It was a great year for squid game star Lee Jung-jae. He won Screen Actors Guild and Critics Choice awards, was nominated for a Golden Globe, an Emmy (squid game earned 14 Emmy nominations) and received a 7-minute standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival in May, for the premiere of Hunta spy thriller he directed and stars in.
In one of his first in-depth interviews with a major US publication, Lee spoke to Newsweek from Seoul, where he worked on post-production on Hunt, which opens in South Korea on August 10 (a US release date is in the works). He reflects on making his first film, his Hollywood aspirations and the “greater responsibility” he feels since the huge success of squid game.
“A strong sense of guilt”
The Netflix K-drama has made Lee, 49, a longtime star in South Korea, an international pop culture icon. The series is the most popular on the streaming service, surpassing even other monster hits like stranger things and Bridgerton.
In the intriguing final scene of the show’s first season, Lee’s character Gi-hun, the surviving winner of the fatal title contest, was seen dramatically exiting a jetway at an airport in following a cryptic phone call with a gaming staff member.
Fans wanted to know: what was going through Gi-hun’s head and what was he going to do? After coming to terms with the shocking truth behind the games, Lee says Gi-hun “shook everything up and was only thinking about joining his daughter.” But on his way to the airport, Gi-hun noticed a person on a train platform recruited for the deadly competition by the salesman, the mysterious character played by actor Gong Yoo who squid game director/screenwriter Hwang Dong-hyuk hinted that he might return in the second season.
Lee says “I was so glad Gi-hun changed his mind after meeting another victim playing ddakji [a Korean children’s game the Salesman uses to recruit contestants] at a train station and became determined to prevent further harm to other victims.”
Director/writer Hwang says Lee will return as Gi-hun in season two and “do something for the world.” Beyond that, however, neither he nor Lee speaks. “If Gi-hun can do ‘something for the world,'” Lee says, “I’ll be really, really proud of him,” adding that while he was “very happy to see Season 2 officially confirmed recently,” he didn’t. has “no knowledge of the details of how the plot of the second season will unfold”.
“I think the director is currently still in the process of developing the script,” says Lee, “As a fan of squid game I myself am really looking forward to season two.”
“What was most memorable and challenging was playing a character who is forced to deceive and defraud another person for survival,” Lee says, “I was tormented by a strong sense of guilt and it was not easy to portray such a gruesome expression of the lengths humans could go to in an attempt to survive.”
Gi-hun is “such a warm character,” the actor says. “I really like Gi-hun’s kindness. Even in the dire circumstances he faced, he still helped others because he has a kind heart.”
Nervousness in Cannes and the era of fake news
The actor made his directing debut with Huntwhich stars him with Jung Woo-sung, another Korean movie star and close friend since 1998, when the pair starred in the hit film city of the rising sun. Jung was most recently executive producer of Netflix’s sci-fi K-drama The silent sea.
While the success of squid game aroused a lot of interest abroad Hunt, it also brought Lee a bigger than normal case of nerves to deal with. He calls the unveiling of the film at Cannes “a humble little dream”.
“I usually get nervous at previews,” says Lee, “but I was especially nervous this time because it was my directorial debut in front of an international audience. During the screening, I kept mum worry about whether the subtitles were written correctly.”
“At the end of the screening, I was both shocked and embarrassed to receive the longest applause I had ever received in my life.”
Lee was initially only offered an acting role in Hunt, which centers on two South Korean intelligence agents investigating each other in an effort to track down a mole. Later, he decided to produce the film, and when he couldn’t find a satisfactory screenwriter or director, he ended up doing those jobs as well. Lee says he worked on the script for about four years, “focusing on the characters’ backstory,” he says. “I believe there needs to be a clear rationale for the characters to clash passionately, and I hoped this fiery clash would fill the screen.”
Lee wanted the two antagonists, Pyong-ho (played by Lee) and Jung-do (played by Jung) to “see each other, even though they oppose each other”. They don’t share much dialogue, but Lee says it was important to “create a sense of unity and togetherness between them.” He says, “I was hoping the two would merge into one person.”
In HuntLee and Jung share the big screen for the first time in over 20 years since their on-screen chemistry in city of the rising sun made the film a success. Why such a long wait? “We talked a lot about working together again very soon. For years we tried to make it possible and even wrote a screenplay together at one point, but it never materialized into a movie.”
Lee calls Jung “an amazing actor at the top of his game. As a director, I really wanted to have him in the movie. I really wanted people to say that ‘Jung Woo-sung was the best in the movie. screen when he was shot by Lee Jung-jae.'”
Lee says he put a lot of thought into setting up Hunt squarely in the present “where we believe in a truth distorted by fake news and false teachings and we see a lot of conflict between naysayers”. While there are those who want to “manipulate” and “profit” from these conflicts, Lee asks, “What do we who are in conflict gain from all of this?” I think we have to continually reexamine our beliefs, so I wanted to explore that. theme of this film.
“I wanted to make a film with high intensity, with big and small plot twists flowing smoothly. It’s a fast-paced spy film but I also tried to make the story too complicated to follow. I just hope audiences enjoy watching this.”
‘So much love right now’
Despite the film’s reception at Cannes, Lee says he still considers himself an actor first. “Acting is harder than directing,” he says. “Acting is my identity and there are still so many things I want to do with it.
Lee says that in nearly 30 years in show business, he’s learned to take things a little easier than when he started: “I take care of myself more than I used to. I feel like I’m busy every day thinking that I have to be prepared for nothing.”
“I think the more experience you gain, the more responsibility you have. Especially now with squid game Being on the radar of a global audience, I feel a bigger responsibility because Korean content is getting so much love right now.”
Could a Hollywood project be next in line for Lee? He recently signed with Creative Artists Agency which also represents heavyweights like Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt and Will Smith among many others.
When asked which Hollywood director and actor he would most like to work with, Lee replied, “There are too many I can name, but I would love to work with director Todd Phillips and actor Joaquin Phoenix a day.”
▸ Soo Kim is a Newsweek reporter who writes regularly about South Korean culture and entertainment. Twitter: @MissSooKim. Instagram: @miss.soo.kim