[HanCinema's Industry Interview] 10 Questions for Actor Kahlid Elijah Tapia
HanCinema recently met up with actor Kahlid Elijah Tapia to find out about his experience working in South Korea's television and film industry.
You came to South Korea back in 2009 to teach English. What was it about the country and culture that inspired you to explore its film and television industry?
This is a funny one actually because it wasn't the country or the culture. I was living in Florida taking acting classes before I came to Korea and I actually was just wanting to live in this country for one year and go home. A fellow actress and now close friend recommended that I put my headshot and resume on Craigslist. I thought to myself, "For what?" "This is Korea, I can't get anything done here". But I did it and 28 credits on IMDb later, I'm still here. What I learned after posting my information is that I can be an actor anywhere. Especially in this internet driven age.
Which of your past roles and performances are you most proud of, and are there any you'd rather forget?
I'm most proud of my role in the independent film "Haebangchon" where I played Quentin McCoy, aka "Q". I really pushed myself for this role. I went to Thailand and trained in Muay Thai for 3 months, I did my best to change my walk and a little of the way I would speak. It was my first feature film role and it was grueling. Most of the cast members were teachers like myself and we had to work during the week and then shoot full days on the weekends. No pay, I should add. Another role I'm proud of is when I played "Caliban" for Seoul Shakespeare Company's "The Tempest". I really contorted my body to make myself seem cave man and disfigured like. I was also half naked on stage which was a new break through for me. My least favorite role would be a student film I did where I had to act with an animal, a dog. I'm not an animal fan so it was very uncomfortable for me, but I wanted to push myself out of a new comfort zone. Don't get me wrong I don't hate animals, I just tend to keep my distance.
What has been the single biggest challenge you've faced being an actor in Korea? How different is the industry here compared to the U.S.?
The biggest challenge for me is conveying to Korea that I'm not just a happy foreigner who wants to be in a movie. I take my craft very seriously. I practice and I train continuously in acting. Any and all workshops I do my best to attend. I'm going to Japan in September for the Ivana Chubbuck workshop and then Hong Kong in October for the Nancy Bishop, Emmy-winning casting director, workshop. I push and work very hard at my craft. I have close to $350 worth of books that I'm always reading at some point. And I'm a sponge. I will humble myself and listen to a 4-year-old if by some chance they have been in the industry longer than me.
The main differences between US and Korea film industry would have to be how the director operates. In Korea, what the director says is final. I've met very few directors that are open to suggestions. This isn't wrong, it's just different. It took me awhile to realize that my American way of thinking needs to be put on back shelf for just a minute and receive your instruction with humility and an open mind.
How would you describe South Korea's current film and television industries, and why do you think it is so popular internationally?
Korea, in my opinion, is patterning itself to Hollywood. Although this is a great blueprint to build your industry upon it can also be a slight hindrance. Any entity that tries to pattern itself after a well-known organization, if not careful, can fall into certain traps of having the same successes but more importantly the same failures. Korea has had major success in its filming but sometimes, and this is very few, I see some of the same pitfalls happening. A few years back a war movie did well in Korea. Now I see war movies popping up more and more. I don't believe Korea needs to find its way. I think it has found its way just not its voice, specifically in film. The difference is when you find your way you know the path you want to take, the strategies you will use to get there and the code you will uphold. But finding your voice means that you understand the tone, the mood, the atmosphere, the style that you want to portray. Sometimes I see the same style/mood of Hollywood and I know that Korea has the creativity to stand on its own. I believe the reason its so popular internationally is because the Hollywood style will always sell. And though I'm a staunch believer in the phrases "If it's not making money, then it's not making sense (cents). " & "We're in show business, not business show" I would love to see Korea take a few more risk. I know that any movie made is a risk and lot of work goes into it. But I would love to see this industry branch out with something new even if Hollywood or other film industries haven't tried. Again, calculated risk, no gamble.
If you could design your next role, choose your co-stars and director, what would it be and who would you want to work with?
I would want so greatly to be a villain. Specifically, the expat hitman that works for the Korean "mob boss". A person skilled in hand-to-hand combat and an extremely good sniper. This character would be so conflicted in his loyalties to his Korean boss and his views on "terminating" Koreans & fellow expats. The story of how this African-American got to be so loyal to this criminal boss would be a tale for the ages. Can you imagine? An American who has denounced his US citizenship and is putting so many of his fellow expats "to sleep". What drives him to make such a choice? Why not work for an American mob boss? What did this Korean boss do to him or for him that would warrant such blind loyalty? I could see Choi Min-sik being the boss and Jeon Do-yeon as my handler/confidant and directed by Won Shin-yun, the gentleman that directed "The Suspect".
What advice would you give to foreign actors and actresses hoping to make a living in South Korea? What could an aspiring talent do to increase their chances of making it?
