For Bae Suzy, playing the titular character in Netflix’s Doona! is seemingly the role of a lifetime.
Adapted from the beloved webtoon "The Girl Downstairs," it follows the journey of Lee Doona, a superstar K-pop idol at the zenith of her career. However, she abruptly decides to retire from the industry and move into a sharehouse near a quaint university where she finds herself with an unlikely roommate, college freshman Lee Wonjun, played by Yang Se-jong.
Director Lee Jung-hyo, best known for his work on the Netflix sensation Crash Landing on You, helms Doona with masterful sensibility. “Doona! is a story about these two people who lived in completely different worlds and who come and meet each other and blend into each other's worlds. It's the process of it,” he says. “It's also the process of beginning to understand each other. So, it's a drama series that follows that story of blending into one another. And also that very early 20s vibes, when you are not as skilled with everything, you are a little bit naive.”
Wonjun is a bit green, but kind hearted. Doona is older and comes with battle scars. Their meet cute is closer to an awkward altercation, with Doona believing Wonjun to be a stalker at first. “She is very sensitive, very alert, and she has a guard up, and it's hard to tell what she's thinking. That's the kind of character she is,” Suzy shares. “But once you get to know her, she really loves people, and she has that thirst for love.”
Can you blame her? The K-pop industry's intense environment, marked by rigorous training and constant scrutiny, has become synonymous with seeking perfection and enduring criticism from fans and internet trolls.
Art imitates life with Doona! as Suzy herself is a retired K-pop idol, having debuted with JYP Entertainment girl group Miss A when she was only 15 years old. Suzy rose to meteoric heights, quickly gaining popularity in her group and appearing in K-dramas and films such as Dream High, Architecture 101, Gu Family Book, and Uncontrollably Fond. She earned the moniker “CF Queen” [commercial film] due to her abundance of endorsement deals and was hailed as the nation’s “first love” by South Korean media. Nowadays, she partakes in roughly one major project a year. In 2022, she starred in the web series Anna, and Netflix viewers will remember her other K-drama hits Vagabond in 2019 and Start-Up in 2020.
“I did think of the times when I was part of a girl group. Looking back, like there were moments that I felt I was struggling but I didn't really know much. You know I think I try to deny that I was struggling. I try to just stay a bubbly person and stay in my bright bubbly kind of character,” she says.
That is where Suzy finds liberation. Doona! effortlessly encapsulates the quintessential aspects of a captivating K-drama: a notable production team and the intentionally crafted, unhurried evolution of a romantic connection between its two protagonists. Yet, this series delves deeper. It takes its time, condensing 150 episodes of the webtoon into just nine, less than 50 minute episodes. There is a meditative exploration into the intricacies and reverberations of fame and what it means to heal through that. Doona’s fractured. She is impulsive and messy. When she smiles, it is for others but not for herself. Lee Wonjun has no idea who Lee Doona is and she’s unaware of how the real world works, but he helps her find the extraordinary from the ordinary.
Director Lee praises Suzy’s dedication as she had to sing, dance, perform, and act. They even flew out to the KCON Japan stage to film the musical sequence for Doona’s girl group Sweet Dream.
“There were so many different roles that she had to take on. And I thought that Suzy had so many things to do compared to other projects and she would have been very tired, but she never showed that tiredness to us. That's what I really loved about her. When we were talking about the cast lineup of Doona!, the only person that came to my mind was Suzy,” he said.
However, Lee Doona is less the role of a lifetime for Suzy as it is the portrayal of a different time, a glimpse into another life line in being somebody she shares similarities with, but never quite got the chance to be.
“Doona is different. She would express her feelings to every extent, and she lets herself suffer. She lets herself go through all those emotions. I kind of was envious of her and could resonate with her in that sense. So that's why I thought that I wanted to give her a big hug,” Suzy reflects.
Through the drama, Suzy gets to tackle issues of mental health with Doona almost serving as a stand-in to convey certain hardships she may have felt during her own time at the top of the world. What some might see as perfect or easy casting glosses over an unspoken courage.
When asked if she learned anything about herself while playing her character, she describes the shooting of a scene at an amusement park. "I actually used to pride myself in being really great with rides at amusement parks," she recalls. "But this time for the series, I had the scene where Doona would go to an amusement park and play by herself. And when we were shooting the scene, I thought, you know, I learned about myself that I am scared. I get scared more than I thought I would. It was so dizzying. And I even felt my stomach churning. So I thought to myself, ‘hey, sometimes I try to act all tough on the outside, but I actually can't pull that off.’"
What Suzy managed to pull off instead was unearthing a cathartic echo. Subtleties of emotion and unraveling her own vulnerability in the process. Doona! is both a big hug of a drama and a mirror imploring for the bravery to confront one's true self.