Lee Jung Jae: «When I go back to the Squid Game arena, nothing will be the same again»
The sly smile, the mussed hair, the bottle-green acetate suit, and that number, 456, like the millions of won up for grabs in the big Squid Game arena. This is perhaps the first image that jumps to the mind of the audience when talking about Squid Game, the Netflix revelation series that in just 17 days has become the most-watched series in the world, reaching a record number of 111 million viewers. The face of Lee Jung Jae, the South Korean actor born in 1972 has become in the space of just one season of Squid Game the symbol of the Korean wave in our country as well. Already well known in South Korea because of his thirty-year career and his chameleon-like ability to play any kind of role, former model (and today one of the faces of Gucci), his career began almost by chance when he took part in a photoshoot while working in a store. Lee Jung Jae today is undoubtedly the actor who has been able to break the imaginary barrier that confined K-dramas, as South Korean productions are called, to the role of a niche product. After his historic performance at the Sag awards, where he won - for the first time for a non-English series - the statuette for best actor in a drama series, and fresh from his victory at the Critic Choice Awards, Lee Jung Jae chose to talk to Panorama, in a European exclusive, about his career and his future projects.
Let's start with a fun fact. In the last episode of Squid Game, Seong Gi-hun (the character played by Lee Jung Jae, ndr) dyes his hair a deep red. Why do you think Gi-hun made this choice?
It's a style that men his age would never dare to do. I think it represents Seong Gi-hun's small decision to live a new life. Later, Gi-hun, on his way to meet his daughter after keeping his promises to Sang-woo and Sae-byeok, comes across another situation of injustice and makes a big choice by deciding to "Stop this crime and prevent more victims from being created". I think this scene shows a very important change and at the same time offers an additional surprise in the final part of the story.
What was your first thought when you read the script and your role?
Squid Game made a good impression on me from the beginning and it was a good concept: an adult survival game based on childhood games is something grotesque and unique. I also felt that the participants' stories were meticulously placed within the scenario of the "survival game" genre and overlapped each other without forcing. These parts explode on an emotional level going into the conclusion and I think that makes Squid Game different from other survival game series or films.
The success is undeniable. But why Squid Game. What is its power?
It's a series that has so many special aspects, besides being Korean. Everything is well harmonized, as are the characters with each other. And this harmony has allowed Squid Game to win over audiences.
Season 2 is in the works and you'll be back in the arena. And we know you're expecting plot twists within the game more than anyone else...
I know director Hwang Dong-hyuk is focused on writing the new season. I'm looking forward to the new storyline, and I'm excited just thinking about getting to know the characters I'm going to meet.
You have repeatedly emphasized how Squid Game conveys the clear message that people cannot succeed without the help of others. Who are your "other people"?
My "other people" are the various crews, fellow actors, and the entire Artist Company agency family. And I can't forget the fans who cheer for me and my family.
We know about your love for Italy. 시월애. Il Mare. Initially, it was just the title of a movie he starred in with Jin Ji-Hyun. And then it turned into a business with a chain of restaurants opened by you and bearing that name. What ties you to Italy?
I love to travel and I love Italy. My greatest pleasures when I travel are learning about the local cuisine, culture and observing people.
Also speaking of Italy, you were recently in Milan for Fashion Week as a Gucci ambassador. Can we talk more about this collaboration?
The show was beautiful. I am honored to have been appointed Global Ambassador of the brand. I've always appreciated the creativity of the Gucci brand and since I've been an ambassador I've come closer to the brand's style.
But the relationship with our country does not end here. Soon you will be in Florence (from April 7, ndr.) as the guest of honor of the Korea Film Festival.
In its 20 years of history, the Korea Film Festival has grown significantly and can be considered the film festival that has driven the success of K-content in Europe. I'm even more excited because this will be an opportunity to meet Italian fans in person.
I'll tell you one word. Hunt. This is your directorial debut. And it will be simultaneously in front of and behind the camera.
Directing and acting at the same time was a task that required a lot of physical effort. Editing the script during filming, performing and editing again on location was something I've never experienced before. I have to thank all the staff and actors who worked so hard on this project with me.
You are now in the post-production phase. Will you submit Hunt for consideration at any major film festivals?
I would love to. And I hope the film can be one that viewers can talk about for a long time. My main thoughts while writing this script were "Is this a story that's really needed right now?"; "Will I be able to convey it well to the audience?" So I'm the release of the film I would like to be able to talk about it and discuss it with the audience.
K-wave is expanding like wildfire. Looking at the younger generation, is there anyone you feel has the potential to achieve great things like you?
I get a lot of inspiration from younger actors myself. It's hard for me to pick just one because I learn a lot from them myself.
In your 30-year career, you have played all kinds of characters, from a God to a UFC fighter and a gambler. What should we expect now?
I don't have any particular roles I want to play, but I have high expectations for what role I might be offered.
Looking back on your career, is there any advice you feel like giving your younger colleagues?
If we are grateful for everything we do and put in constant effort, we will always be happy.
Going full circle with Squid Game. How did you feel when you got up in the morning and found out that the drama was the biggest hit in the world and had succeeded in breaking down language barriers and prejudices and dragging the general public into the K-wave?
I'm so grateful for the love I received from viewers around the world and I'm still thrilled that the subject matter of Squid Game has touched audiences in this way. Being able to communicate and share the meanings of the works with the audience is the joy of everyone involved in the making. I wish all those who are preparing their works to be able to meet viewers around the world and have an amazing time with them.
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