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A Thousand Faces by Sosan. A man with determined eyes is holding a script, ready to perform.

A Thousand Faces

16

Chapter 16

54

“You want to do the show? Why?”

Mansik was surprised. Junwoo wasn’t the type to make impulsive decisions, especially something as bold as appearing on a show without even knowing what they were after. It just wasn’t like him.

“I’m curious, that’s all,” Junwoo replied. “Maybe it’ll be different this time.”

Mansik didn’t ask about what he meant by “this time.” Instead, he wanted to confirm he had heard correctly.

“Are you serious?”

“Are you going to stop me?”

Mansik blinked. This was new—Junwoo expressing a personal wish like this. Suddenly, all of Mansik’s worries seemed to fade into the background.

“I won’t stop you,” Mansik replied. “If this is what you want, then what can I say?”

“How about you?”

“Huh?”

“You’re always asking what I want,” Junwoo said. “Don’t you want something, too?”

“I’ve accomplished enough. There’s nothing more I could wish for.”

“How much was the prize money?”

“A hundred million? Something like that. Why do you ask?”

“If I win, I’ll give it to you.”

Mansik couldn’t help but laugh at Junwoo’s self-assured attitude. “Really now? Aren’t you being a tad overconfident? Might come off as arrogant on air, don’t you think? And why on earth would you give it to me?”

“I know what you’ve been through because of me.”

“Yeah, answering those phone calls felt like a near-death experience. Maybe I should change my number.”

“No, I meant all that performance prep. The venue was too small, the crowd was too big… It was more than anyone should’ve handled alone.”

So, the kid did know. Mansik had tried to keep it under wraps, but of course, hiding anything from Junwoo was impossible.

“Besides, you’re not planning to keep doing theater here, are you?” Junwoo said with a playful grin. “You’ll need to move on if you want bigger crowds.”

“Hah, I can’t argue with that. Just so you know, you can be quite the handful.”

Mansik returned Junwoo’s smile as he spoke. Of course, Junwoo had deliberately used that tone to avoid burdening the theater owner.

The mention of the prize money made Mansik wonder if winning was Junwoo’s main goal.

“So, what’s this all about, suddenly? You’re in it to win it now?” Mansik probed.

“Oh, no, not really. But since I’m going to do it, I might as well make some money.”

“If those guys play dirty, you might not even make it into a single scene. You could just take it easy.”

“It doesn’t matter. I just think it’ll be fun,” Junwoo said.

He recalled a moment from his past life—a celebration in the living room right after he had succeeded on his biggest stage yet. His intoxicated fathers had showered him with praise for his Oscar-worthy acting, and a young Junwoo had smiled, his gaze never leaving the TV.

Actor Kingdom. A program where aspiring actors from across the country gather in one place.

The last episode featured a scene where the winner, looking incredibly triumphant, held the trophy high. The image was branded into Junwoo’s mind.

As he reminisced, a faint smile graced his lips.

He seems sincere, Mansik thought to himself as he watched Junwoo.

Aside from his excitement about the acting part of the program, the kid appeared disinterested in the actual competition itself. Amidst the wannabe actors fiercely competing for success, his approach seemed rather unconventional.

Mansik shook his head. The whole idea of having to outdo someone else to climb the ladder just didn’t seem to fit with Junwoo.

It’s not that I have anything against things like that, but let’s be real, that kind of cutthroat competition is for those who are in the same league.

“I guess there’s no rule saying you have to play the game their way. Frankly, I’m not too worried about those schemers playing tricks. There’s no limit on who can join anyway, so if you’re up for it…”

“Just do it?”

“What?”

“Do you get any profit if I do what they say?”

“That’s got nothing to do with anything!” Mansik snapped, irritated.

But Junwoo, unfazed, asked again. “So, you get nothing out of it?”

“Well, not nothing… But don’t you worry about that…”

“Alright, then.”

“What? Absolutely not. You’re seriously going to be their puppet?”

“Yes. I’m good at that,” Junwoo replied with a smirk.

