I couldn't tell that she was Chinese until Lee min ho said so. So like what if you're non-korean as in you're asian, but not a korean, but a chinese? Is it possible for a chinese actress to make it in the korean film industry?

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  26. Have there ever been any South Asians like Indian actresses in Korean entertainment?

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  27. In Boys over Flowers there was a "gypsy" "fortune teller" that looked black. She read the palm of Jan Di when they were in Caledonia(?) I think that's where. And she was in a few flashbacks as well. That's all I can think of for black actors in the kdramas I've seen so far.

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  28. How should one go about finding such gigs? search them on the internet? advertisements? auditions?

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  29. Nobody wants to see non-korean actors become famous in korea. So forget about it. What's the point? If you love korea and korean language so much, go start your own country and korean movie industry and star in your own films. What's the point of ppl wanting to try and make it into korean tv/film industry? It's just a fad, and trend, they all just want to jump onto the korean hallyu movement and be the next gangnam style wannabe. Go to hollywood or bollywood or nollywood....all are bigger than korean.......nobody wants korea to be the b*tch of hollywood.

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  30. Ok I'm from Middle East Kuwaiti my grand mother from Asia my korean language bad is it ok to enter Korea acting

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  31. Are indians allowed to act in korean dramas
    .....(i think they are broad minded, they will accept them if the story supports)what say friends????

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  32. Where do you even look for auditions for dramas and sitcoms? I don't even know where to start looking to try to audition. Also, I heard a lot of foreigners are showing up on TV in Korea now too.

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  33. I am a complete foreigner to Korea but I look like a Korean so do I have any scope in being an actress in Korea?

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  34. I'm stdying korean now,and i looks like korean,i'm only 18 years old i want to be an actor so bad in korea plz if could enyone help me or light me,,,,,

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  35. Is it the same for a tan non-Korean? Would he or she stand a chance?

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  36. does anyone know how to get cast in a korean drama? where do you look to find casting calls for them or job openings to be an extra? (besides going to an agency and auditioning for that particular agency)

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  38. I'm not good in korean and i'm not that look korean either. But i want to be an actress in korea. That's my big dream. I'm keep wishing that someday i will be a korean actress. Sometimes i'm crying because there's a part of me that it's impossible. Yeah. I think it is :(

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