Lee Jung-jae in Squid Game
Say you’re the star of the most popular streaming series of all time, with more than 150 million households tuning in around the world. You’ve been spoofed on Saturday Night Live and Leonardo DiCaprio asked you for a selfie. Surely your life must have suddenly shifted into overdrive, right? Right?
“Well, to be honest, not a lot has changed for me before and after Squid Game,” says Lee Jung-jae. “The biggest thing is that I have a lot of new fans all over the world. Even nine-year-olds know who I am.”
That’s what happens when you don’t lose your marbles.
For the five people who have yet to watch the thrilling Korean-language drama (which premiered on Netflix last fall), the actor plays Seong Gi-hun, a sad sack who gets recruited to play a series of childhood games. Losers die on the spot; the ultimate champ receives a truckload of money. Seong, aka player No. 456, wins it all — and thanks to Lee’s heartbreaking yet sublimely amusing performance, viewers root for him every tense step of the way.
Speaking via Zoom (with the help of an interpreter) from his hometown of Seoul, Lee remains humble about his role in the Squid Game phenomenon. “I think viewers enjoyed it so much because they could connect with the characters,” he says. “They shared that pain.”
This breakout success is thirty years in the making. His “original dream,” he says, was to be an interior designer. He worked part-time in a coffee shop until a modeling scout discovered him on the job. A modeling career evolved into acting in 1993 when a TV writer offered him a part on the show Dinosaur Teacher.
“I started my first TV show just like that,” he says. Roles in well-received 1990s films such as An Affair, City of the Rising Sun and Il Mare (later adapted as the 2006 film The Lake House with Keanu Reeves) quickly followed.
But around fifteen years ago, he hit a professional and personal slump. “I just didn’t have it in me and worried that people didn’t like me anymore,” he admits. He opened a few restaurants and considered revisiting interior design. “I kept saying, ‘Okay, the next movie will be the last,’” he says. Gradually, “I started to find more excitement in acting, and that brought me here.”
Lee is now writing, producing and directing his own projects (the espionage thriller Hunt is due out this summer). He’s also anticipating a second season of Squid Game, though at press time Netflix was yet to officially give the green light. “I’m excited, but I don’t know details,” he says. “I keep asking [writer-director] Hwang Dong-hyuk, and he says he’s still trying to picture it in his head.”
In the meantime, Lee welcomes any international Squid Game fans who may be visiting Seoul. “I tell people, ‘Call me when you’re in Korea. I’ll take you to nice places and treat you to good food!’”
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine issue #6, 2022, under the title, "Back in the Game."