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A Thousand Faces

25

Chapter 25

1

“You said you’d handle it, but now look at the mess. I suppose I’ll have to take care of it myself,” came the irritated voice from the other end of the call.

The voice belonged to Jaewon Lee, livid after finding out the contract had fallen through.

Jungil Park, in his office at W Broadcasting, the phone glued to his ear, apologized profusely. “If you could just give me more time, sir…”

“How much longer do you expect me to wait? I told you it’ll be too late once the first episode airs. What is wrong with you, Park? You’re not usually this bad at your job.”

“I’m sorry, but—” Suddenly, Jungil stopped pacing. “There might be a way. In fact, this might be a good thing.”

“A good thing? Are you kidding me?”

“The next round is coming up. After this filming wraps, the hype around the kid will die down. Just like how the fuss over the Junho Gil performance is already fading. At that point, I could potentially renegotiate better terms with Mr. Joo.”

Jaewon Lee’s agitated voice seemed to calm somewhat. “Better for us, you mean?”

“Yes. I think they’ll come to their senses by then. Hopefully they’ll learn what happens when they overreach—that even if they have the skills to back it up, there will be things they just can’t do.”

***

W Broadcasting Station. The set of Actor Kingdom’s second round.

The number of contestants had dwindled to fifty, not counting those who hadn’t made it past the first round.

Junwoo was kept busy. The first episode involved interviews with contestants and judges, practice sessions, conflicts, behind-the-scenes footage, life in the dorms, and fan reactions.

The show went beyond mere competition, capturing the contestants’ journeys and personal stories. Yet, no one knew that at least seventy percent of it was scripted by the production team.

And this second round was a game they had planned all along.

The hosts and panelists alike had to work hard to adapt to the hastily revised script. Word had it that it was all because of one contestant.

With her microphone in hand, Yeonmi Seo scanned the stage for the culprit.

Where are you?

She had witnessed the previous challenge in person, and she now found herself looking for the boy. But…

I don’t see him.

Junwoo was at the very back of the group amidst the fervor of the other contestants.

As the camera pivoted toward her, Yeonmi Seo’s expression shifted, and she began to talk about the second challenge.

“As you know, this round is all about teamwork. Can you guess where you’ll be performing?”

At this, the contestants began to stir.

“On a stage? Somewhere outside the studio?”

“A theater play?”

The crowd buzzed with excitement.

Then, Yeonmi pointed to the door behind the studio. “It’s right there!”

Confusion spread across the contestants’ faces. What did she mean? The murmuring grew louder.

“The real world will be your stage. You will form teams to perform in everyday settings, where your ability to bring realism to your acting will be key.”

She continued, “This time, your performances will be judged not only by our panel but by the public as well. Engagement, public votes, online videos, and their reactions will all play into your evaluation. Sounds thrilling, doesn’t it?”

The contestants’ reactions varied widely as they processed the announcement.

Realism.

Despite what they said, essentially, this was a popularity contest. Everyone knew Actor Kingdom wasn’t just for ordinary people; it also included those who had established fan bases.

Naturally, those who knew they’d stand out or those already with fans seemed unfazed. Meanwhile, the rest began to fidget, hoping to ally themselves with these more popular contenders.

At that moment, someone raised their hand. “But the first episode hasn’t aired yet.”

Yeonmi Seo responded smoothly, “That’s correct. The results from this round will be revealed alongside the first round’s broadcast. Imagine the excitement of stepping onto the public stage before anyone has seen you on TV. Exciting, right?”

Nods of agreement followed, especially from those who felt they hadn’t shone in the first round.

Then came the moment everyone was waiting for. Yeonmi Seo started to announce the teams, which she said were drawn at random.

At the first team’s reveal, everyone’s faces filled with surprise.

Team 1: Hyeok Kang, Rowoon Lee, Taeyang Yoo, Nana.

It made sense why everyone was shocked.

After confirming their names, the members of Team 1 gathered in one corner at a leisurely pace.

Ripples of resignation, anger, and envy spread through the room.

“The hell…? The winner’s already been decided.”

“Random draw? Really?”

“How are we supposed to beat them?”

Team 1 consisted of Rowoon Lee, a renowned idol; Taeyang Yoo, an actor on the rise; Nana, a popular social media influencer; and Hyeok Kang, the chairman of the Daemyung Group’s third child, whose looks rivaled the best of them.

Given that popularity was the criterion for evaluation, it was an astounding lineup.

“Wow, they could debut as a group on their looks alone,” someone whispered.

Standing there side by side, Team 1 seemed to exude an otherworldly aura. The other contestants stared at them in awe.

As the teams continued to be announced, Junwoo found himself in Team 9.

Team 9: Yoojin Kim, Gwangsu Jo, Soontae Heo, Junwoo Han.

A mix of individuals without notable backgrounds or experiences.

Junwoo checked his name and walked to the end of the stage. In contrast to the tense atmosphere around him, he was rather excited.

He actually liked the theme. It wasn’t a performance up on a stage; it was acting mixed with daily life. It stirred old memories, and he felt a strange sensation.

At that moment, Yoojin Kim walked over with a somber expression. She was eyeing her unremarkable teammates when she spotted Junwoo and gasped in surprise.

“Oh my God! You’re…”

Almost unconsciously, Yoojin began to point at Junwoo.

Junwoo blinked back at her. It’s her. The girl who lost her voice. She made it to this round.

He recalled her face from last time: resigned, red, and swollen from crying.

“Your name is Junwoo Han, right? We’re on the same team! Oh, and also, there was this older guy looking for you. I meant to say…”

Her once-hoarse voice was clear and strong now. Yoojin, unable to contain her excitement, nervously rambled on about the audition.

“Hey, I made it past the preliminaries thanks to you. And I heard some contestant interrupted the shoot in the first round. That was you, wasn’t it?”

