In the runaway Netflix hit Squid Game, Lee Jung-jae plays Gi-hun, a man down on his luck and yet also somewhat to blame for his own misfortune. Gi-hun gambles, not only with his own cash, but that of his elderly mother and even bets money set aside to buy his daughter a birthday present. And yet, the way Lee plays Gi-hun, there is something likable about him. Gi-hun is not heartless. He just sincerely and foolishly believes he has a chance to beat the system.
Lee took the role in Squid Game because he was intrigued by the premise, the idea that innocent childhood games could be used as part of a survival game for adults, but he was also attracted to the character.
“In most of the projects I’ve done in recent years I’ve played fierce characters that would ramp up the tension in the story,” said Lee. “I was contemplating what other aspects of myself I could show to audiences when I was offered the role of Seong Gi-hun. When I read the script, I saw how kind-hearted Gi-hun was, and I liked that he didn’t lose that human side of him even in the most extreme situations. I think that’s also why a lot of viewers rooted for him. I put a great deal of thought into bringing this character to life, which gradually changed the way I breathe and think and eventually transformed me into Gi-hun.”
The care Lee invested in creating his character paid off and the drama quickly shot to number one on Netflix viewing lists in dozens of countries, also spawning TikTok challenges that recreated the drama’s games, sales of the honeycomb candy featured in one episode and a run on the green track suits worn by the game’s participants. The drama also drew praise from reviewers, some of whom compared its portrayal of a rigged economic system to the message of social inequality so well demonstrated in the award-winning Korean film Parasite.
For Lee, Squid Game highlights the dangers of living in a highly competitive society.
“Squid Game features diverse characters with different background stories,” said Lee. “It’s also where an extreme form of competition unfolds. Even in the midst of such dire situations, Gi-hun doesn’t lose his humanity and manages to muster up the courage to hold on to it. In that sense, I think Gi-hun reminds us of the humanity we might lose as we get caught up in the competition of modern society.”
Gi-hun is more likable than some of Lee’s recent characters. The actor is good at playing villains. If he’s playing a villain in a project, it’s likely to be a success. Among his memorable roles are a vicious Yakuza gangster in Deliver Us From Evil, a villainous prince in The Face Reader and even the God of Death in the Along With The Gods: Two Worlds and Along With The Gods: 49 Days.
“A villain always stimulates your imagination and allows an actor to deliver a more nuanced performance. So, it’s interesting to play one. I’m very grateful that so many people love the villains that I’ve portrayed. Even when playing a stereotypical villain, I’ve always tried to put my own spin on it to make it less generic, and I think audiences have found it refreshing.”
Lee began his career as a model, then became a star almost overnight with his acting debut in the 1993 drama Dinosaur Teacher. He’s done his share of romantic roles, played an undercover cop in New World and a cheating husband in The Housemaid.
“I find it most difficult to play a person you’d see in everyday life,” said Lee. “To play an intense dramatic character I can outline a set of defining features of the character at the beginning to perform, but playing an ordinary person going about his daily life isn’t so easy. The biggest challenge in filming Squid Game was to ensure that viewers were convinced to believe the reality of this terrifying game and it was critical for me to capture how desperate Gi-hun was. The most difficult scene to film was the honeycomb challenge. It was difficult because we had to gradually drive up tension to the maximum with limited physical movements.”
The characters he’s played, including Gi-hun, have changed him.
“All of the characters that I’ve played are part of a process that has led to change,” said Lee. “And so is Gi-hun. It wasn’t a single character or project that has changed me, but connecting the dots between all of them has turned me into who I am today.”
His next project will be his directorial debut. He directed the spy film Hunt and acts in it along with Jung Woo-Sung. The most fulfilling part of acting for Lee is when his performance is well received.
“I find it rewarding when audiences relate to the story that I’m a part of and say that they enjoyed it. I also find it fun and rewarding to have conversations about acting, which I care about, and with the people I work with creatively.”
Still, despite the fact that Squid Game currently dominates entertainment headlines, the drama’s success has not completely sunk in.
“I’m very happy that the series is being so well received because everyone worked very hard to create it. I always worry if audiences will like my film or series while shooting, and I’m grateful for this unexpected positive response to Squid Game. At the same time I hope the series and its success will open doors for more Korean films and series to reach global audiences.”
This story was originally published in forbes.com.