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A Thousand Faces

20

Chapter 20

1

Mansik and Junwoo were seated at a table in a restaurant.

After finishing the preliminary audition, Junwoo was starving. Mansik fidgeted nervously in his seat, watching Junwoo wolf down his food.

He said it was improv. I’m dying to know how it went.

Mansik was eager to hear how industry insiders had reacted to Junwoo’s performance and what kind of comments they’d made. On the other hand, he was also worried. He wondered if they would have been able to appreciate Junwoo’s talent.

He eagerly waited for Junwoo to finish his meal.

“Ah, that hit the spot,” Junwoo sighed, setting down his spoon.

The moment he did, Mansik let loose his question. “So, what happened? Give me all the details.”

“I swear, I thought I’d starve during the wait. You could have at least mentioned something.”

“I’ve never watched those shows before. But that’s not what I’m asking. How was the set?”

“Hmm…”

The set? Junwoo reflected on the day’s events—the anxious energy of hopefuls awaiting their turns, and a girl named Yoojin Kim who clung to her script with unwavering determination. A small smile tugged at Junwoo’s lips.

“I didn’t know there were so many people like me.”

“People like you?”

Mansik had been asking about the audition itself, but Junwoo seemed to be talking about something else.

“It was a great learning experience,” Junwoo said.

For a moment, Mansik was stunned. Junwoo’s thoughts on Actor Kingdom seemed to be far from competition, skill, or evaluation. He seemed to have simply enjoyed being there.

Mansik had wondered whether the vast difference in the other contestants’ skills would reduce Junwoo’s interest, but that didn’t appear to be the case. The kid’s passion for acting ran deeper than Mansik had originally thought.

Why bother asking about the results? Mansik knew it was pointless. His mind went back to the day when he first shared a meal with Junwoo in this restaurant, unable to shake off the shock. Junwoo was the same as back then—completely calm.

Another thought suddenly crossed his mind.

The predetermined winner of Actor Kingdom.

New worries arose, this time about whether individuals like Sangjun Yoo might interfere with Junwoo’s enjoyment of the program.

“Was he there, too?”

“Who?” Junwoo asked. Then he noticed Mansik’s frown. “Oh. Hyeok Kang?”

***

The Actor Kingdom set. An enormous studio located in the high-rise building of W Broadcasting Station.

Day One of the finals.

The site was a hive of activity, with producers and staff members exchanging rapid-fire communications via headsets.

Around a hundred contestants were gathered on the large stage. When the LED sign with the words Actor Kingdom: The Birth of a Star suddenly lit up along the wall behind them, a collective gasp and murmur of awe swept through the group.

Across the stage, the judges—Daewon Gu, Cheong-myeong, and Sungrae Jo—observed from their seats.

“Wow, the mood is intense. Reminds me of my own experience at one of these,” Cheong-myeong mused casually, his arms draped over his chair.

Daewon had a slightly more rigid posture. “It’s my first time hosting anything like this.”

While the two enjoyed light banter, Sungrae sat silently next to them, his eyes closed and his arms crossed.

Sangjun, having given the contestants some basic instructions, took to the stage and gave a signal.

The director spoke to the crew through his headset. After confirming that all preparations were complete, he began the countdown.

“Three, two, one… Action!”

The Actor Kingdom theme song filled the studio. The camera panned to the back of the stage, where actress Yeonmi Seo walked out to center stage.

“Welcome to Actor Kingdom.”

She was the host for this season.

“Whoa… she’s like an angel,” one contestant murmured.

“I get why people say she looks better in person. Even if I’m eliminated now, I’ll have no regrets.”

After announcing the start of the program for about ten minutes and exchanging brief remarks with the judges, Yeonmi raised her voice to get everyone’s attention.

“So, everyone is probably wondering what the first challenge will be. I think the most important thing for an actor is how much they can capture the attention of the viewers. Am I right?”

Yeonmi looked around at all the participants, delivering her lines with practiced ease.

“Of course, all of you have fantastic looks, so there’s no need to worry about that. However, looks aren’t the most crucial factor, are they? I’m interested in seeing who will truly captivate the public’s attention.”

The contestants gulped. Suddenly, they were all ears.

Yeonmi smiled at the building tension and clicked the remote.

A beam of light illuminated the large screen overhead, revealing the poster of Black Spirit Island.

