In squid game, main character Seong Gi-hun is an unlucky gambling addict who is offered a dangerous opportunity to earn a fortune and change his life 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 like deliver us from evil and the with the gods franchise and shows Leader and Triple.
He’s humbled by his opportunity after the show’s unexpected global success and the glut of award nominations he’s garnered since (including becoming the first male TV performer to earn a Screen Actors Guild nomination). Award for an entirely non-English language role). “I still don’t feel like my life has changed dramatically,” he says. “But I look forward to having more opportunities to work with great people on more projects.”
Lee had no representation in the United States when squid game broke in, creating the situation where an overnight Netflix star emerged with no direct line to Hollywood. That quickly 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 already get a lot of support from them. I’m really grateful.
Lee now has the toolkit to replicate his massive Korean success in the United States, and he believes the way audiences interpret stories these days gives him an even better chance of making an impression. “We now live in a time where the ability to express emotions is more important to an actor than language skills,” he says. “I’m not fluent in English, but I don’t think that will stop me from communicating my characters’ emotions.”
Lee will be at the Cannes Film Festival in a midnight session with his directorial debut hunt, in which he stars alongside his close friend Jung Woo-sung as a National Security Agency agent. While the film, which he also writes and produces, is a spy thriller with a 1980s storyline addressing the paranoia and fear behind the decades-old conflict between North Korea and South Korea, it actually focuses on the themes of “preventing war and violence,” he says.
“The themes can be quite serious, but I did my best to make the film as entertaining as possible. The organizers of the Cannes Film Festival have seen with a good eye the intentions of the film and the elements of entertainment that it brings. I’m honored to be able to present my directorial debut at the festival and look forward to the conversation with the audience after the premiere.
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 troubles and overtaking insane odds – resonated around the world and proved how the country’s stories can lead the global conversation. “There is a lot of Korean content that is just as entertaining as squid game, so I’m confident we’ll see more hits like this,” he says. “There are many series and movies currently in production in a wide variety of genres that have never been tried before. These series and movies are going to thrill and entertain audiences in many other countries.
If Lee is right, K-pop will soon no longer be the only export of Korean entertainment that inspires tastes in the West.