Jeon Do-yeon looks distressed.

Jeon Do-Yeon Is Done Crying

Award-winning actor Jeon Do-yeon becomes an action star with Kill Boksoon.

Photography by No Ju-han
5 April 20236 min read

Actor Jeon Do-yeon is all smiles as we sit down for a Zoom interview about her starring role in director Byun Sung-hyun’s new film, Kill Boksoon. The industry veteran, who became the first Korean to win an acting award at Cannes with her turn as a tormented mother in Lee Chang-dong’s 2007 film Secret Sunshine, is known for taking on challenging, sometimes melodramatic, roles and also for her beloved performances in TV dramas like the one I’m currently obsessed with, Crash Course in Romance. In 2014, Cannes honored the actor’s wide acclaim by announcing Jeon as a panel member for its nine-person main competition jury, an honor never previously bestowed on a Korean actor. 

Yet the actor’s warmth, somehow radiating through the computer screen, belies the fierceness with which she portrays assassin, single mother, and owner-of-a-million-plants Gil Boksoon, whose nickname is “Kill.” Working for MK Ent., the world’s preeminent assassin agency, Boksoon has a 100% kill rate, carrying out hits for her boss and mentor, Chairman Cha Min-kyu, played by Sul Kyung-gu (The Merciless). Embodying Boksoon, a role that Byun (Kingmaker, The Merciless) wrote based on Jeon’s real life, required months of fight training for the actor to channel her badassery for the first time. 

Often referred to as the “Queen of Tears” for her convincing and contagious waterworks, here Jeon plays a character who’s never felt the urge to cry. And that’s part of Boksoon’s problem: As her daughter, Jae-young (Kim Si-A) comes to terms with her sexuality — and its consequences at school — the fearless assassin, who pretends to be an event planner, struggles to relate. Then, as she begins to actually internalize Jae-young’s concerns, she puts her career, and life, at risk. Jeon seems to effortlessly channel her character’s complexity into both thrilling fight sequences and tense moments of uncertain mothering. 

Offering Jeon a chance to marry the sense of humor she shows in her K-dramas with Byun’s epic, darkly funny fight scenes — which recall Quentin Tarantino and the godfather of humorous gore, Japanese Battle Royale director Kinji Fukasaku — Kill Boksoon adds the title of “action star” to the much-lauded actor’s list of accomplishments. 

Jeon sat down with Queue to discuss her preparation for Kill Boksoon, working with her director and co-star, and how being a mother-slash-actor isn’t too different from being a mother-slash-assassin. 

Jeon Do-yeon wears a blue and white waitress or maid uniform and holds a gun

Jeon Do-yeon

Miranda Tsang: You’ve been called the Queen of Tears, yet your character, Boksoon, doesn’t cry. I was wondering why you decided to take this very different role. 
Jeon Do-yeon:
So, it all started from director Byun being my longtime fan, and he said that he wanted to work with me. He looked through my filmography and he thought, What can I do that she doesn’t have? And he saw that I don’t have a full-fledged action film or an action show in my filmography, so he chose the genre first. That’s how it all started.

Byun basically started writing the scenario, looking at me as an actress and me as a mom in real life. Byun said that I usually take on a lot of roles where I have to be a victim or I have to do things for other people. But here, [in Kill Boksoon], she’s the one who just kills everyone and who is the badass person, so I thought that was a nice change.

You mentioned that Byun was a fan; what was it like to work with him?
So in the beginning, before we went to shoot, I heard that he was really casual, and always enjoying himself on set, and everything is very chill. But the set for Kill Boksoon was actually quite fierce. And director Byun told me that he’s never worked so hard on a film before. I actually really loved the way he worked because up to now when I worked on a show or a movie, usually the director would just look at me and just let me be because they know that I can unleash all my emotions when I’m really free. But for director Byun, he has everything planned out: the way I should move, the way I tilt my head, the angle, and everything. It was really meticulously planned out.

At first, I was very curious because this was my first time working like this. [I thought], What can I bring out of myself when I have everything planned out? I was really curious. But as I got used to this way of working, I thought it was very fun because I was always wondering what would be next. What else would he expect from me and try to get out of me? So I think it was overall very enjoyable and a new type of experience.

There’s so much action in this film. Can you tell me how you trained to get in shape?
I did a lot of action training for four months. I had to work with an axe. I had a lot of hand-to-hand combat. I had to work with swords and guns. So I had to practice in a variety of ways because I was using so many different weapons. And also, I kept on practicing because this is not an action scene with stunt actors — I had to work together with just actors, which means that sometimes when we were rolling, actors would really get into their feelings, and sometimes we would just forgo some of the sequences for our feelings. So that’s why we really tried hard and practiced and rehearsed a lot: We wanted to make sure that nobody got hurt.

Gil Boksoon (Jeon Do-yeon) and Han Hee-sung (Koo Kyo-hwan) face off in a wood-paneled diner.

Gil Boksoon (Jeon Do-yeon) and Han Hee-sung (Koo Kyo-hwan)

What were some of the ways you learned to keep yourself safe? And how was it learning all of that fight choreography for the first time? 
In order to keep myself and the others safe, what I could do was make sure the choreography was perfectly done and that I didn’t have any bloopers, so that nobody got hurt. This was my very first full-fledged action film. Because of that, I think I was not such a fast learner in terms of action sequences. I really wanted to go fast, but I took it slow intentionally. And then I really repetitively rehearsed the scenes and watched my own videos of how I rehearsed so it really sunk in with me. I felt it could come naturally only when I practiced over and over again.

Tell me about working alongside Sul Kyung-gu who plays Chairman Cha. I know you’ve worked together before on other films.
Yeah, this is my third time working together with actor Sul Kyung-gu, and we’ve been in a lot of melodramas. For example, the most recent one was a movie called Birthday, and in that, we were wife and husband. So I guess it’s a new type of romance this time. I always say that Sul Kyung-gu is a big mountain to me. He’s so reassuring to look at and he’s always just got my back. And when we were filming Kill Boksoon, I could feel that he really looked out for me and he waited for me to follow along. So I’m very thankful that he was there. And when I was reading the script, I thought, There’s romance? I didn’t really see that much romance in [the script], but when he acted Cha Min-kyu out, I could feel that there was romance. So I think it was the power of Sul Kyung-gu that made romance possible in this script.

What was the most challenging part of playing Boksoon?
So, Kill Boksoon is the story of a mom, the story of a killer, and there’s also some melodrama and romance in it as well. It’s a big crossover piece. A lot of people might think, Wasn’t it difficult to go from mom and killer and do all those different things in one film? But actually, being a mom and a killer are quite similar to me being a mom and an actress because I’m quite different as a mom and as an actress. So, it didn’t come as too new to me. It wasn’t that different from my life, except that I’m not a killer, but an actress. 

But what I really focused on was the action because I thought that people would have a really low bar for me doing action, and I wanted to make sure that bar is now higher. I really wanted to push my limits and show my all in the action scenes. So, of course, I focused on the emotions and the feelings, but I also really stressed on the action scenes.