Anupam Tripathi achieved global stardom as Ali in the runaway Netflix hit Squid Game, but he remembers a time when his parents worried he wasn’t serious about acting. After the New Delhi resident won a scholarship to attend Korea National University of the Arts, his parents realized he had more than a dream. He also had a plan.
“I applied and spent three and half months focused on getting into this university to study acting,” said Tripathi. “All of this was done without my family knowing. Then hurray! I got the scholarship. It was one of the most memorable days of my life. My family was very proud. My father even shared sweets to express his happiness that his son is going to Korea on a scholarship to study.”
The Korean drama Squid Game tells the story of a contest with 456 players, all of whom are so in debt they risk their lives to play deadly children’s games. Tripathi plays Ali, a migrant worker from Pakistan. He signs up for the contest after his boss refuses to pay him and he has no other way to feed his young family. Like his Squid Game character, Tripathi moved to another country to pursue an opportunity. It helped him create a relatable character.
“This is my 11th year in Korea,” said Tripathi. “Both Ali and I left the country searching for the greener side of life in a foreign land. My real life made me understand this role better because I lived as Ali for some time when I first came. The connection was very easy. He is a worker, and I was, and still am, a student. Eventually, the purpose of coming to Korea is the same—we are here to better our lives. We are here to achieve something, and learn, improve and strive for better opportunities.”
Becoming an actor in another country—and in another language—was a challenge. Tripathi spent five years acting with Bahroop, a Delhi-based theatre group, before he applied for the scholarship and much of what he knew about Korea came from films such as Oldboy, Oasis and Radiostar.
“I thought KNUA would give me a great platform,” said Tripathi. “With the help of the AMA scholarship, I was able to study what I really loved, acting. And it never failed, my experience with KNUA was and is very enriching. I worked my best and performed whatever came my way. In the beginning, it was very challenging in terms of language, culture, food, and climate, but I learned to master it.”
It took two years for Tripathi to learn Korean, his third language, and feel comfortable acting in it. There was also a degree of culture shock.
“First, I completely concentrated on my ability to perform in Korean,” said Tripathi. “Later on, I shifted my focus to creativity where I can connect with people through my voice and acting. I had trouble getting used to the food, but later I became the biggest advocate of Korean food. The interesting thing here is, when I came to Korea for the first time, I wanted to go back to India in three months and I cried like a baby because I felt so homesick, and missed my home, food, language and all, but I was determined to achieve what I want to achieve. I comforted myself to work on loving this new country, new environment and learning the craft of acting in the Korean language. Now I am so happy to see how I came to love, find joy and respect Korea, its environment, and the craft of acting in Korea.”
Playing Ali in Squid Game was his first big role. The drama not only changed his life, it changed the world of entertainment.
“Whatever work comes my way, I put my 100% to it,” he said. “I acted in a few movies before, with the same energy I invested in Squid Game. I believe it was the power of a great script, character and profile that made Ali’s role in Squid Game successful. Squid Game gave me a new life, new inspiration.”
He is happy to be addressed as Ali by some of the people he meets, since it means his character was memorable.
“Ali’s role was a breakthrough for me to embark on this path of my acting journey to another level,” said Tripathi. “This role has changed my life upside down and I am extremely grateful for that and I am looking forward to performing in many more movies, new projects in the future.”
Tripathi’s stories of working on the Squid Game set make the production seem like fun, but also hard physical work.
“I enjoyed every moment on the set,” he said. “I had fun with Lee Jung-jae, asked tips for acting from actor Park Hae-soo. My first scene during the Red Light, Green Light in very hot weather is quite memorable. Actor Lee Jung-jae supported me a lot, and I was advised to be free and however I wanted to be. These encouraging words helped me enjoy the whole process from thereon. Well, because I had too much fun, I injured my shoulder as I passionately fell multiple times at the scene of crossing the final line in Red Light, Green Light.”
The action director suggested putting down a mat for protection, but Tripathi declined and instead repeatedly fell onto the hard ground because he wanted the action to look realistic.
“It took about eight takes from a different angle of that particular scene. After the last round of the scene, everyone applauded me. That moment was so motivating and inspired me to be better each day on the set.”
In Ali’s final emotional scene, the actor was comforted by actor Park Hae-soo.
“He was there for me with guidance during my tough times on the set,” said Tripathi. “He held me tight as a big brother. Ali’s last scene of realizing betrayal was psychologically very draining and difficult for me.”
Tripathi credits director Hwang Dong-hyuk with helping him deliver the best performance. The director clearly explained what was expected of the actors and guided him through tough times.
“I believe the entire crew is the reason for the success of Squid Game.”
Since Tripathi is now an international star, his acting career may take him to even more countries. It helps that he can act in three languages.
“I will and want to act in these three languages when the opportunities come in,” he said. “It is almost like a religion to do my homework in studying acting to try and give my best every time. Korea has become my second home and working land now. And these days the technology has made us much closer so we do not have a permanent station. And for me, I think actors don’t have permanent space or station. We move wherever the good creative stories take us. This world is open to all, depending on the demand, we move, but we keep visiting our homes no matter how far we go.”
Korea has become the content hub of Asia and Tripathi anticipates there will be more global productions crossing over with Hollywood.
“I personally think Korea is the next Hollywood,” said Tripathi. “So I’m thinking there will be more diverse openings to the foreign roles. The industry is changing very fast. And with the help of OTT platforms like Netflix creating more and more international content for global audiences, I think there will be an influx of demand for foreign roles. When I first came to Korea, I couldn’t imagine this at all. So, it’s exciting to see more changes.”
Tripathi is considering future projects with Chris S. Lee, who represents him at B&C Content.
“My management and I are looking into them. I always want to do projects that will stay with people like Ali in Squid Game. I want to tell stories through my characters. A creative actor always has a tremendous appetite. No matter how great his hunger or his thirst is, it is never satisfying. We always strive to do our best. We always want to do more. We always want to perform better than before. I want to come to a place where I feel I did the best. Miles to go!”
This story was originally published on forbes.com.