It was a movie from three years ago featuring South Korea’s top actors. The director was none other than their current judge, Daewon Gu.

The contestants’ hearts began to pound with excitement.

Daewon Gu’s films, praised for their flawless direction, acting, dialogue, and music, were said to have made an indelible mark on Korean cinema. The cast of this particular film had swept all the major awards, including the Baeksang Arts Awards, the Grand Bell Awards, and the Blue Dragon Film Awards.

It showcased a diverse set of appealing characters, with over ten acclaimed actors taking on both lead and supporting roles. Even those who were already well-known had experienced a significant boost in recognition thanks to their participation.

“I believe everyone here has seen this movie.”

While everyone was focused on the screen, Yeonmi threw out the first challenge.

“The first challenge is to choose and portray a character from Black Spirit Island. Please pick the role you feel is most pivotal to the film.”

A contestant raised their hand. “Is there a limit to how many can choose the same role?”

“In this initial challenge, there are no restrictions except for adhering to the brief. You’re free to reinterpret the characters. Retain the characters’ narrative, but feel free to modify their voice or personality based on your interpretation. Of course, you’ll need to make a more lasting impression than the original portrayal to succeed.”

The contestants were already buzzing with excitement as they chose their roles. Standing among those already coveting the more popular characters, Junwoo stared intently at the poster on the screen.

“Excuse me, everyone.”

The excitement on stage quieted down as Yeonmi stepped forward. It appeared Sangjun Yoo had given her a cue from off-stage.

Yeonmi glanced at the card she was holding, confirming the signal.

“Before I reveal the theme of the first challenge, I’m curious—what drove each of you to participate in Actor Kingdom?”

Before anyone could respond, one of the judges on the panel, Cheong-myeong, picked up his mic. His voice echoed out from the speakers behind the stage, causing the contestants’ heads to turn in that direction.

“While reviewing the profiles, I stumbled upon a particular contestant with a most unique background.”

His voice sounded sweet, laced with intrigue. Cheong-myeong pretended to flip through a profile sheet. It was time for Junwoo’s appearance.

“Is Junwoo Han here?”

Junwoo walked across the stage and made eye contact with Cheong-myeong.

So that’s him.

The three judges, already briefed about Junwoo, looked on with interest.

“I watched your performance alongside Junho Gil,” Cheong-myeong said. “It was truly impressive. How did you manage to convey the madness of a murderer at such a young age?”

It was obvious the judge was trying to stir interest by mentioning the famous actor. In reality, he had never seen Junwoo’s performance.

“When you say ‘the madness of a murderer,’ what scene are you referring to, exactly?”

“Huh?” Cheong-myeong said, taken aback.

“I’m not revealed as the murderer until the end of the play.”

“Oh…”

Cheong-myeong wondered whether Junwoo was deliberately trying to make an impression. However, there was no malice or agenda behind his demeanor; he was simply responding to a question.

This isn’t how it’s supposed to go.

Cheong-myeong felt a cold sweat run down his back.

He had anticipated the contestant to either feel embarrassed by the praise from a famous actor, boast even more, or express a desire to perform well in this mission.

If Cheong-myeong wasn’t careful, this might lead to him—the experienced actor in the room—coming across as being more ignorant to the world of theater than the contestants. Since this wasn’t a crucial point to the show, he swiftly changed the topic.

“Ah, my mistake. Your portrayal must have been so immersive that I got carried away. Anyway, it says here that you were independent from a young age, living without your parents. That you used to work at a construction site…”

Cheong-myeong, aware of the cameras on him, gave a pitying look. The contestant’s sad backstory had begun. Everyone began to look at Junwoo with sympathetic expressions. Multiple cameras honed in on Junwoo’s face.

“Yes, that’s right,” Junwoo replied.

“You were so young, and you didn’t have your parents’ support. It must have been hard to make a living with that kind of physically demanding work.”

“It was definitely physically demanding. But the rent wasn’t too expensive there, so I didn’t have too much trouble making ends meet,” Junwoo answered calmly.

“Ah, the rent. That would’ve been tough. And it must have been quite lonely being in a place like that without any friends your age. Did you ever consider coming to Seoul before deciding to join Actor Kingdom?”

“Actually, the place wasn’t all that bad. It’s peaceful, and the air is fresh. The main downside was just how long it took to get to the city.”

