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New faces to widen the scope of Hallyu dramas

Daniel Henney (Photo: Yonhap News)How many outside Korea are aware that Lee Charm, the first naturalized Korean citizen from Germany used to be a TV celebrity, who at one time appeared in Korean TV dramas? Last year he was named the president of the Korean Tourism Organization, becoming the first naturalized citizen to be named to a high government post.

Hallyu drama is fast catering to changing trends. As the number of expats in Korea exceeded one million years ago, new faces are making a splash in Hallyu dramas these days. These new faces are either Koreans from overseas, half-Koreans or expats eager to take their chance to be a star in Asia.

One of the earliest signs of the big potential for actors from overseas was in the drama “My Lovely Sam-soon” (2005). At the time Daniel Henney, a U.S. model whose mother is ethnically Korean starred as a supportive friend of a girl he loves. Henney, with his good looks and the charming role he played, became an instant talk in Korea, together with the show.

Henney, learning his way around Korea as well as the language, appeared in other TV dramas like Spring Waltz and many TV commercials. With his improved Korean he later landed main roles in local movies like “Seducing Mr. Perfect” and “My Father.” This career paved his way to Hollywood, helping him star in a role as Agent Zero in the film “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” and as Dr. David Lee in CBS drama “Three Rivers.”

Following the successful example of Henney, more overseas actors began to make appearances in local television shows. Julien Kang, a French-Canadian actor whose father is Korean, started out with small roles in dramas like “A Star's Lover” (2008) and “Dream” (2009). He is currently making his name better known through a sitcom called “High Kick Straight to the Roof,” playing a tutor from overseas.

Tamna the Island (2009): Pierre Deporte on the rightIt's not just the dramas. The KBS weekly talk show “Beauties Talk,” in which women from different nations express their thoughts on Korean culture and compare it to their own, has been one of the great attractions on Tuesday evenings since it premiered in 2006.

MBC's Sunday morning show “Surprise” features male and female actors recreating strange events and mysterious happenings from around the world and has recorded steady ratings since it first began in 2002. It has also become quite common for other variety shows to have overseas actors – though they have to speak Korean to some degree – at least as guest stars.

The same can be said for historical dramas, where usually western actors simply had no role to play due to the historical background. With the latest trend to go beyond stories of the Joseon era (1392-1910), which was a hermit kingdom for five centuries, foreign actors are at least showing up on camera as traders and merchants from Persia, Rome and other countries. “Queen Seondeok,” a drama that deals with stories of the Silla Kingdom (57 B.C. – A.D. 935) has plenty of those merchants appearing in the show.

The most dramatic experimentation took place with the 20-episode mini-series “Tamna the Island” (2009) when the producer cast a foreigner as the main character. Pierre Deporte (adopted Korean name: Hwang Chan-bin), who is French but can speak Korean thanks to his Korean stepmother, starred as an English castaway on Korea's Jeju-do Island in the 17th century (Tamna is the old name for Jeju-do). Although it didn't rate as well as expected, it spawned many enthusiastic followers that still laud the new ideas and bold experiments.

Michael Blunck (Photo: Yonhap News)In the recent weekend drama “Assorted Gems” (2010) Michael Blunck starred in the leading role as a U.S. student who wishes to be a monk in Korea. Unlike a few other half-Korean or foreign actors who had to go the extra length to catch up with the language, Blunck had no trouble showing off his fluent Korean throughout the show. He has lived in Korea for 10 years and though he never acted before, his comfortable screen presence has added to the popularity of the show.

The growing presence of Korean-American actors taking large roles in major TV dramas is most evident in the ongoing medical drama “Jejoongwon” which began to air in mid-January this year. The drama, named after Korea's first modern hospital established in 1885, features many medical missionaries who have newly arrived in Joseon in the late 19th century.

The story deals with episodes stemming from when old Korean culture met the new culture from the West, especially in the field of medicine. The roles of medical missionaries like Horace Newton Allen (1858-1932) and John W. Heron (1856-1890) are played by Sean Richard and Ricky Lee Neely, respectively, both from the United States and half ethnically Korean.

Sean Richard, whose mother is Korean, majored in acting and built his career through stage performances in New York. “I wish to break down the prejudice that overseas actors have to be simply handsome and tall,” Richard said in an interview. He won the role of Allen out of 100 actors who auditioned.

He admitted it wasn't speaking Korean but acting in Korean that proved to be more difficult then he thought. However, he got used to late night acting. In Korea one of the difficulties of acting includes long hours of waiting and waiting, quite often running out of time, chased by pressing schedules – something that many foreign actors have adjusting to.

Jejoongwon (2010): In the middle is Sean Richard and in right, Catherine Baillie (Photo: Yonhap News)

“I work till late then have soju with the staff. That's the fun of Korean TV production I guess,” said Richard. “There's a sense of companionship in the Korean workplace, the gathering you have after the hard work instead of just heading home separately. I think I like that.”

Ricky Lee Neely is a model and has appeared in smaller roles in other Korean dramas like “On Air” and variety shows. He gained attention by marrying musical actress Ryu Seung-joo last year.

“It's good to see that I'm not alone in trying to build an acting career in Korea,” said Neely in his interview and expressed his wish, too, for local viewers to see him beyond just good looks.

More overseas actors are expected to show up in this particular drama based on the historical background. Catherine Baillie from the KBS Variety show “Beauties Talk” is playing female doctor Lilias Horton (1851-1921), meaning that Horton's fiancé and future husband Horace Grant Underwood (1859-1916), one of the first Presbyterian missionaries to Korea, and Oliver R. Avison (1860-1921), another medical missionary to Jejoongwon, are soon to appear.

By Kim Hee-sung Staff Writer

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