When ingénue Jihae—with no prior acting experience—was cast in the National Geographic miniseries Mars to play twin sisters, no one was more surprised than the Hamptons-based actor, singer and artist. Fast-forward to a few short years later, a major movie and another TV role credit to her name, and this multihyphenate is only getting started.
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Perhaps one day, in a gender-binary cinematic future, the sentence that follows will read like a relic from the dinosaur days. A lack of faith in leading women that prevails across a film industry dominated by male characters and stories has reduced female protagonists to stereotypes that hinge on the weak, wicked and oversexualized. Except in science fiction.
Sci-fi programming has diverged from the pack of big studio productions that rarely call upon a female lens by becoming the rare genre in which actresses are reliably permitted to be stars and assume multidimensional leading roles. Alien’s Ellen Ripley, The Terminator’s Sarah Connor and The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen are just a few such heroines. Jihae as Anna Fang, a leader of the Anti-Traction League in the Peter Jackson-produced action film Mortal Engines, is another.
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The South Korea-born, Nigeria- and Sweden-raised Bridgehampton resident plays a freedom fighter who wants to put an end to the insatiable ways of London, the large predatory city on wheels, in order for humans to return to the land. “Playing Anna Fang was such a gift because, in order to get into the mindset of a brave warrior, I took the opportunity to work on some of my own virtues—a challenging yet very rewarding experience,” Jihae explains in a voice that is surprisingly husky and low for someone of her small stature.
What’s even more surprising is how stunning she is in person, with her sharp cheekbones and otherworldly beauty. “It was such an unexpected privilege working with Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, the infamous writer-producer team,” she says. “They were so collaborative with me in bringing Anna Fang to life, and so fun to work with.” For someone who embodied Fang with such skill and authenticity, it’s remarkable that Jihae’s character in Mortal Engines was her first major acting role, which followed her stint on the National Geographic miniseries Mars. Yes, another sci-fi undertaking.
The groundbreaking show was part documentary, part fictional drama that cut between footage from real NASA and SpaceX exploration to a fictional trip set in 2033 aboard the first crewed mission to the Red Planet. Jihae played mission pilot Hana Seung and her twin, Joon, the capsule communicator back on Earth. Oh, and that double role was her screen debut. Much as it does with the characters she embodied that transcended stereotypes and great distances, the word “journey” comes up a lot with Jihae, now resting comfortably between sets of this photo shoot, which had her wearing next to nothing outside on the coldest day in February.
Blazer, price upon request, by Alexandre Vauthier at net-a-porter.com; pavé bar earrings, $875, by Zoë Chicco at Intermix, East Hampton; Love necklace in 18K white gold, $2,310, at Cartier, Americana Manhasset.
“Going to 10 different schools, speaking three different languages, I grew up having to face fear of the unfamiliar constantly,” Jihae explains while sipping hot tea. “It was tough as a child, but in retrospect, those challenging experiences were opportunities for me to learn to conquer fears and adapt to new environments at an early age. My childhood was a training ground to build resilience and mental fortitude. And the gift of experiencing various cultures allowed for an open mind.”
Acting was an accidental turn on a road to a career in music, intercepted by modeling stints that made her the object of photographic affection of such powerful names as Annie Leibovitz, Peter Beard and Peter Lindbergh. A singer, composer and founder of indie music and multimedia company Septem, Jihae has collaborated on her albums with the likes of Lenny Kravitz, Dave Stewart and the late Leonard Cohen. “I came of age at the end of my adolescence into adulthood when it dawned on me that the world is not a fair place,” says Jihae, who grew up in a household that encouraged creativity. “It’s a sensitive age where you feel invincible and so fragile at the same time, like you can conquer the world and also be devoured by it. Instead of looking for a career, I began to explore expressing my intense feelings in music, stifled over the purpose and meaning of life.”
Challenged by limitations the music industry seems to place on independent artists, she began to think out of the box to create buzz around her work. “I had to wear the marketing hat to figure out how to give a longer life span to my songs with no budget. This is where my experimentation in other mediums of art and collaborations began,” she says. “I had already treated my albums as art projects, so curating group art exhibits and making video art installations was a natural extension.” The harsh realities of trying to make it in music left her longing for something else, not as a distraction but as a way to remain captivated by it. “At the suggestion of my mentor, I started to take acting lessons,” she recalls. “After my third lesson, a mutual friend of ours emailed me to see if I was interested in auditioning for a Ron Howard project, Mars. I sent in the audition tape and was flown out to Budapest in 10 days.”
A romantic at heart, Jihae came to New York for love. (No surprise when one considers her father learned arias to serenade her opera-loving mother when they fell in love.) It was an appreciation for the ocean that brought Jihae out East. “I’m a creature of the sea. I can’t stay away too long without hungering for it. The light out East has a special glow… incredible sunsets.” If it were up to her, Jihae would travel to Portugal this summer to revel in its waters. But with a new TV project she is shooting (yes, it’s another sci-fi series), much like the show’s heroine, Jihae is gearing up for yet another intergalactic adventure.