“Oh, I see. So…”

Cheong-myeong thought the conversation was taking a strange turn. He was following the script, and Junwoo’s answers were polite and articulate, but it wasn’t flowing as he’d expected.

Usually, in these kinds of interviews, the participant would get emotional and choke up while talking about their past, or they would appeal to the audience’s sympathy with tales of their struggles.

Junwoo’s attitude was as if he didn’t care about the past at all. There were no signs of emotional turmoil. Regardless of how Cheong-myeong framed his questions, he couldn’t steer the conversation to the poignant narrative he aimed for.

“Then, this time…”

The interaction kept going in a circular fashion, with Cheong-myeong growing more and more impatient as he struggled to elicit the desired reactions. Despite touching on sensitive topics, Junwoo maintained a calm demeanor. Even the crew and other contestants blinked in surprise, uncertain of how to react.

As Cheong-myeong began to stumble over his words, his face contorted, and everyone began to look at him instead of Junwoo.

Finally running out of questions, Cheong-myeong stopped talking. The entire studio fell eerily silent.

Among all the nervous faces, Junwoo was the only one who seemed relaxed.

***

A group of contestants were gathered in a large rehearsal room. Each one of them held a blank piece of paper.

“If you’ve decided on a role, write down your contestant number, name, and your choice of character and put it in this box. You have thirty minutes,” a staff member instructed before leaving the room.

Some contestants began writing down their chosen roles without hesitation as soon as they received their paper. Others began to look around the room, perhaps trying to find inspiration. A few seemed to struggle with indecision.

“It has to be Duhyeon Baek, right?”

“Isn’t that too risky? What if everyone chooses that character?”

The group shared their opinions, listened attentively to others’ choices, and wrestled with the options.

“Damn, I fell asleep watching that part. I’m screwed.”

Amidst the varying degrees of confidence and doubt, some lamented not having watched the movie, while others chose roles they felt most aligned with their strengths—or those they believed would guarantee them a spot on TV.

Junwoo stared blankly at his empty sheet of paper. He was trying to think back to the movie.

“Please pick the role you feel is most pivotal to the film.”

After recalling the objective of the challenge, Junwoo jotted something on the paper and slipped it into the box without hesitation.

***

The box with the contestants’ papers was moved to the judges’ waiting room. There, Cheong-myeong unfolded the submissions one by one.

“As expected, Duhyeon Baek’s role is the most popular. It’s already come up two out of five times.”

In contrast to Cheong-myeong’s pleased expression, Daewon Gu’s face looked disappointed.

“Not off to a good start,” Daewon said. “The pivotal role isn’t Duhyeon—it’s Sanmin Tae.”

It appeared the contestants had gone for the character who had the most scenes.

“Right,” Cheong-myeong said, unfolding another. “And another Duhyeon Baek.”

Then, picking up one more piece of paper, Cheong-myeong froze. He broke into a grin as if he had stumbled across something amusing.

“Check this out.”

“What is it?” Daewon asked.

“A unique choice.”

“Unique?”

“Yes. He chose an extra who barely appears in the film. The fact that he even knows the character’s name suggests he’s not just trying to stand out.”

Cheong-myeong raised his eyebrows, looking excited.

Unable to contain his curiosity, Daewon snatched the paper from Cheong-myeong’s hand. Cheong-myeong continued speaking.

“I was curious about him. People have been saying he’s talented.”

Daewon checked the name and number written at the bottom of the paper.

Contestant number 11, Hyeok Kang.

Of course. Daewon nodded. Not many people know that this extra plays a significant role.

Hyeok had been trained abroad since he was a child and even had some professional experience under his belt. Daewon admitted that the young man was indeed of a different caliber.

Black Spirit Island was Daewon’s own film, so he knew each character inside out. He held a quiet hope that at least one contestant would uncover the film’s more subtle layers. Of course, it might be too much to expect from ordinary aspiring actors who only had surface-level knowledge of the craft.

“What the hell?”

Daewon turned his head at Cheong-myeong’s muttering.

“Was there a name like this in the movie?” Cheong-myeong asked, scowling. He passed Daewon the next contestant’s paper.

Daewon shook his head. “No, there isn’t. Must have confused it with another movie. Who would submit something like this, anyway?”

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