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Squid Game became Netflix’s most watched show ever within a week of its Sept. 17 launch on the streamer, with 142 million member households globally watching the dystopian South Korean series in its first four weeks. Not even the lead actors could foresee just how it would blow up — and, not surprisingly, they didn’t know how to deal with its sudden and massive success.
“I lost 6 pounds in a week when it became successful,” Jung Ho-yeon, who plays Sae-byeok in her acting debut, tells THR. “I couldn’t eat — it wasn’t stress, I just didn’t know this feeling. I was kind of losing myself.”
The drama, created by Hwang Dong-hyuk, stars Jung, Lee Jung-jae and Park Hae-soo as contestants (in a lineup of hundreds) who fight for their lives through various childhood games — with the sole survivor winning big prize money. Allegiances (and divisions) are formed as the characters work together to compete in the deadly games while also looking out for themselves.
The three actors spoke to THR (Lee and Park through an interpreter) about their most challenging scenes, how they prepared for their roles and whether they could have ever predicted the global phenomenon that Squid Game has become.
What made you all want to be a part of Squid Game?
LEE JUNG-JAE Director Hwang’s work has always been very, very interesting to me. I’ve been wanting to work with the director himself. And then once I finally got the script for Squid Game, it was unique and the characters have all this depth. I really wanted to work on the project.
JUNG HO-YEON I auditioned. I was a huge fan of director Hwang, and it was such an honor that I was cast.
PARK HAE-SOO I have great respect and trust for director Hwang. I really was excited to work with this ensemble and with other actors, and I have such, such great respect for Jung-jae that I was really excited. There was absolutely no reason why I shouldn’t do this project.
What scene was most challenging for you?
LEE To be honest, the honeycomb scene. That was very difficult because as an actor, I had to only be in one place, but I had to also calculate how the intensity rises with how scared and how pressured [my character] was. So in order to do that, it was actually quite difficult. Also, episode six, “Gganbu,” was quite difficult because the character has to cheat. And in order to show that kind of emotionality was quite challenging. Gi-Hun as a character really is uncomfortable if he has to cheat, so it was very difficult to actually show this part of the integrity of the character, and that he has to do this in order to survive.
Hae-soo, your character is very likable at the beginning, but that diminishes as the show goes on. What drew you to the character?
PARK All the characters actually have dualities, but my character in particular has the most and is actually very prominent. My character doesn’t have a lot of self-confidence, and then he meets his childhood friend [Gi-Hun] and has a lot of jealousy toward him. And so there’s a lot of loss that he’s feeling right now. In reality, I had to look back into my past and see when I’ve had these experiences, because I needed to express that in my character. It was actually not that hard, because all of us go through something like that.
Hae-soo and Ho-yeon, how did you mentally and physically prepare for your roles?
JUNG Mentally, I wrote a diary about Sae-byeok’s daily life — when she is in North Korea and has to escape to South Korea, and what happened in the moment and what were the sounds and what did she feel so I [could] save her memories in me. But even though I prepared like that mentally, physically I did martial arts. They sent me to practice, but I did too much, I think, so the director and producer said I shouldn’t go that much — like, “Take it easy, Ho-yeon. We won’t hang you up somewhere, you’ll be fine!” At the beginning of shooting, I actually didn’t know much about Sae-byeok, but the experience Sae-byeok had during Squid Game was kind of naturally saved in my body and my [mind]. Especially in the bathroom when she got stabbed, [which] we [shot] quite early. When we shot that scene, I was so nervous because I’ve never been stabbed — it was a pressure scene for me.
Did someone give you the idea to keep a diary as your character?
JUNG It was just me. I didn’t have the method to get to the character because I didn’t have any [acting] experience at all, so I had to find my way to get close to her. At the beginning, it wasn’t a diary, it was just notes, but I tried to make it organized.
Was the bathroom scene your most challenging one?
JUNG It was one of the most challenging scenes because at the beginning of the shoot, I couldn’t get rid of the nerves — but I had to do [Sae-byeok’s] most important scene. Once I did that, and director Hwang was very happy, I was proud of myself and had more confidence. I was like, “I’m good to go.” After that, there were many challenges. The last scene with Sae-byeok, I was nervous. But I had to do it.
Jung-jae, how did you prepare for your role?
LEE When I was preparing for another role, I actually just walked. That’s what I did, that was my preparation. So for this character, I walked through the Korean markets, and that really helped me prepare for the character emotionally — being able to observe everyday life and everyday people at the market. From the physical aspect, we were on set for five to six days, actually shooting. We weren’t sleeping. There’s little food on set. So I was on a diet and lost about 4 to 5 kilograms [8 to 11 pounds].
What about you, Hae-soo?
JUNG I can explain! (Excitedly answers for her colleague without the aid of an interpreter.) He’s not good at studying, but he has to understand [his character]. Seoul University is the top university in Korea, and his character graduated from there, so he had to understand all this. He just visited Seoul University for five days just to get this feeling of the smart people.
Hae-soo, you gained 800,000 Instagram followers in one day, which is extraordinary. Did any of you anticipate this kind of success for the show?
PARK To be honest, when I read the script and then I met the ensemble members, I did have some expectations that it could be big.
JUNG I think [I knew] a week after it opened. I couldn’t follow the speed of the growth of the Squid Game success because since COVID, I think everything is faster and even online, it happens just so quick. It was hard to follow. I lost 6 pounds in a week when it became successful. I couldn’t eat — it wasn’t stress, I just didn’t know this feeling. “What’s going on out there, who am I?” I was kind of losing myself. Now, I feel very comfortable with the Squid Game team, so I can slowly get used to this success with people. But when I was at home by myself watching this growth, I was like, “What?”
LEE I agree with Ho-yeon, I don’t know how to deal with this. I don’t know what this is. Even though I have [more acting] experience. … Even in Korea, it was very popular and the show was getting a lot of responses from people that they really enjoyed it. It was very successful in Korea.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a December stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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