In the world of entertainment, actress YunJee Kim has recently gained acclaim for her standout performance in Netflix’s Lift. However, her path to fame was far from an overnight phenomenon. In truth, the South Korean actress has been perfecting her craft for over a decade, showcasing a steadfast dedication to her art.
Despite her success, the actress immediately comes across as down-to-earth and humble. She makes jokes at her own expense, while simultaneously displaying a well-deserved, but quiet, confidence when discussing her talent and work ethic. An open book, she answers each question thoughtfully and transparently, with an underpinned sense of gratitude and pride throughout.
YunJee Kim talks with 1883 Magazine’s Bex Whitley about connecting with her character and her journey from aspiring K-pop singer to blockbuster lead representing her country.
Obviously, everyone wants to hear about Lift, but let’s explore your journey before the film. You emigrated from Korea to America at age ten, how have you kept in touch with your culture?
I always listen to K-pop music and watch K-dramas and K-movies. Now I’m back in Korea, I think I’m gaining back all the lost years that I spent in the States.
It’s kind of hard to keep up with the culture when you’re away from it for so long. My parents insisted on sending me to a Korean school while I was being raised in the States so that I could stay close to my culture, which I thank them for. My Korean language skills are pretty much the same as people who were born and raised there. I think it’s important to speak your own language when working too, because I am of Korean descent.
You mention K-Pop music, and I see that you were a singer yourself. What was the driving force that led to you prioritising your acting career?
I decided to quit college in my sophomore year to become a K-pop singer. My parents were not very happy about it, but I insisted on coming out to Korea and pursuing my dream of becoming a singer on stage. I performed under the name of NS Yoon-G, which was my stage name for about eight years.
I think I’ve always had this dream of becoming an actress, but it wasn’t an easy option for me since I was performing all the time. I just didn’t have enough time to pursue an acting career while doing the music. After my contract ended with my record label, I decided to study acting for two years. So I took classes with university students who were 10 years younger than me, which I learned a lot from.
But the one thing that I love about acting is that you can’t do it alone. You need someone there with you to give each other the energy that you exchange while you’re on set. Even though I prepare a line in a certain way, it will come out differently because of the partner gives me a different kind of energy than I expected. I love the spontaneity that’s always going on on the set.
Wow, you’ve achieved a lot in your career! If you had to name a defining moment or turning point, what do you think it would be?
Lift has to be the biggest turning point in my career as before the film I’d only been acting locally in Korea. I’ve done two films and two series so far, but I’d actually been auditioning for US projects for a couple of years now. Being given this opportunity to reach out to international viewers and to be a part of such a great ensemble cast has been huge. To be able to work with F. Gary Gray, whose films I grew up watchin has been a massive thing for me.
All the experiences I’ve been having over the last two years and then finally being in New York for the premiere, it was actually a dream come true. Seeing my face on the billboard at Times Square, at the subway station… You only dream of these moments. Living in LA, passing by all these billboards on Sunset Boulevard, it actually came true. I still kind of pinch myself sometimes.
I’m not surprised! You’ve definitely been all over our screens. Which leads me on to another current topic, which is diversity within the industry and the role of female stars. How has your experience as a woman in film been?
Speaking specifically for this film, I especially enjoyed being part of it because the three women in the film, Gugu, Ursula, and I, play powerful women. I feel like this is different to a lot of heist films that have been produced before. Aside from the diversity of the international members that were a part of the team, it was really nice that all three of us had this mission to show such a powerful side to women. I guess this made us a greater team.
Our chemistry as an ensemble cast was so great that we didn’t even think about gender. We were all just part of such a great crew, and we were so considerate of others. We weren’t trying to steal someone’s moments or trying to stand out a little more. We were all just there as a team, like, not just in the film, but in person too, which I really appreciated.
That sounds incredible, did you have any other highlights from filming?
Travelling. We’ve actually been to so many beautiful places as you can see in the film. We were in the UK, we were in Northern Ireland, we were in Venice, Cortina. To be able to do what you love to do, but then also travel around the world to experience different cultures, different people, different foods – it was just incredible. And the cast members, as I say over and over again, we just became such good friends, which made all this experience all the better.
Was there anything that you didn’t enjoy or was it all a positive experience?
Being away from home for almost four months was a little tough because you do tend to miss food. My husband sent me a box of Korean instant food so that I could have some comfort food when back from work, which helped a lot.
He actually came to Venice when I had 10 days off in between filming. We didn’t really get to enjoy our honeymoon because we got married in the midst of Covid. So it was a great 10 days of delayed honeymoon around Italy. Thank you, Lift!
I love that, tying a little romance in there. Being apart must’ve been hard though, what would you say helped you both stay connected when you were so far apart?
We do FaceTime a lot. Because of the time difference sometimes we didn’t really get the chance to catch up with each other through the phone. In those cases, I’d leave him a short message about how my day went, ‘I liked this about today but not like this. I ate this.I would love to be with you here’ blah blah blah.
