Joomin Hwang is Korean-born actor and dancer who is making a name for himself on the Broadway stage via the hit show titled “The Prom.” Joomin was recently honored at the Tony Awards, making him the first native Korean actor to have that distinction since 1947.
Joomin, who was raised in South Korea, started out as a break dancer until he discovered London’s musical theater at the age of twelve. Intrigued, he went on to work in London where he performed in a comedic dance show titled “Break Out” at Peacock Theatre in West End. In 2013, Joomin moves to the United States to attention the University of Wisconsin where he started a music program and learned how to speak English.
In 2015, he moved to New York and started in “KPOP,” an off-Broadway show which won the Best Musical at the Lucille Lortel awards in 2017. Yet Joomin’s biggest success to date has been “The Prom,” an upbeat Broadway musical which was lauded by critics. Joomin is now moving into film and television. He co-starred in show called “Iron Fist” and plays the lead role in a forthcoming movie titled “Hail Mary!” A Hollywood film titled “Isn’t It Romantic?” and “The Heights,” by Warner Brothers, are on the agenda for 2020.
Joomin Hwang recently granted an exclusive interview where he discussed his career in the theater, his move onto screen, and more.
Meagan Meehan (MM): You started out as a break dancer, so how old were you when you got into that?
Joomin Hwang (JH): When I was first year in middle school, a friend of mine showed me a break-dance move called “Flare” in the middle of a soccer game. Suddenly the time went slowly. Still, I can vividly remember how the playground’s sand beautifully flew by the move and how the sun rays reached onto the ground. It was like a slow motion in a movie. I felt like the time suddenly stopped.
MM: How did you discover the London theater at the young age of twelve?
JH: I kept dancing since then. I started working as a professional dancer at the age of 18. I got hired in a show called “Break Out” when I was 21. This show went to London in 2007. It was a break dance comedy show about five guys breaking out of a jail because the oldest guy is about to die and his last wish is seeing his grand one last time. And the show is about these five guys helping to make their last wishes come true.
MM: How did you break onto the London stage and how did that lead you to studying in America?
JH: I was very lucky because the show I was in, “Break Out,” got invited to perform at the Peacock theatre in London which is one of the West End Theater. One of our day offs, our company went to watch “Billy Elliot” the musical together and I was totally blown away. I was just a dancer back then but the little Billy could dance, sing, and act. He seemed so free on the stage. I fell in love with musical theater right away. Since then I always wanted to come to Broadway because people around me said Broadway is the world’s best. I was so curious about the world’s best musical theatre.
MM: How did you enjoy your time in college in Wisconsin? Was it difficult to learn English while also studying music?
JH: That was definitely one of my biggest challenges, it was a big transition. There were only four Korean students in the school including me and we were all so busy following the school schedule. It was hard to find a comfort place from the people who came from my home country. The English pronunciation I had learned in Korea was so different from general American English accent. It took me eight months to be able to listen what people said. I could start a conversation a year and a half later. I basically went from a guy who is just standing there smiling without saying anything to a guy who is trying to say something and later I became a guy who speaks broken English. I felt like I became a person from invisible matter. Studying music was an escape for me to express myself. I worked really hard practicing my vocal almost every day until 1am or 2am!
MM: How did you find work when you initially moved to New York and how did you break into the theater industry here?
JH: I couldn’t find any theater job in New York when I first moved to NYC. I was working in a restaurant while I was auditioning. I was on OPT visa which is temporary working visa for students who just graduated. This visa gives you one year to prove yourself is worth to stay in the U.S. If you don’t have enough credits, you have to go back to your own country unless you want to keep going for a Masters or Doctoral degree. I promised myself to go 200 auditions and if I don’t book anything I should go back to Korea. Ended up, I went more than 300 auditions in that year (I lost count after 300) I booked 10 gigs. I started from NYC community theatre to regional, Off-Broadway, and finally Broadway. So how I broke into theater industry in the US is going auditions…like every possible audition that I could find!
MM: How did you hear about “The Prom” and how did the casting process go?
