Actor Lee Jung-Jae is having an incredible year as we move into the final stretch of Emmy season. Following the massive success of Squid Game following Netflix’s acquisition, Jung-Jae made history as the first performer from a non-English language program to win Best Actor in a Drama Series at the Screen Actors Guild Awards.
Having just visited Los Angeles with his costars for their first ever For Your Consideration screening and panel with the TV Academy, Jung-Jae was in high spirits when he spoke to Awards Focus ahead of Emmy voting. “Being there in the same room with actors and directors that I grew up watching and admiring was surreal,” shares Jung-Jae. “I was a big fan of Meryl Streep and I saw her. I really wanted to say hi to her but I didn’t have the courage to.”
Awards Focus: What was your initial reaction to the script and what was the process of getting this role and creating the character?
Lee Jung-Jae: When I read the script for the first time, I saw that the narrative arc and the emotional arc of the characters were well portrayed and of course the games were fun as well. Within the games, I could see how the emotions and feelings of the characters were changing. It was very apparent. So I thought it was a well written scenario that I came across. For my character Gi Hun, I think he is the character with the most dimensions and he has a lot of different aspects to him. Of all the characters I have acted as so far, he went through the most change. The fact that adults come together in this confined space to play childhood games with their lives at stake, that itself is very unrealistic. So we had to make sure that the audience could relate to this and feel that this is actually happening. For every episode Gi Hun goes through different stages of change and I wanted to make sure that change was naturally portrayed. It was quite challenging but fun at the same time.
AF: What attributes did you find most fascinating about your character and if you were asked to remake the series and you were to play a different character, who would you want to choose?
Jung-Jae: Usually when I shoot I keep on checking the monitor to check on my performance. However, in the case for Squid Game, I had too many scenes to shoot in one day and the games were so huge that monitors were hard to look at from such a distance. This was another reason why the Squid Game performance was different for me. I tried my best to make the fun scenes vibrant and the depressing scenes filled with despair. After seeing the results, I enjoyed the beginning aspects of my character. Gi Hun was a very cheerful guy which I really liked about him as a character. That was not the type of character that I have taken on for quite some time, so that was enjoyable to portray such a positive happy going character. When I was in LA the co CEO of Netflix Ted was there and we were talking about the show. He brought up how Gi Hun starts off as a cheerful character but he then goes into the game and leaves the game once. That lead up to returning to the game was when Gi Hun was when he was a joyful man. Ted told me that he loved the performance of Gi Hun leading up to that moment especially. I was delighted to hear that because that was a difficult part for me as an actor to portray.
AF: People often talk about the disturbing aspects of the show such as the violence, but to me, the darkest aspect is when the series focuses on the indignities that the players have to suffer due to their poverty and debt. Do you think the people are taking the right message away from Squid Game?
Jung-Jae: Definitely, I believe that’s why the show went global. I think that violence was there to display the dire situations that people were in and how they had to fight for their lives to survive despite the gruesome violence. To me, violence was a tool to maximize the hardships that the contestants were facing. I just hope that people don’t take away the message that violence was used in the show for entertainment. It was used as a symbol and to maximize the dire situations that the contestants were in.
AF: One of the most compelling scenes is the lead up to and subsequent battle between Seung Gi Hun and Sang Woo. Your performance with Park Hae Soo achieved passion, love, humanity and did so with such authenticity. Can you share your feelings going into that scene and what it was like on that day on set?
Jung-Jae: I read through episode 1-9 before I started shooting. I thought a lot about how I should forge this relationship with Sang Woo to break more hearts at the very end. I knew in the beginning, I had to be close to Sang Woo. You can see in the beginning that Gi Hun always introduces Sang Woo around bragging that he was the most intelligent guy in town, that he went to a prestigious school, and how he was successful. I wanted to make sure that Gi Hun was truly proud of Sang Woo. However Gi Hun later finds out that Sang Woo is willing to win at the expense of others. In the end Gi hun is in disbelief at the person Sang Woo has become. I have worked on many projects, taken on so many roles but this was the first time that I saw the relationship between two characters develop so well throughout the whole series. Many twists and turns in their emotional connection thanks to the well written script. Park Hae Soo was great in developing the emotional arc of Sang Woo which really helped me out. What an incredible actor. We had great chemistry on set and I will remember and cherish that moment.
AF: Did you have to work fast on the series due to scheduling or budget? What was the production schedule like, and did you shoot the episodes in sequence?
Jung-Jae: I am pretty sure 90% of the show was shot in chronological order because most of the episodes consist of a different game that needed to be in sequence. Sometimes production had to be interrupted due to covid however director Hwang did a great job streamlining the process. I didn’t feel any inconvenience while shooting and I never felt as if we were rushing or short on time. Director Hwang is a very calm person and would go through each detail. This gave the actors some time to ponder on their characters. Overall, it was a delightful experience.
AF: The SAG award win was a groundbreaking moment, and it brought incredible focus onto the already insane popularity Squid Game has achieved. What was that moment of recognition like for you?
Jung-Jae: I couldn’t believe it. Even now I question did really receive that award. I heard that it was the first time in SAG awards history that asian male received this award. Its just pure joy and delight for me. I felt as if the world had silos between them but now we live in a world without any silos with people from Asia,Africa, and the west. Every continent. They can all relate to the same topic and concept. I felt that with the global success of “Squid Game” when you try to convey a message it translates not only to people in Korea but others across the globe. This made me very happy. After I got the award, I felt that it’s not just the show Squid Game that people love but they’re in love with the crew, cast and everyone that was a part of the process. I am very thankful for everything.
AF:How was experience visiting LA meeting your TVAcademy peers and how does it feel to be a part of the Emmy conversation?
Jung-Jae: I think it’s just miraculous that this is happening. Being there in the same room with actors and directors that I grew up watching and admiring was surreal. I was a big fan of Meryl Streep and I saw her. I really wanted to say hi to her but I didn’t have the courage to go say hi. So even when I go to the Emmy awards I think I will feel the same. I feel like it will always seem like a dream.