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"Squid Game" interview roundup

Lee Jung-jae on his international breakout role




Actor Lee Jung-jae has so far already established himself as one of the top actors in Korea, building an extensive portfolio over the 28 years of his career, from playing a charismatic villain in "The Face Reader" (2013) to a ruthless Yakuza gangster in "Deliver Us From Evil" (2020).

But it only took one series for the 49-year-old actor to rise to international stardom with the role of a broke, yet good-hearted gambling addict in Netflix's new hit original, "Squid Game."

"I was in a phase where I was contemplating what my next project should be. Because as I got older, the roles I was offered were mostly villains or other such fierce characters," the actor told The Korea Times.

"And just as I was hoping to show a different type of acting, the series' director Hwang Dong-hyuk offered me the role of Gi-hun. I wanted to portray an everyday kind of character."

The nine-part thriller series is based on high-stakes rounds of children's games, in which participants risk their lives to become the sole survivor who wins 45.6 billion won ($39.4 million).

Lee expressed that he was drawn to the idea of the survival-themed series. "The idea of taking the games we used to play when we were young and making them into survival games was grotesque and chilling," he said.

"Also unlike other survival game genre works, the series takes a closer look into the sorrows and sufferings of the people who take part in the game, and carefully develops them. So when the characters face off in the ending, it comes out as truly cathartic."

Lee's character, Gi-hun, became a persistent gambler after getting laid off from his previous job, even stealing from his elderly mother, whom he lives with. His daughter is about to move abroad with his ex-wife's family. Driven to make money to gain his daughter's custody and for his mother's surgery, he joins the game without knowing much about what he's getting himself into.

Lee, who is widely known for his sophisticated, sharp look in Korea, was willing to step out of this well-established image for a transformation to portray the divorced, down-and-out character.

"I wanted to really look like a person living in a basement-level apartment in Ssangmun-dong. When I first came in for a fitting, the costume director gave me the most unflattering clothes that were not even my actual size. And I said, 'I'll take whatever you give me,'" he said.

"As an actor, I did what I had to do to bring out the character of Gi-hun, so I've never felt embarrassed about the look."

Along with Gi-hun's appearance, he said that he studied people on the street to refine the details in his acting.

"One thing I did differently (from previous works) was that I would go for a walk a night before filming and observe the people on the streets in order to find elements to add to the character," he said, adding that portraying an ordinary person was harder than his previous roles.

"With villainous characters, it's not so hard to act once you set the character in the beginning, but (with this character,) there were a lot more things to put into the equation to look natural."

The series delicately follows the emotional state of Gi-hun, as he barely makes it through each round of the deadly games, while struggling between following his conscience and risking his life.

Lee noted that his sympathetic character delivers the main message of the series. "I'm not sure if audiences abroad would have agreed with this character offering to help others, even under extremely hard circumstances. But I think this is a type of sentiment that Koreans have," he said.

"To me, he just seemed like a warm-hearted person, and there was nothing about the story that I couldn't wrap my head around. He had the bravery to hold onto the things that he shouldn't let go of. And that part of the character reflects the message of the series, I think."

The actor explained that he put his heart into every scene, and that he was surprised to see the outcome of his acting.

"When I first saw my acting, I laughed for a while… I was using gestures and expressions that I don't normally use, and that have not been using for quite a time," he said. "Especially with the Dalgona game, I thought to myself, 'Do I really need to lick this hard?'... But when you think about the fact that he is risking his life, it made sense to go all out. I felt intense emotions in every game."

Adding that he was awed by the scale of the set, he praised the production team's efforts in bringing fiction to life on the screen.

"The size of the set, as if it were a playground, was staggering, and the artistry of its design was excellent, as if it was a modern art exhibition," he said. "So it kept me curious to see what each next set would look like, and when I get to the set I would just be busy taking pictures of it."

Lee, who is currently working on his new film, says that he is enjoying seeing how the series has become a sensation on the internet whenever he has free time.

"I saw some parody videos that viewers made, which are funny. I think they have so many more ideas than we did," he said, adding that the series' skyrocketing popularity feels surreal. "I'm really thankful that so many people, including the press, seem to like the series. And as I have been doing, I'm just going to keep doing my best."



Director shares backstory

Netflix's new Korean original, "Squid Game," has become the newest hallyu sensation all over the world, following director Bong Joon-ho's Oscars-winning film, "Parasite."