JH: To tell the truth, I didn’t know about the show. I was on my mission of going to every audition possible and it was one of them. Then, I got the callback. Unfortunately, when the 2nd call back happened I was on my honeymoon that was planned a while ago. I wasn’t sure if I would book it so I told them honestly. Fortunately, the 2nd callback was around Thanksgiving week so many people couldn’t make it to the 2nd callback. The production held 2.5 callback right before 3rd callback at the same day for people who couldn’t make it to 2nd callback and I got invited for it. After the third callback, I had a really good feeling about this musical. I think two weeks later I got my offer for my long-time dream.
MM: What most intrigued you about the character you portrayed and the overall plot of the show?
JH: I try to understand what the plot wants tell. I am trying best to see what the character is like through the plot and once I find some guide lines I started to find some examples of people. It could be a celebrity or my best friends or people on a street. I played a teen ensemble named Kyle in THE PROM. I was the only one Asian in the cast so I try not to play Asian stereotype of a student.
MM: What was it like to be on the Broadway stage looking out at the audience?
JH: It is definitely terrifying because you are being watched by about a thousand of people every night. I try to switch it to a thrill that fuels my artistry on the stage. The interactions that live theater is getting is magic. You can see people’s eyes. Their all emotions. Even their small gasps.
Especially for THE PROM, a show has such positive impacts towards the world, it’s so rewarding to witness how people moved by this show. After the show, people wait at the stage door to meet the casts wanting to them how much they appreciate the show and the story. Back then, I thought Broadway is about talents but after THE PROM I have so much responsibility and respect for this art form because it could change a person’s life to maybe a whole world.
MM: What was it like to attend the Tony Awards, can you describe the evening?
JH: It was definitely an unforgettable memory in my life. The TONYs is absolute dream for every theater kid in the world. All of the actors on Broadway working very hard for the TONYs.
Tony season is a challenging for Broadway performers because every show gets voted for it which means you have to be as perfect as possible every performance for those months. This could be a lot of pressure. The voting starts from April to end of May. The pressure of being perfection comes with this time. On top of this, those shows are doing promotional TV appearances such as Good Morning America, Today, The View, and etc., because every show wants to win the TONYs and this means by that there are most likely no day offs for these two months.
On the day of TONYs, people who are performing for TONYs have a rehearsal from 8:30 a.m. which means casts come to their own theatre around 7am to get ready their costume and make up. This means you have to get up an hour or two early before 7am to get to the theater! Tony Awards are always on the first Sunday of June and the day before on Saturday is always two shows day and the show usually done around 10:40 p.m. so casts usually get 4-5 hours of sleep the day before the TONYs. Then you rehearse until 12:30pm back to their theater do a matinee show and comeback to the venue and get ready for the live TONY AWARDS. This schedule is crazy! Magically, all of this exhaustion goes away in a moment when you meet 6,000 people in the audience in RADIO CITY MUSIC HALL. The view is just all you would have imagined. The waves of 6,000 people standing ovations is absolutely unforgettable.
MM: You are now working on some big Hollywood movie projects, so how did those opportunities come about? Can you tell us about the plots of the movies and the characters you’ll be playing?
JH: I have to thank my partner in crime BLOC NYC. My agent BLOC made me an appointment. BLOC is the best! I filmed ISN’T IT ROMANTIC and IN THE HEIGHTS as a featured dancer. I played a Co-star role Hatchet Soldier, in IRON FIST season 2 episode 9. The guy I played in Iron Fist was the best hatchet master who is hired to fight the villain Iron Fist. I was lucky enough to play a leading role Toshi in an independent featured comedy film “Hail Mary!” This movie is about how sumo wrestlers merged into American Football league. Toshi is detail oriented assistant coach. He is maybe too detail oriented who keeps the team going. I had so much fun playing this role in my first featured film experience.
MM: How different is acting on stage from acting on screen and do you prefer one over the other?
JH: I would love to work in both because those two are very similar but different. For the stage, I can feel the connections with the audiences simultaneously and that’s really rewarding but the film you don’t get this reaction right at the moment. One thing I really like about the film is that you can always watch the film again and it lasts forever but the theater productions are temporary.
MM: What is forthcoming for your acting career and would you like to talk about anything else?
JH: I would love to keep exploring and finding my potentials. It could be screen works or principle works in a musical/play. It could be the other side like creative works. I would love to keep expanding my spectrum.
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To learn more about Joomin, visit his official website.