[Warning: The following contains spoilers for Episodes 1-10 of Extraordinary Attorney Woo.]
When Park Eun-bin received the offer to play Woo Young-woo, she initially turned it down. In fact, the actor said no to the lead role of Extraordinary Attorney Woo several times before committing to it. Her hesitancy stemmed from Woo Young-woo being a character with autism. "I had to think about this being a drama, so there would be some media influence," Park, who does not have autism, told TV Guide. "I did not want to make a bad impact on the ASD (autism spectrum disorder) community." She met with director Yoo In-shik and writer Moon Ji-won — who waited one year for Park to sign onto the project. And though Park still had concerns about portraying Young-woo, their conversations prompted the actor to say yes. "I knew that they were a wonderful director and a wonderful writer," she said. "So I made my decision that I wanted to be a part of this project. And I think it's a great choice that I made."
Extraordinary Attorney Woo — which premiered on ENA on June 29 and streams on Netflix — follows Young-woo, fictionally the first attorney with autism in Korea. Using her exceptionally high IQ, photographic memory, and encyclopedic knowledge of whales, Young-woo tackles one legal case after another. The series also features Kang Ki-young as Young-woo's sage mentor Jung Myeong-seok and Kang Tae-oh as her colleague and romantic interest Lee Jun-ho. While garnering high viewership ratings in Korea, Extraordinary Attorney Woo also became the most-viewed non-English TV series on Netflix in three of the last four weeks, with more than 65 million hours viewed between July 25 and July 31.
Much of the drama's success has been attributed to Park's performance. Her Young-woo is inquisitive, imaginative, and perhaps most impressive when reciting paragraphs of civil and criminal laws without so much as pausing for breath. It's a role that Park has made her own. Ahead of the release of Extraordinary Attorney Woo'slast five episodes, Park spoke to TV Guide, via a translator, about how she prepared to play Young-woo and the significance of specific cases and characters.
What were your main concerns about playing Woo Young-woo?
Park Eun-bin: First of all, I thought that I could not have any stereotypes or prejudices going into this project. That was one of my main concerns. Because this drama and its themes involve and concern a lot of people, I felt a sense of responsibility very heavily. I did not want to offend or hurt anyone.
How did you prepare for the role?
Park: There could be different approaches, but I didn't choose the approach of actually meeting up with real-life people [with autism] because I thought this character Woo Young-woo should only exist in the drama itself. I did not want to mimic any real-life people, or characters that we've seen in previous dramas or shows. So if I were to not use any video references, then what would be a cautious approach to take? And I thought that was books or the diagnostic criteria for ASD. When I studied the diagnostic criteria for ASD, there were characteristics of people who have ASD so I referred to those. And based on those characteristics, I built more characteristics that would work in the drama.
What were some of those characteristics you added to the character?
Park: I asked myself, is it okay to actually act out this person? That's why I didn't want to mimic anyone who already existed. I did not want people to feel like I was acting Woo Young-woo. I focused on how she felt. Although there were a lot of details in the script, I didn't just focus on acting out whatever was in it. But I thought about why she made such choices and such actions and how she felt inside. A lot of the ad-libs and improvisations were non-intentional. I just kind of immersed myself in the character and the way she walks or the way she reacts. It's not really in the script, but they're my own reactions when thinking about how she felt. I wouldn't say that I practiced any of her way of walking or bodily gestures, but they came up naturally as I immersed myself into the character.
Many of the cases are very heavy and emotional, and address topics from domestic violence to sexual assault. From the episodes that have aired so far, which case has been the most impactful to you personally?
Park: There are various cases in the drama and I think through all these cases, Young-woo finally gets to know more about herself and how the world evolves. It's kind of hard to pick just one case but the North Korean defector case [in Episode 6], that was quite impactful to me. Because after we have that case, and Young-woo talks about the mother whale and the baby whale, then it kind of naturally flows to the story with Tae Su-mi (Jin Kyung) and the secret about Young-woo's birth. I think that flow was very natural and I didn't have to think before I act. I just felt how she would have felt.
What was it like acting opposite Jin Kyung?
Park: I remember having the scene [in Episode 8] with Tae Su-mi and Young-woo asked her, "Do you not recognize me? I'm Woo Gwang-ho's daughter." That was the scene where I actually first met with Jin Kyung sunbaenim for filming, because we didn't film in chronological order. That was the first scene with her. I actually felt much more emotional than when I was reading the script. We had many takes and at first the director said we should use the scene where you look the least emotional, but later on, the scene when she asked me, "Do you resent me?" The director really liked that scene and he said, "Okay, we should use this." I think Young-woo is a character who doesn't not feel emotions, but she just interprets emotions in different ways and the way she reacts could be different from other people. So I tried my best to separate my own feelings from Young-woo's feelings. And I just wanted to portray her as someone who does know what motherly love is.
There was also a lot of discussion about Episode 3, "This Is Pengsoo." What was your reaction when you read the script for that episode for the first time?
Park: Episode 3, it was very heart-wrenching. There's the last narration by Young-woo when she talks about ASD and she says, "I might not be a good lawyer," and she gives up her dream. If we think about this kind of genius, Asperger's Syndrome lawyer we might think that she would do really well in all her cases and everything would work out fine. But then we have the twist in Episode 3, which I really liked. And I think that was what's needed. When I first got the script, I got up to Episode 6 or 8 and then when I was reading through the whole six to eight episodes, I thought Episodes 3 and 4 really struck me and that they were very important.
Episode 3 also featured Jeong-hun, Hanbada's client who has autism. The show discusses how he's different from Young-woo. Can you talk about the significance of the character?
Park: Just like any of us, we all have different characteristics and so do they. Instead of focusing on the characteristics of Autism Spectrum Disorder, I wanted to think about what characteristics of Young-woo I could show to the audience. As the word spectrum in ASD suggests itself, there's this whole big spectrum and there could be different types of people, just like Young-woo and Jeong-Hun have showed us. I thought it was a good opportunity to raise awareness of the fact that autism is a spectrum and there could be different people on different points of the spectrum. It's not just Young-woo or Jeong-hun, but there could be so many different people we're living together with that are at different places on the spectrum.
I also wanted to ask about Shin Hye-young, the character from the recently aired Episode 10. [In this episode, a man is accused of sexually assaulting Shin Hye-young, who has an intellectual disability.] How did Young-woo feel toward Shin Hye-young during the trial?
Park: I think she must have very complex feelings towards this woman. I personally don't think love is critical in a person's growth. But to Young-woo I think that romantic love was also critical in the growth of herself. She usually lives just within her own boundaries and in her own world, but love is like inviting someone else to her world. Young-woo is a very high-functional, genius lawyer. That's how she differentiates from Shin Hye-young, but they do both have disabilities. But she knows that they're different, so I think it must have been very complex for Young-woo. Young-woo, in the "Pengsoo" episode, says that she herself knows how she is different and similar to Jeong-hun but other people just think of them as the same people. We always think about how we know everything about other people, but that's not the case. And I think that was the case for Young-woo too. This woman allowed Young-woo to think about what love is and how she should go about her love towards Jun-ho.
On the note of Jun-ho, let's end on a lighter note. What was your favorite scene to film between Young-woo and Jun-ho?
Park: My favorite scene with Jun-ho actually has not aired yet. They've been clicking together, they have been having a relationship but you haven't seen yet how it's going to unfold.
Episodes 1 to 12 of Extraordinary Attorney Woo are available to stream.
(Editor's Note: A previous version of this story said the interview took place before the release of Extraordinary Attorney Woo's last six episodes. It took place before the release of the last five episodes, not six.)