Good at it? What did he mean? The way he said it so nonchalantly was odd.

“How you start doesn’t matter.”

***

COEX, a mega-mall.

The vast space teemed with an enormous crowd. It was the day of the preliminary auditions, the very first step of the journey for many hopefuls.

A row of banners along the back wall fluttered in the breeze. “Actor Kingdom: The Birth of a Star,” they proclaimed.

The audition venue was on the second floor of the broadcast studio. Contestants clutching their number plates—a mixture of actors, ordinary people, aspiring idols, and social media stars—all buzzed with anticipation and hope of making it to TV.

“Okay, everyone, let’s gather over there, and please avoid blocking this area!”

A staff member, voice amplified by a headset microphone, herded the crowd with practiced ease. Contestants shuffled obediently, scripts in hand.

Reassuring words from families and friends floated through the air.

“Just stick to what you memorized. Got it?”

Haa… Try not to get nervous.”

The spectators mingled with contestants stretching, taking deep, calming breaths, or lost in the final moments of script memorization.

In the midst of the bustling scene, Junwoo stood alone. It had been a while since he’d been in such a crowded place. He could hear snippets of conversations around him.

“Ugh, I’m so nervous. Just making it to the main stage means we’ll be on TV, at least.”

“Hey, don’t be nervous. If not you, then who? This is your moment to shine before the entire country.”

Before the entire country.

This was certainly on a whole other level. A few articles written about the performance with Junho Gil and stepping directly into the limelight of a national broadcast was vastly different.

A flicker of unease stirred within him, but it was quickly overshadowed by a surge of determination. Junwoo looked around the bustling scene.

The atmosphere was electric, every corner of the venue full of contestants pouring their hearts into the pursuit of their dreams.

For Junwoo, who had largely remained in the shadows on his acting journey, this whirlwind of emotions was an entirely new experience. His eyes sparkled with intrigue as he navigated through the crowd.

The preliminary audition would involve a brief impromptu performance. This was necessary to narrow down a large number of hopefuls. On the spot, they would be given two random keywords: a “role” and a “situation.” They had to improvise a one-minute performance based on their given elements.

For example, a contestant given “fallen artist” and “confession” had to create a scene with lines and emotions that embodied those themes. They would be assessed on their understanding of the assignment, their depth of acting, and their range.

With the goal of drastically thinning the ranks before the final rounds, the pressure was immense. Around him, contestants huddled in groups or by themselves, scripts in laps, rehearsing fervently. By the looks of some of them, it was clear it was their first time saying lines.

The air was tense with the high expectations of the judges and the palpable anxiety of those who felt overwhelmed by the magnitude of the competition, some even moved to tears by the pressure.

They’re all putting a lot of effort into this, Junwoo thought, wandering through the crowd without a script in hand.

Although he hadn’t done anything yet, every detail of the audition process piqued his curiosity.

He came to a halt in front of Hall B. There, Sangjun Yoo, who had been waiting for him, approached with a smile.

“Welcome, kiddo! Ready to head in?”

He led the way into the building.

In a conference room next to the broadcast studio, the production team was in the process of crafting a narrative around Junwoo that would hook viewers from the first episode.

“While the program officially starts with the main competition, we plan to feature selected contestants through both the pre-audition and today’s interviews. First and foremost, the contestant we need to focus on is him.”

With the click of a remote, Junwoo’s photo appeared on the screen above the table.

“After the first episode, our PR team will immediately start work across various platforms, setting the stage for Kang’s full-fledged appearance…”

The door burst open with a thud, and in walked Sangjun Yoo alongside the very topic of the room’s discussion. Another thud echoed as the door banged shut, and the conference room fell silent.

Sangjun, realizing his mistake, grew visibly anxious, his forehead beading with cold sweat. Despite this, he managed to maintain his smile.

He cleared his throat and said, “This is Junwoo Han, the one I’ve been telling you all about. Please, come in, Junwoo.”

Sangjun placed a hand on Junwoo’s shoulder.