“Yeah, well… it wasn’t exactly me…” Junwoo replied, scratching his head. Had the rumors really spread that far?

Junwoo’s teammates were sizing each other up, glancing nervously at each other. Their eyes then wandered to the other teams, their expressions turning envious.

Many of Actor Kingdom’s contestants were well-known personalities. Beyond the star-studded Team 1, several teams boasted members with varying degrees of fame.

Yoojin’s gaze swept across the contestants, eventually settling on Team 1. “Wow, that team is like the Avengers.”

“The Avengers?” Junwoo echoed.

“You really don’t know? They’re practically celebrities. Pretty much everyone here knows them.”

“Why? Are they good actors?”

“It’s not about acting. They just need to show up, and crowds will follow. We might as well give up on first place now.”

As Yoojin spoke, a fleeting thought crossed her mind. Wait. But maybe not…?

She couldn’t help but stare at Junwoo.

Junwoo, seemingly unbothered, yawned and looked away from Team 1, nodding along to Yoojin’s concerns with a noncommittal, “Right.”

Ugh. What am I thinking right now?

She had done her homework on the competition, thanks to the information provided to her by the acting academy she attended.

This time, the main judging criterion is recognition.

Her mind racing, she began to evaluate her teammates.

First, there’s me, just a student. That tall guy over there is Gwangsu Jo, a 28-year-old who’s been around for five years without making a dent. That old man, Soontae Heo…

Soontae Heo, standing with his hands behind his back, offered a warm smile when their eyes met.

There’s nothing on him. Must be an aspiring actor. And then there’s Junwoo Han. He had a few articles written about him after performing with Junho Gil, but that’s it. The public probably doesn’t know him very well. We’re essentially invisible.

Yoojin glanced at Junwoo.

I skimmed through the articles and didn’t realize it was him.

Meanwhile, there was someone who had been staring at Junwoo from the beginning.

Off-stage, Sangjun Yoo watched Junwoo standing calmly under the lights. It was incredibly puzzling.

Initially, he had strategically placed all the recognizable contestants in Team 1 and the least known in Team 9. He had expected Junwoo to react, but Junwoo didn’t even spare a glance toward the stronger team.

Sangjun was genuinely curious.

Even his teammates didn’t seem to interest him. Sangjun felt a sense of unease.

As the challenge briefing continued, each team learned of their unique performance locations—bustling places like department stores, train stations, supermarkets, and amusement parks. The theme was open-ended. Contestants were free to write their own scripts and enact scenes suitable for the location.

This meant they needed to be good at not only acting but also writing dialogue.

Yeonmi Seo gave one warning.

“Please be aware that any disruptive behavior in public places will prompt immediate intervention by the authorities on site. Please refrain from actions that could lead to disqualification from the competition.”

Seoul Station Square.

This was the location assigned to Junwoo’s team.

“So, we’re going to do like a social experiment-type thing on people? That sounds fun.”

“I guess so. We’re not supposed to do anything inappropriate, though.”

After hearing the explanation, the team members started introducing themselves.

The unknown actor Gwangsu Jo was surprised when he heard Junwoo’s name.

“Aren’t you the guy who performed with Junho Gil? I read about you!”

Upon hearing this, Soontae Heo glanced at Junwoo as well. They speculated that they might just have a chance of scraping by, not necessarily because of Junwoo’s acting skills but because of his recognizable face.

Yoojin Kim took the initiative to get straight into it. “We’re going to write the script ourselves, right? Is there anyone here who’s studied playwriting?”

They all exchanged looks, but no one stepped forward. Just as Yoojin was about to say something, a staff member with a microphone approached them.

“Don’t worry. Our production team has already come up with scenes for each team.”

The staff member began to explain the pre-written story in great detail. Yoojin’s face gradually turned sour. The others were just as confused.

The story didn’t take into account the individual characteristics or personalities of the team members.

Yeonmi Seo’s thorough explanation earlier appeared to be intended for the benefit of the viewers at home.

Realizing the mismatch, Yoojin cut in, “Wait a minute. Didn’t you say the theme was open-ended?”

“That was simply to make things more exciting for the audience. You can’t expect us to entrust everything to novices and just hope for the best. This is standard procedure.”

“But our team is so diverse, fitting into this preset narrative would be difficult…”

Gwangsu, who was standing next to her, also joined in. “That’s right. And no matter how good the acting is, how are we supposed to get votes with these unlikeable roles?”

“That’s for you to figure out. You just need to focus on the theme. There’s no room for complaints here.”

Soontae furrowed his brow and groaned as he struggled to follow the conversation.

Junwoo didn’t say a word. He simply accepted the script the staff member thrust at him after the heated argument.

***

Team 9 sat in a corner of the rehearsal room.

“This is ridiculous. How can they do that?!” Yoojin snapped. She threw the script down in front of Junwoo.

The cover read, Team 9: Seoul Station Square.

“Why? I think it’s good,” Junwoo replied as if he didn’t understand the problem.

“In what sense?”

“I think it’s more fun to practice together than alone.”

Junwoo thought back to his rehearsals with Junho Gil.

“What are you talking about? How is that important?”

Gwangsu Jo stroked his chin. “Even with my acting experience, I can tell they’re playing us. Frankly, Team 1 just doesn’t make sense, does it?”

“Could you slow down a bit?” Soontae said, frowning. “I know I’m old, but I’d like to join in too.”

While everyone complained about the program, not paying any attention to the challenge, Junwoo picked up the script with a puzzled look on his face.

The team members continued to grumble, oblivious to whatever he was doing.

“Shouldn’t we push back?”

“What if they edit us in a bad light?”

At that moment, Junwoo, who had been silently looking over the script by himself, tilted his head as if he had found something.

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