When the nominations for the 2022 Screen Actors Guild Awards were announced in January, they sparked the usual chatter about snubs and surprises, who deserved what, and which shows were out of their depth. But far more exciting than the typical awards chatter was the fact that this year’s batch of nominees met history head-on, with four nominations for Netflix’s “Squid Game.” The first non-English language series to ever break through with SAG-AFTRA, “Squid Game” earned mentions for ensemble in a drama, stunt ensemble, female actor in a drama for Jung Ho-yeon, and male actor in a drama for Lee Jung-jae.
For Lee, international acclaim is just the latest development in a career that has spanned more than 30 years. First discovered — Lana Turner-style — by fashion designer Ha Yong-soo while working as a cashier in a cafe in his late teens, Lee eventually transitioned from modeling to acting to great acclaim, becoming one of South Korea’s premiere actors in the process.
And then came “Squid Game.”
Upon its release in September 2021, the series went supersonic, sending shockwaves around the globe and spending the next 19 weeks as one of Netflix’s top 10 most streamed series.
“It was so unexpected. It was not something that I had ever expected to happen or wanted to happen. It almost felt like a dream,” Lee said, via translator, regarding the show’s global reception, in a recent interview with IndieWire. “I was asking myself, ‘Is this really for real?'”
Created, written, and directed by Hwang Dong-hyuk, the survival series sees 456 deeply indebted individuals compete in a series of deadly playground games, resulting in a single winner who takes home a prize of 45.6 billion South Korean won. (That’s around $38 million dollars for those of us stateside.)
At the center of the series is Lee’s character Seong Gi-hun, an inveterate gambler and absentee father whose luck seems likely to improve some time soon, as quickly proved by his recruitment into the titular games.
“When you look at all of the 456 people in the game, all of their stories, all of the hardships they go through in their lives, these stories are very relatable,” Lee said. “I think that [Gi-hun) was exactly like that to me, because he’s somebody you can meet in your actual life.”
That relatability is part of what makes the series as a whole so compelling — and horrifying. A pointed critique of capitalism and the dehumanization of the poverty-stricken, the actor’s performance is the keystone of “Squid Game,” the central humanity that prevents the audience from disengaging from the show’s brutality, thus driving home Hwang’s message.
But a role like that takes its toll.
“As this story goes on, all of these characters that used to be very close to me, my colleagues that were very close to me, they’re literally gone from the set, just as they’re being eliminated from the game,” Lee said. “As they actually left the set, I went through this very odd experience where I literally would miss them and as a result, I felt much closer to the essence of the game portrayed in the story.”
The SAG Awards are just one of several organizations to recognize the precision of the actor’s performance, with Lee also garnering nominations from the Critics Choice Association and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.
For as incisive as both Lee and “Squid Game” are, part of what makes the recognition for the performances so fascinating is the fact that Netflix allows viewers to experience the series in the original Korean, with subtitles, or instead watch a dubbed version, currently available in English, French, Spanish, and German. (The series is also available in English with audio description for visually impaired viewers.) What that means, in essence, is that viewers (and voters) opting for the dubbed version in lieu of reading subtitles are getting only a portion of the craft exhibited by the show’s cast.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Lee encouraged viewers to opt for the subtitles, if only to capture the full scope of the performances, which are often meticulously executed. He delved into his own process, describing decisions on when to take a breath for greatest effect in a scene, all in pursuit of capturing the subtle nuances of a scene.
The actor brings that same level of precision and introspection to each aspect of a character’s physicality.
“Body language is so important and sometimes you have to be a little bit exaggerated just to make sure the audience understands the situation quickly. Other times you have to focus on the reality of it, so you let your body be as natural as possible,” he said. “Because the way you move on screen is something that is so quickly noticed by the audience, I tend to pay a lot of attention to it.”
“When I prepare, as well as during the filming process, I find that it requires a higher level of concentration for me to really portray the way of breathing or the way my body moves in keeping with the character. I try to hold myself to a very high bar, but it’s very difficult,” Lee said.
But the actor’s rigorous standards have yielded outstanding results, as evidenced by the accolades that continue to roll in, in addition to an American media tour last fall, including FYC events for the series and even an appearance on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.”
“When I visited the States, [the popularity of ‘Squid Game’] became a lot more real for me. But honestly, it’s still hard to believe,” Lee said. “I was in the States and people would know who I am and recognize me on the street. Even the immigration officers knew who I was. I still can’t believe the full extent even now.”