Top South Korean star Lee Jung-jae, who is currently enjoying the global success of ‘Squid Game’, Netflix’s survival game TV series, says that Hollywood has not called him yet for work.
“No proposals or requests have come my way,” Jung-jae told Variety, adding: “But, if the right one came along, I’d be happy to be in an overseas production. It could be fun.”
Jung-jae plays Gi-hun, a penniless wastrel who gambles too much, steals from his family, gets beaten up by loan sharks and accepts a mysterious invitation to become contender #456 in the deadly competition.
His affability and carefully crafted backstory make him an easy-to-like protagonist who faces an evil organisation that’s literally playing with people’s lives.
It was a role that Jung-jae accepted with relish after a more than two-decade career, in which he played romantic leads early on but lately has been cast as austere princes, killers and crooks. His credits include ‘Il Mare’, ‘The Housemaid’, ‘New World’ and 2020’s ‘Deliver Us From Evil’.
Independent producer Jonathan Kim, who has known Jung-jae since he was 19, said: “He thoroughly deserves the success hea¿s enjoying with ‘Squid Game.’ It couldn’t happen to a nicer person.”
“I didn’t expect this kind of success at all when I first boarded ‘Squid Game’ as a project. But when I read the script, I understood that it contained elements that could resonate with everyone and work outside of Korea,” said Jung-jae.
Jung-jae added that he was also attracted to ‘Squid Game’ by the stellar track record of writer-director Hwang Dong-hyuk, whose feature films include historical action drama ‘The Fortress’ and the musical comedy ‘Miss Granny’.
“(Hwang’s) success comes from being very detailed about explaining the characters, their roles and their feelings. Sadness wears many different faces and (in ‘Squid Game’) the characters’ different sadnesses can easily be felt by viewers,” says Jung-jae.
“(Hwang) is very capable of building characters from the ground upwards, which is why when the characters have to take big decisions, they are believable. And it is why the audience is willing to believe in the show’s climactic ending. It is actually touching.”
Industry gossip says that Lee is now the most bankable actor in South Korea, but he shakes off the idea that he has been fundamentally changed by ‘Squid Game’.
“Nothing much has changed for me as an actor. But Gi-hun’s character changes a lot over the course of the show. It has a large spectrum, which any actor would want to try out at least once in his career. This was possibly the first time I’ve played a character with such a range,” says Lee.
South Korean films have grabbed the global spotlight thanks to titles like ‘Old Boy’, ‘Snowpiercer’ and Oscar winner ‘Parasite’.
Jung-jae added: “There are always questions about whether something is better as a film or as a series. I’m not sure how much that matters. What is important is whether the script fits the form, whether the story is entertaining and captivating.
“We are living at a time when an actor can choose freely between the two. These days in Korea, many series of ten episodes or less are being made by writers and directors from the film scene. That makes me feel very at home.
“But series are naturally longer, which gives you more time to develop a character. Maybe as an actor I should do more series, explore some more.”
Jung-jae used the fruits of his past success to become entrepreneurial and venture into restaurants, property and interior design.
He says he increasingly wants to focus on acting. He is currently producing and making his feature directing debut on ‘Namsun’, a Korean-language spy thriller that he got caught up in after buying the rights and rewriting the screenplay.
“Just because I’m doing the director’s job on this film doesn’t mean I’m going to be giving up acting. I still like acting the best and intend to focus on that,” he says.
“When I was younger, I was curious about other trades. I wanted to see other parts of the world, try things out. But it has been quite a while since I was involved in those things.”
The star shared that after he turned 40, he felt his “stamina dropping” and rationalised that he should just focus on one thing.
“And I decided to focus on acting alone,” he says with a grin. “Now that I’m nearly 50, I feel it more. And I’ve decided that I’ll only do one job at a time. For now, I don’t have any plans to do an overseas project. But if a good opportunity presented itself, of course I’d be open to it.”