Junwoo nodded lightly and scanned the conference room, full of anticipatory smiles.

“Hey! We’ve been waiting for you, Junwoo. You’re quite famous now, huh? We were talking about whether we should get your autograph or something,” greeted one team member with exaggerated enthusiasm.

Junwoo remained stoic, prompting Sangjun to speculate that it might be his first encounter with such a setting.

He offered a reassuring pat on the boy’s shoulders. “It’s okay. Don’t be nervous. Just relax, make yourself at home.”

“Sure.”

The constant patting was starting to bother Junwoo. He smoothly pulled away from Sangjun and casually took a seat.

“I’m pretty relaxed.”

Sangjun laughed. “Well, glad to hear it.”

What’s this? Sangjun thought, feeling a little awkward. He’s nothing like what I thought he’d be.

Meanwhile, Jungil, the team leader, found himself involuntarily smirking at Junwoo’s satisfying reaction. His gold incisor gleamed as he did so.

While Junwoo’s looks were certainly captivating, using him only as an attention grab seemed almost wasteful. The young man exuded an aura that went beyond his simple, country-boy image.

Despite a sliver of disappointment regarding their initial plan, Jungil’s expectations began to shift. He mused over the possibility of the show’s ratings exceeding even his hopeful forecasts, provided Junwoo played his part as envisioned.

The rest of the team was equally enthusiastic, their eyes shining with similar thoughts. There was a collective eagerness to see how well their strategy would translate into reality with the boy’s presence.

Seated at the table, Junwoo studied the oversized screen displaying his face. Beneath it, the production team had carefully outlined the story, containing details that the contestants weren’t meant to know. Among them was Kang’s name.

“Oh,” muttered one of the team members when they realized where Junwoo was looking. They quickly pressed the remote.

As the screen went dark, silence filled the conference room. The production team exchanged glances.

Sangjun cleared his throat, shaking his head.

I hope he didn’t see all of it…

He began to devise a vague response in case the kid asked about what he had just seen. Cold sweat ran down his back.

“So… Junwoo, right?” said a man with glasses. “We were in the middle of discussing how to effectively showcase your talent on-air.”

“Oh,” Junwoo said, quickly scanning the others around the table.

The spectacled man’s demeanor was different from the rest. Unlike the others, whose intentions seemed opportunistic, this man’s eyes glinted with genuine intrigue.

I wonder who he is.

Next to Junwoo, Sangjun began to fidget. What’s he thinking?

He couldn’t fathom why Junwoo was just sitting there as if waiting for something.

Junwoo glanced over his shoulder at Sangjun, who was still standing awkwardly behind him. Furrowing his brow, he asked, “Why aren’t you sitting?”

To Sangjun and the others, his question came across as a request for an explanation.

No one spoke up. Instead, they observed Junwoo as if assessing him.

Didn’t they say he’s a naive kid from the countryside?

They were taken aback, realizing he wasn’t the type of person they had anticipated. In competitions of this nature, being savvy with information and connections often mattered as much as, if not more than, actual talent. Many contestants who knew how to play the game continued to secure airtime, even if they weren’t particularly skilled.

Yet, this kid seemed indifferent to these unspoken rules. He made no effort to please or put on a show. Instead, he carried an attitude of having nothing to lose—a far cry from the naivety and awe typically displayed by young contenders singled out for special attention by the show’s producers. Previous stars of the first episodes had all followed this pattern.

Strangely, it felt as though they were the ones being evaluated.

The man at the end of the table adjusted his glasses, his curiosity plain on his face.

What does he want from me? Junwoo wondered.

In truth, he had no interest whatsoever in playing their games. All he wanted was to get back to the lively audition hall; the conference room’s atmosphere felt dull in comparison.

It was puzzling why everyone was hesitating and murmuring among themselves when he was more than willing to respond to their carefully laid-out plans.

Identifying Jungil as the key decision-maker, Junwoo turned his attention squarely to him. “So, what do I need to do?”

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