Interview: Musical Actress Na-Young Jeon, Fantine in West End ‘Les Miserables’

Na-Young Jeon is a well-known Dutch Korean actress in Holland (the Netherlands) where she starred in ‘Miss Saigon’ and she has appeared in numerous television programs there and in Belgium. Miss Jeon is currently performing in the stage production of ‘Les Miserables’ at the Queen’s Theatre in London’s West End until June, 2014. Les Miserables has been running in London continuously since its debut in 1985. Tickets to this must-see show are available through the official website.

Q: What is it like to be playing one of the most recognisable characters in musical history on the stage in London’s West End?

A: Well, first of all, when I heard that I got the job, I couldn’t believe it. It was something I had been dreaming of. And I think that if you really do believe in something, then you can achieve it. I worked for it. It’s funny because I wrote it down: “2013, Les Miserables in London” [a couple of years before I got the part]. I did that just to remind myself that’s what I wanted to do. So I was very proud and happy when I got the call. It feels like a very big responsibility, but it’s also a relief for me that I am recognised for my talent. Because when I was in college during musical training [in the Netherlands] I was not always anchored and I was not always sure about what I was doing as I was still a student then. And when I was chosen for the leading role in ‘Miss Saigon’ it could have been only because I am an Asian girl. But to be chosen to play the role of Fantine in the London West End production of ‘Les Miserables’, that was really more of a recognition [of my ability as an actress].

Q: How were you cast for the role of Fantine in Les Miserables?

A: Three years ago I auditioned for the role of Kim in Miss Saigon in Holland, and I was chosen to play her. That was a Cameron Macintosh production, so Cameron and all the creative team from England flew over to Holland to work with me. So that’s how we met. And when they were casting again for Les Miserables in London they called me to ask me if I wanted to audition for it. Actually, I auditioned for three main parts including Cosette. At first, they wanted to see me as Cosette in the Korean production of Les Mis. Afterwards, I auditioned for Eponine, but [in the end] they wanted me as Fantine.

Q: What do you think about the film adaptation of Les Miserables and the original book by Victor Hugo? Particularly in relation to the character of Fantine.

A: Well of course they are different. It would be very boring if they were all the same. But I have seen the film and I am reading the book. I really, really liked [the film]. It’s an honour to portray the role that Anne Hathaway played so well. Because I really thought it was brilliant what she did. I have to say I just inspire myself with all of those things – the book, the film. But after that, I think it’s very important for me to make my own version, my own portrayal of Fantine.

Q: Do you consider it significant that you are one of the first women of Asian descent to play such a major role in Les Miserables and in a famous London theatre?

A: I’m very proud and happy to see that because it means that people are getting more open-minded. It’s not about typecasting. If you are suitable for the role and you have everything to give, then you can be chosen. I hope it gives a lot of hope to Asian actors all over.

Q: Your profile describes you as a ‘Korean singer and actress born in Holland’. Do you think of yourself as an Asian woman or as a European?

A: I consider myself as both – Dutch and Korean. I can understand that might seem strange. I have to say I have had trouble with my identity for a long time. I am Korean but my family lives in Holland, so I was brought up very traditionally Korean but my friends were all Dutch and I was surrounded by Western culture, so it was a big conflict.

Q: How did you get involved with acting and musical theatre originally?

A: Since I was very young, there were a few films that I was really drawn to. Stories, and telling stories, listening to stories, watching stories on film, or listening to stories in music, whatever it is – storytelling is really one of my passions. So if you are passionate about storytelling, I think it is just a very small step to becoming an actress. I’ve always played the piano and sang while playing the piano. And I was very fascinated by theatre. So I started acting when I was 14, 15 and then I didn’t stop!

Q: Are you recognised in Korea? Do people know you over there?

A: I don’t know if they know me there. That would be nice. But sometimes I get a tweet from somebody in South Korea saying “I’m your biggest fan” and that gives me hope. That really makes my day. And sometimes at the stage door after my show, there are people who flew over from Korea specially to see me here in the West End. That is so heartwarming.

Q: Would you like to work there someday?

A: I would love to work in Korea and I’m really hoping to live and work in Korea in the future, but these are not really concrete plans yet. I know there is a huge musical theatre scene over there, but I think there is more to life than only musical theatre. I don’t really mind what I’m doing, but I traveled to Korea 3 years ago on my own and I went to a Buddhist temple in Gyeongju [Golgulsa] where all the monks are also training in martial arts and I trained with them. And they said I’m always welcome to go there again. So that’s something that is still in my mind. I love nature and the Buddhist life and martial arts so I would really like to dedicate my life for a couple of months to being there.

Q: And are you enjoying your life in London now?

A: Yes, I’m very much enjoying it, although I’m away from my family and friends. That’s new for me. I’ve never been away from them for such a long time so I do miss them but I also think it’s very good because you realize how precious they are to you.

Interview by Tim Holm (@paratize)

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