Firstly, I would advise my fellow thespians to learn the language. Find the method of learning you prefer and stick to it. Believe it or not, a lot of actors tend not to do this. Secondly, find a job that is flexible, an after-school position where you can hire a substitute if you have to film, or an early morning/late evening job where your days can be free. I currently work a 5 pm. to 9 p.m. shift and because our schedule is made a month in advance I'm able to coordinate my filming easily.
I believe the reason I've gotten as far as I have is because I understand the business of acting. No, I don't know everything but I've kept myself abreast of the do's and dont's of the industry and I learned how to network. This day and age talent only counts for 7% of your success. The other 93% includes, social media, sending letters/emails, training - either in class or online, networking at film festivals and the list goes on. If you want a greater chance at making it then increase your knowledge of the business of acting.
Lastly, learn the difference between a gamble and a calculated risk. People who count cards are not gamblers. They take the risk that they could get caught and be black-balled from the casino but they are not depending on a 'feeling.' They do their homework, they know there opponent, they understand the industry. I've never had a gut feeling about anything in this business. I don't gamble with my career. I take calculated risk. It wasn't a gamble to stay in Korea. Back in 2010 the Korean film industry started booming and although I got lucky with my headshot and resume on Craigslist, I had to decide if Korea was for me. I made that decision knowing that America had just hit a recession and that here in Korea I didn't have to worry about money. As a teacher, my school paid my rent, I didn't need a car because of the great transportation system and my utility bills were under $100 a month. It was a no-brainer, not a gamble, a calculated risk.
Have you won any awards since you started working as an actor in South Korea?
Yes, I recently won Best Supporting Actor for my role in The Avant Garde Goddess. This was a webseries that was entered into the K-Web Fest, Korea's 1st webseries festival. It was written, directed and produced by an American actress who is also working on her craft here in Korea. Secondly, I was nominated for Best Actor for my role in "Haebangchon" at The Charlotte Black Film Festival.
Do you have any interesting, funny, or embarrassing stories from your time on set?
I love telling this story. I was on set for the movie "Bamui Yeowang" or "Queen of Night". I was playing a thug that was shooting at the lead actress in a diner-style setting. Before the scene started I was given a jacket with exploding blood packs within it. The director explained to me that the blood packs will explode at a certain point in the scene and that I should react accordingly. This was my first time ever having this type of costume on and I asked if the explosion will hurt. Everyone said "Cho-koom A pai yo" Which means, it will hurt just a little. I said "Cool!" So as the scene started I'm standing at the entrance of the diner set and the sound effect of bullets begin. And let me tell you, it sounds real! My heart started pounding like I was about to lose my virginity. It took every inch of training to stay in character because all the sound effects made the scene so exciting. So, as I turn into the diner and lift my gun to shoot the lead actress, the actress hears me, drops to one knee and shoots me instead. Those exploding blood packs, and, by the way, there were 6 in the jacket, began to explode. The first one was directly over my left nipple. And when it went off, the pain was NOT "Cho-koom A pai yo", because it hurt like HELL and it took every inch of my training not to break character and die as my character was supposed to you. The look of pain on my face in the scene was very real because I wasn't acting I was reacting to real pain.
What do you think the future holds for South Korean cinema and television and do you see more foreign faces being cast in local productions?
I see Korea blossoming more and more each day. More foreign faces are popping up on television, films and commercials. I personally see Korea becoming the market for young actors worldwide to make their mark. The opportunities are constantly presenting themselves. Award ceremonies like The Seoul Drama Awards or The Kwebie Awards (this is the new name for the award ceremony for the K-Web Fest, Korea's 1st Web Series Festival) will be the place to look for the up and coming expat actor. I see Korean becoming the powerhouse of Asia. The talent and the know how is here.
Who has had the biggest influence on your career and why?
This is a complex question because it's not just one person. I have to pay tribute to a few people. The first would be Magaly Colimon-Christopher, she's the young lady I first spoke to about becoming an actor. She taught me one very important lesson. "Becoming an actor is learning about yourself". That one truth has resonated and is a continuous lesson for me.
My family would be the next great influence. They provide support emotionally and financially and even though they want me to move back home they understand that I'm working hard. My sisters are my biggest fans and I couldn't have done half of what I've accomplished without them.
The fellow actors, directors, cinematographers and writers that I meet here in Korea that are always on their grind. Always working hard. Constantly being recognized for their work. They inspire me to do better and they set a high standard of professionalism that is second to none. I couldn't have gotten as far as I have without their sense of passion.
There are days I wish I had a mentor someone that could provide me with guidance and leadership that I could say it's he or she that I owe a lot to. However, that's not the hand I've been dealt. So I keep going forward taking my calculated risk and working hard at my craft. I love acting and nothing says that more than being willing to reach your dream outside of the normal avenues. I'm a foreign performer, an expat thespian, an international actor.