He would get up in the morning and read how my day went and he said he felt closer to me, like he was part of all the things happening in my life, which kept us closer. It was like a little diary for me at the end of the day.
I’m sure that will be amazing to read back one day. You mentioned previously your desire to learn from others, was there anyone in particular on the set that you were really inspired by and you really learned a lot from?
I would have to say Vincent D ‘Onofrio. That man has been acting for, I don’t even know how many years. He started on stage and even today, he’s like way up there, career and acting wise. The amount of time and the amount of energy and effort that he still puts into a role, that really has inspired me, and also made me feel like that’s what real actors do when you get a part.
You don’t get lazy, you spend all the time and all the energy that you’ve got to make this character come to life. And Vincent, he showed me how he does it. At times when I felt anxious and nervous about being in my first ever blockbuster film, he made me feel like, you’re fine, do you. This is a given time for you to play, so you have all the right to take your time and do your thing and show them what you’ve got. Those little words that he would say to me while filming, it’s helped me so much to grow as a person, but then also an actor too. I’m so thankful that Vincent was there for me through this first experience to become a better person.
Speaking of methods, how did you connect with the character you were playing?
Mi-Sun, as you know, is a hacker. She’s very good with technology, but in real life, I am very far from all that tech stuff – I’m horrible with machines. So to get closer to the character, I actually spent a lot of time with the props and the prop staff. I’d go out to the set a little bit early and get used to all the props that I’m supposed to be playing with as Mi-Sun, because I didn’t want to be unfamiliar with all the machinery and all the programs that I’m supposed to be using.
I wanted to look professional and be familiar with all the things that I had to handle during the film. I spent a lot of time during breaks having it in my hand so that it just looks natural.
My final question about the film is surrounding your style, which has been picked up on a lot since the premiere! Do you have any style inspiration and people who inspire you in terms of your sense of style?
I’m a very comfy person when it comes to style. In everyday life, I’m literally in sweats, unless I’m on a job. For Mi-Sun too, you can tell that when she’s on a heist, she puts on a different look. In the auction she had the suit on and for the aeroplane, she dressed up like an international student to blend in with the other passengers on the flight. But you can tell that when she’s not on the heist, she’s just a t -shirt and jeans kind of girl. I was blessed that the costume person for Lift, Antoinette, took in a lot of my opinions and ideas on how I pictured Mi-Sun in the film.
But for me personally? I don’t really have a role model or anything. I think it’s always best to go for whatever makes you look good, not what everyone else is wearing. Because we’re all different and you know best what you look good in.
Your first blockbuster film and I am sure there will be many to follow. What would you go back and tell your younger self now you’ve ‘made it’?
Oh man. I think the toughest time for me was late 20s and early 30s when I actually felt like nothing was going for me. The harder I tried to get something, it felt like it was getting further away from me.
I think there’s timing for everything. I’m so glad that I never gave up and still worked hard and always strived for what I dreamed of. So, I want to look back and tell myself not to give up, keep trying and the time will come.
The time has definitely come! How do you celebrate yourself for all the things you’ve achieved?
I remember when I first got the call about getting the role of Mi-Sun, we popped champagne with the family members at my house and we celebrated my first big blockbuster debut. When I came back to Korea after the premiere I actually got to enjoy a very nice meal with the family. I’m a very family-orientated person and I thank them for where I am, I wouldn’t be here without them. Big celebrations will always be with the family members.
I know it’s a hard question, but what does success mean to you? How would you define success?
I think being healthy in mind. I don’t think success necessarily means how much money you have, how much fame you have, how much you have achieved in life. I think success for me personally, it means being healthy physically and mentally. Mental stability is such a big issue these days. And for me, I actually try really hard to keep my mind on a certain level so that I don’t get swayed so much being in this industry.
So I’ve got to ask, what’s coming next for you?
So luckily, as Lift is doing pretty well in Korea too, I’ve been getting a lot of local media opportunities. I had a magazine shoot today and I’m going on the news next week. So, a lot of schedules here locally. And then I have another TV series, Red Swan, that will be streaming on Hulu in the U.S. and on Disney+ internationally later this year. We’re getting ready for the premiere of that. So I have two big projects coming out this year, which is very exciting. I cannot wait to see what this year is made of.
Finally, if you could say where you would be in what, 20 or 30 years’ time, where would it be?
I decided to dream big from now on. I want to be representing Korea internationally by doing films and series abroad. This might sound silly, but to be where Michelle Yeoh is. I recently watched her new Netflix series and she’s just so beautiful. Her acting is insane. To be where she is at her age, I think there’s so much to learn from, and I have so much respect for her. And I would like to be on that path in the next 20, or 30 years of my life.
Lift is streaming now on Netflix.
Interview Bex Whitley