Hollywood Discovers Korea's Talented Actors

In the late 1990s a Korean wave washed over Asia. From TV soap operas and movies to pop music, the region couldn't get enough of Korean culture and its good-looking stars. But the wave never quite reached the American entertainment industry. At most, Hollywood embraced the remake of several Korean films—including The Lake Houseand, more recently, The Uninvited.

Lately, however, ethnic Korean actors have started to gain traction in American film and TV. Kim Yunjin and Daniel Dae Kim broke through when they were cast in Lost in 2004, followed by Sandra Oh in Grey’s Anatomy and James Kyson Lee in Heroes. This year Korean-American heartthrob Daniel Henney appeared in X-Men Origins: Wolverine as the villainous Agent Zero, and now stars on the new CBS medical drama Three Rivers. Lee Byung-hun took on the role of Storm Shadow in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. And John Cho, who played Hikaru Sulu in Star Trek, is currently starring as an FBI agent in ABC's drama FlashForward.

Next up: Jeong Ji Hoon, a.k.a. Rain, a pop superstar in much of Asia but still little-known on the global stage. On Nov. 25, Joel Silver and the Wachowski brothers will release their latest big-budget martial-arts thriller, Ninja Assassin, starring Jeong as the title character, who seeks revenge on the secret society that raised and trained him and killed his best friend.

The casting of Korean stars in prominent Hollywood roles reflects the new business realities: Jeong and his peers have a huge following in Asia, one of the few regions where movie audiences are growing. Korea, in particular, has become a key foreign market for Hollywood films, in some cases surpassing the U.K. According to the Web site Box Office Mojo, G.I. Joe earned more this summer in Korea—$13.2 million—than anywhere else outside the U.S.

Hollywood producers are also courting Korean directors who have a proven track record delivering hits for Asian audiences. "Every studio executive here has seen Oldboy by Park Chan-wook, and you can't say that about a lot of foreign movies," says Korean-American film producer Roy Lee of Vertigo Entertainment. Though Korean directors may be in demand among Hollywood producers, they are reluctant to make the leap. "Top directors in Korea have the ability to make whatever films they want with total creative freedom," says Lee. "With the [U.S.] studios they do not have that control."

Korean actors face cultural challenges, too. For actors from Asia to make it big in Hollywood, they have to commit to mastering English and networking with executives. "In Asia, for the most part, there is no auditioning process," says Grace Chen, the former managing director of William Morris Asia, now an independent consultant in Hong Kong. "So for big Asian stars to go to Hollywood and have to audition, it can be quite a foreign process." Plus, she says, those playing the Hollywood game risks losing opportunities back home.

And Asian actors in the U.S. are still often typecast as martial-arts experts. "Stereotype does still exist when casting films," says Rain. "Asians have our own broad and unique culture; it's just that more people have been interested in the martial-arts side than others."

But things are definitely changing. While it may be a while before Korean actors are cast as romantic leads in Hollywood, references to Korean culture are seeping into American films and TV. "In the past, you'd see a lot of Japanese references, Caucasian characters eating sushi or speaking a few Japanese words. But recently I noticed [they] are being replaced by Korean ones," says Shinho Lee, a Korean scriptwriter who splits his time between Seoul and L.A. Vertigo's Lee cites the rising prominence of Korean-Americans at all levels of the film-production chain: "There are more people of Korean descent working in Hollywood than of any other Asian ethnicity." Especially in front of the camera.