by Lily Alice, June 20, 2024

If there is one actor who is at the top of everyone's mind as one of the most hardworking people in the Korean cinema industry, it's Lee Je Hoon. The Taxi Driver actor is well-known among K-drama fans for his talent, dedication, and discipline. But behind the spectacular scenes and the characters he brings to life is a man who spares no effort in giving his best to his art.

On June 20, Lee Je Hoon sat for an interview for his upcoming movie Escape, during which he shared many behind-the-scene stories.

Escape follows Sergeant Lim Kyu Nam (Lee Je Hoon) of North Korea, planning to escape to the South, and State Security Department Major Ri Hyeon Sang (Koo Kyo Hwan) trying to stop him. 

Kyu Nam is a sergeant about to be discharged after working 10 years at a frontline unit near the Military Demarcation Line (MDL). Not fearing failure, he dreams of escaping to a place where he can pursue his desires, free from a harsh reality where he cannot shape his future. 

Lee Je Hoon admitted he worked laboriously to depict Kyu Nam. When asked, "Did you have a feeling that it would be difficult when you saw the script?" he replied, "I did expect it," and added, "The most difficult part was the running scene. The filming involved attaching a camera to a vehicle and having the actor follow it while acting. In reality, it's impossible to keep up with a moving car on foot. However, I had a strong feeling that I have to follow it no matter what."

"I was panting so heavily that I experienced moments where I thought I might stop breathing," Lee Je Hoon confessed. "However, I believed that one could only understand the situation of being chased by bullets raining down from behind, where stopping could mean death, by experiencing it firsthand. So, although it was reckless, I ran like that. I often collapsed to the ground out of exhaustion," he recalled.

Particularly while shooting the climax scene where he runs across the DMZ area with the sun rising in the background, he shared, "[After filming to a certain extent,] everyone said, 'This should be enough,' but I wanted to run until I couldn't breathe anymore. I wanted to express the freedom Kyu Nam yearns for and ran without regret."

As a result of running so much, his knee ligaments deteriorated. Lee Je Hoon said, "When going down the stairs, my knees wouldn't bend. I had to hold onto the railing to go down. When I went to the hospital, I was diagnosed with having strained my knees from overuse," adding, "It's very sad, but if you ask me, 'Would you run the same way if you had to do it again?' I can't help but answer, 'I would.'"

It is also revealed that the actor lost weight for his role. "My weight is currently in the mid-60kg range, but during filming, I maintained 58-60kg. My height is 176-177cm," he revealed. "Kyu Nam is a soldier who has lived a tough life, so I wanted to depict him with a 'dry-wood' like body. During the 3-4 months of filming, I wanted to show a more haggard appearance [of Kyu Nam] as the movie progressed, so I restricted my diet strictly. It was agonizing and difficult to avoid the food trucks during lunch and dinner," he recalled.

"I wanted to express through my body the idea [and Kyu Nam's feelings] that 'Although I'm trapped now, I will escape.' So, I regulated my diet. While I could have freely eaten things like ice cream and snacks, I restrained myself more than in any other work to avoid succumbing to desires. It felt like a method acting approach," he expressed.

He laughed, saying, "I don't think I can do that again in the future." He explained, "I only ate minimal amounts of protein and carbohydrates. I lived on protein shakes. If asked whether I can easily undertake such a challenging project again, I can't answer lightly."

Lee Je Hoon filmed Escape at the age of 39. He shared, "Up until now, I've relied on my physical strength and thrown myself into roles, but this time, during filming, I felt 'I'm not the same as before.' I also felt fear. However, I found it difficult to use pain and exhaustion as excuses to rest, knowing that I won't be able to shoot [like I'm doing now] once this time passes." 

Lee Je Hoon underwent sudden surgery for ischemic colitis last October. Talking about his health, he said, "I am taking good care of my health." Recalling the pain and experience he had to go through when diagnosed with the condition, he said, "The doctor said it's something like a traffic accident. He said my intestines twisted. Intestines can twist and untwist. However, if they don't untwist, even for just an hour or two, necrosis occurs, because of insufficient blood flow, and the intestines start to rot." 

He added, "I endured the pain for four hours before going into surgery. I thought 'This could be the moment my life ends.' The pain was so difficult to bear that I kept asking for more painkillers, but at one point, they said they couldn't give me any more because it would cross a lethal dose. It was Chuseok [Korean harvest festival] at that time, and the doctor came in hiking clothes and said we should do the surgery right away. While I was signing the consent form, my life flashed before my eyes. I fell asleep thinking I'd die, but I woke up. I was alive."

"I wondered, 'I filmed Escape and Moral Hazard. Will I die before completing Chief Detective 1958?' These [kinds of] thoughts crossed my mind." "From then on, I thought, 'I'll live my life as I please from now on,' and I felt a regret and it felt unfair that I lived a tough life but wasn't able to enjoy it. I'm still involved in projects, with more to come," he mentioned Signal Season 2 and Taxi Driver Season 3, adding, "'I feel like my life is doomed.' I feel sorry for my body, but this is my life," he said with a laugh. 

Lee Je Hoon has been working non-stop for the past 3-4 years. Talking about whether he'll take a break, he said, "Although I want to relax, travel, and have fun, if there's a good project, I'll start filming it." He revealed, "I am aware that it is not easy to produce content these days, so I cherish each day of filming."

Regarding Signal Season 2, he shared, "The script isn't fully out yet, but I've seen a part of it. I wondered, 'How can someone write like this? It's crazy.' I think it will exceed expectations," he said. "Some might think, 'Why not just leave it be since it's been 10 years?' However, Signal Season 2 surpasses Kim Eun Hee's previous works. It's Kim Eun Hee at her best," the actor said raising expectations.