In Squid Game, lead character Seong Gi-hun is a down-on-his-luck gambling addict given a dangerous opportunity to win a fortune and turn his life around by playing deadly children’s games against 456 other cash-strapped no-hopers. Lee Jung-jae, who plays Seong, has almost nothing in common with his alter-ego: he is one of South Korea’s biggest stars through films such as Deliver Us from Evil and the Along with the Gods franchise and shows Chief of Staff and Triple.
He is humble about his opportunity after the show’s unexpected global success and the glut of awards nominations he garnered afterward (including becoming the first male TV performer to earn a Screen Actors Guild Award nomination for a fully non-English language role). “I still don’t feel like my life has changed dramatically,” he says. “But I do look forward to having more opportunities to work with great people on more projects.”
Lee had no representation in the U.S. when Squid Game broke through, creating the situation where an overnight Netflix star emerged without a direct line into Hollywood. That soon changed when he signed with CAA in February. “After several meetings, I came to the conclusion that we could be good partners,” he says. “I’m already getting a lot of support from them. I’m truly grateful.”
Lee now has the toolkit to replicate his huge Korean success in the U.S. and he believes the way audiences interpret stories these days gives him an even better chance to make an impression. “We now live in an era where the ability to express emotions is more important for an actor than the linguistic skills,” he says. “I’m not fluent in English, but I don’t think it will prevent me from communicating the emotions of my characters.”
Lee will be at the Cannes Film Festival at a Midnight Screening with his directorial debut Hunt, in which he stars opposite close friend Jung Woo-sung as a National Security Agency operative. While the film, which he is also writing and producing, is a spy thriller with a 1980s-set storyline addressing the paranoia and fear behind the decades-old conflict between North Korea and South Korea, it actually centers on themes of “preventing war and violence,” he says.
“The themes can be rather serious, but I did my best to make the film as entertaining as possible. The organizers of the Cannes Film Festival took a favorable view of the intentions behind the film and the elements of entertainment it brings. I’m honored to be able to have my directorial debut screened at the festival, and I look forward to the conversation with the audience after the premiere.”
Looking beyond the French Riviera, Lee sees a bright future for Korean content. He notes that the central themes of Squid Game—such as class, financial woes and overcoming crazy odds—resonated around the world and proved how stories from the country can drive the global conversation. “There’s a lot of Korean content that is just as entertaining as Squid Game, so I’m confident we will see more hits like it,” he says. “There are many series and films currently in production across a wide variety of genres that have not been tried before. These series and films will move and entertain audiences in many other countries.”
If Lee is right, K-pop soon won’t be the only Korean entertainment export driving tastes in the West.
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