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BWW Interview: Na-Young Jeon Talks THE KING AND I

BWW Interview: Na-Young Jeon Talks THE KING AND I
Na-Young Jeon

Na-Young Jeon is a Dutch-Korean actress and singer. She's played Fantine in Les Miserables in the West End and has been a part of the Miss Saigon UK Tour, and is currently playing Tuptim in The King and I at London Palladium.

How did you first become interested in theatre?

I've played the piano since I was young and soon began playing whilst singing my own songs and covers.

But it wasn't until I tagged along with a friend to an improvisation class at a theatre company in my hometown that I realised I could also move away from the instrument and use my body in a space to tell stories. It was then that my passion for theatre was ignited.

Did you study to be an actor?

I trained at the Musical Theatre Academy in Codarts, University of the Arts. This was in Rotterdam, in the Netherlands. I gained knowledge and basic skills during the four-year training, but the biggest learning was whilst working in rehearsal studios and on stage.

What are some of the highlights of your career personally?

I love every part that I've played, but if I had to point out two personal highlights then it would be playing Kim in Miss Saigon and Esmeralda in Notre Dame de Paris.

Kim, because it my first leading part; I was 22 years old and not yet graduated from school. It felt like an impossible responsibility (at the start, I was doing all seven to eight shows a week) and I struggled with anxiety. I learned to trust myself and encourage myself, to be my best friend as well as being my worst critic.

BWW Interview: Na-Young Jeon Talks THE KING AND I
Kelli O'Hara and Ken Watanabe
in The King and I

Esmeralda, because it was the first part where I got cast by a solely Korean company for the Korean audience. As a Korean woman who has grown up in the Netherlands, I was always very curious about my roots. Korea was calling. By that time I had been in the West End and had travelled for a year after that. I felt like a gypsy. So it was funny to portray a gypsy girl longing to go to the place where she belongs, in the country where my bloodline is from.

Korea has a very special place in my heart - because of its culture, people and food, of course, but also the musical theatre industry there is thriving. I feel very lucky to have laid my roots there as a performer.

Do you feel you've ever been limited in the roles you've been able to play, or are more productions welcoming diversity?

To be honest, I've never felt restricted because of my ethnicity. I'm a firm believer that if you bring what's right to the part, then the part is yours. Of course there's competition, but that wouldn't be any different if I was blond with blue eyes. At the end of the day it's about the mastery of the craft and the spirit you bring. I wouldn't want to be cast for any other reason than that.

You've been involved in theatre across the world. What do you find unique about the West End?

The West End has such a long history of theatre and you can feel it everywhere. The beautiful old theatres tell their own story. So many shows and performers have been before you, and that's a very humbling thought.

Also, theatre seems to play a part in everyone's life here in one or another way. It's embedded in the culture, and you can feel that amongst the people and in the audience.

BWW Interview: Na-Young Jeon Talks THE KING AND I
In rehearsal for The King and I

What drew you to The King and I?

I loved singing the songs - it felt like floating. During auditions for The King and I, I was in a show where I was belting at the top of my lungs, so it was such a breath of fresh air to sing something completely different, so romantic, so classical. I went into the auditions without many expectations, but working with [director Bartlett Sher] at the audition was so exciting. I really hoped I would get the chance to work with him properly and dive into this part.

Were you familiar with the show before being cast? Have you seen the film or the Lincoln Center production?

I had seen a different adaptation of the film, not the musical version.

Tell us a bit about the character you play.

Tuptim is a princess from Burma who is being gifted to the Siamese King. This means she will now be one of the many wives of the King and she will not have any free will in the Royal Palace. What the King doesn't know is that she's in love with Lun Tha, a scholar from Burma who is also in the Siamese palace grounds.

Tuptim and Mrs. Anna Leonowens, played by Kelli O'Hara, have a lovely bond. Tuptim is surprisingly well read and is interested in English books. Inspired by the book Uncle Tom's Cabin, Tuptim starts writing her own play. Throughout the show, Tuptim's horizon broadens and she develops a strong vision on women's rights and slavery.

BWW Interview: Na-Young Jeon Talks THE KING AND I
Kelli O'Hara in The King and I

Do you think the audience will react differently in the wake of #MeToo and reawakened dialogue about women's struggles?

There absolutely are parallels between what Tuptim goes through and #MeToo and the dialogue about women's struggles. It's fascinating and alarming to realise that we are still having this conversation. It's not much different to what Tuptim goes through in the 19th century.

Women have been wired in such way that we must obey, be polite, accommodate. And when we do speak out we often find ourselves feeling guilty for it. At least this is what I've experienced and I know that many women feel the same. It is OK, and most necessary, for women to speak up and voice what our needs are. We can only learn this way.

I hope the audience sees a very brave young girl in Tuptim, who finds bliss in her truth and acts according to her convictions. This means that she might lose something dear to her, but she rises with dignity.

What's your favourite thing about the show thus far? Do you have a favourite number?

My favourite number is "Getting to Know You". It's seemingly very happy and light, but I always well up a bit on stage during this song. It's Mrs. Anna Leonowens's love for those beautiful innocent children (melt). It's such a beautiful, hopeful moment where two worlds meet.

What's it like getting to be a part of such an amazing cast, including Kelli O'Hara and Ken Watanabe?

I learn SO MUCH! Listening to Kelli is really like a voice lesson on the spot. Her technique and stage craft really inspire me daily. But not only that, I love to see how she combines being a successful working woman in this industry with also having a family. And it's an honour to witness both Kelli and Ken's work ethic.

BWW Interview: Na-Young Jeon Talks THE KING AND I
In rehearsals for The King and I

How exciting is it to be doing this show at the London Palladium?

Haha. How exciting... Let's see, on a scale from 1 to 10 it would be close to... 9.8? The King and I was last seen in London at the Palladium in 2000. I am very excited to show the audience our rendition.

Why do you think people should come and see The King and I?

The King and I is a classic show with music by Rodgers & Hammerstein. As our director Bartlett Sher says, it is a piece of genius. Also, the set and costumes are absolutely stunning, and the music (we have a 17-piece orchestra) will definitely take you on an unforgettable journey.

Do you have any future dream roles?

There are many parts I dream of playing, like Angelica in Hamilton, Christine in Phantom of the Opera, or new work in Asia. But what I try to focus on is continuing to grow as an actress, keep being surprised and inspired. I would advise any aspiring actress to do the same.

Any other advice?

Your passion for acting is what will give you the strength to do the work.

Check out BroadwayWorld UK's video coverage of a special rehearsal performance from The King and I

The King and I is on at the London Palladium to 29 September

Photo Credit: Paul Kolnik (production photos), James Bullimore (rehearsal photos)

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