Since its release on Sept. 17, "Squid Game" has been dominating the global platform's streaming charts around the world, including in the U.S, the first time for a Korean drama series.

Director Hwang Dong-hyuk said that the global success of his Netflix series didn't come as a surprise to him, partly because he had the global market in mind from the get-go.

"The most Korean is the most universal. BTS, PSY and director Bong Joon-ho have already proved that," Hwang, also the writer of the series, said in an interview with The Korea Times via video chat, Tuesday.

"Korea's old children's games, which were used in my series, are simple and old, but I saw the potential to make them appealing worldwide."

Netflix's new Korean original, "Squid Game," has become the newest hallyu sensation all over the world, following director Bong Joon-ho's Oscars-winning film, "Parasite."

Since its release on Sept. 17, "Squid Game" has been dominating the global platform's streaming charts around the world, including in the U.S, the first time for a Korean drama series.

Director Hwang Dong-hyuk said that the global success of his Netflix series didn't come as a surprise to him, partly because he had the global market in mind from the get-go.

"The most Korean is the most universal. BTS, PSY and director Bong Joon-ho have already proved that," Hwang, also the writer of the series, said in an interview with The Korea Times via video chat, Tuesday.

"Korea's old children's games, which were used in my series, are simple and old, but I saw the potential to make them appealing worldwide."

"'Squid Game' involves survival games, but it's actually about people… So it doesn't take long for audiences anywhere to understand the rules of the games, which gives more room for them to follow the emotions of the characters who are playing the games," he said.

"Other similar genre series or films follow one hero solving difficult puzzles to become a winner. But this series is a story of losers. There are no winners ― no geniuses ― but rather a person who takes each step forward with the help of others."

The director came up with the plot way back in 2008 and had written the script a year later. But due to its "bizarre" concept, the series took more than a decade to see the light of day, he explained.

"But after about 12 years, the world has changed into a place where such peculiar, violent survival stories are actually welcomed," he said. "People commented on how the series is relevant to real life. Sadly, the world has changed in that direction. The series' games that participants go crazy over align with people's desires to hit the jackpot with things like cryptocurrency, real estate and stocks. So many people have been able to empathize with the story."

Despite the massive success of "Squid Game," the director revealed that the production of the series had been a gamble for him.

"Making the story into the series was still an adventure, just as it was about a decade ago. I knew that it would be all or nothing; either a masterpiece or a quirky flop," he said. "The idea behind this work was very experimental. So I would keep on asking myself if audiences will find it convincing that the characters are risking their lives to play children's games."

The director explained that the entire process, from writing the scripts to filming it, put him through immense stress.

"Each night before filming, I would always think about ways to make the scenes better and revise the scripts. The level of stress that I was under was a full 100 percent, which hit me hard," he said. "I've always considered every work as a challenge, but this piece had a much higher risk, so I put all my effort into making it a good one."

His effort to make the show's concept convincing led him to carefully choose the games that feature in the series.

"I came up with which games to use in the story about 10 years ago. And it was, to begin with, the red light, green light game that makes a big impact with shocking mass deaths," he said.

He explained that he chose the squid game as the last round because it aligns with the irony of the series. "I thought players fighting like warriors using the shapes, which form a ring, would demonstrate the irony of it being a children's game, as well as the players' desperation."

Hwang said that balancing between the fiction and realistic elements in the story to appeal to a wider audience was the difficult part of making the series.

"Such a situation would never happen in real life so it's unrealistic and could possibly only appeal to those who like this specific genre. So I had to find the perfectly even balance between fantastic and real-life elements," he said.

When asked if fans should expect the second season, he explained that he does have a few ideas in his head, but noted that he has no definitive comment on a sequel series as of yet.

"As I led the series alone, writing and directing, it was mentally and physically too much… so I'm concerned whether, if we were to do a season 2, would I be able to do it all myself?" he said. "I've been telling people how we can't make the second season right away. But since so many people love the series, it sort of does feel like I can't say that I won't do it."

Referring to the series' success as both a blessing and a curse, the director concluded, "It's the acknowledgment of a lifetime, yet it is also a label that will follow me around. From now on, anything I do will be compared to 'Squid Game,' which to me is both a burden and an honor."





source: The Korea Times 1 2
Tags: drama, netflix
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