Welcome to My Favorite Scene! In this series, IndieWire speaks to actors behind a few of our favorite television performances about their personal-best onscreen moment and how it came together.
Jung Ho-yeon, one of the breakout stars of Netflix’s international smash hit “Squid Game,” and now an Emmy nominee for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series, has grown to appreciate her debut performance as the indomitable Sae-byeok.
Her favorite scene of the Hwang Dong-hyuk-helmed show happens to be one of the first ones she shot, where it is revealed through a conversation with her younger brother Cheol (Si-wan Park) that their family escaped North Korea, but have been separated from their parents at the border, so she needs money to bring them back into the country.
The actress, speaking to IndieWire over Zoom, laughed remembering a conversation with her friend about the scene, where they told her, “Watching you two guys was just so sad. Like what’s wrong with the world?” She found comfort thinking, “Ahh, I can make someone sad as an actor, that’s nice.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
IndieWire: Why did you choose Sae-byeok’s scene with her brother Cheol in Episode 2 as your favorite?
Jung Ho-yeon: Oh, because it was my first day of shooting and I remember I was so, so nervous. But [the actor playing] my younger brother and I sat there on that bench, and before we started shooting we were talking: “What do you like?” And sharing nothing, but it was something. It was a summer like this. It was hot, and I remember the air of that day. And I didn’t know why I felt terrible that I did bad acting that day, but director Hwang, after we finished filming [that day], gave me one thumbs up. That was the day that I got one thumbs up. And then when I shot the stepping glass scene [in Episode 8], director Hwang gave me a second thumbs up.
So one at the beginning and one toward the end of shooting?
Yes, yes. That’s why I chose that scene. It was so much pressure. I’d prepared the intonation, the North Korean accent, and there were emotions going with my brother. I remember some of the scene I cried, but it wasn’t while we were shooting my side. It was [while] shooting the boy’s side. I cried at some of the scene because it was quite a sad moment for my character, that you have to lie to your brother to keep him encouraged. And that was the first day of the shooting, so that meant I had to get rid of pressure as soon as possible, and do the right accent, have that emotion. Be professional on the first day of shooting. So that’s why I remember a lot of that scene.
You all got all the scripts beforehand. Did it help knowing when shooting that scene where your character was going to go?
Yeah, but to be honest before I started I didn’t have any plan for my character. Director Hwang has the plan, and my job is only to be flexible and be open to what [he] says, or the other actors, because I don’t have that much experience acting. This is my first time acting, no one expects me to be 100% perfect. I’m gonna ask for help from all the crew, the director, executive producers, and actors. And I did ask for a lot of help [from] people. And it was actually a very nice experience for me because I used to be working only as a model, and that was more [about] being independent, making my own career, my own plan. But acting on the set for “Squid Game,” it was total [collaboration].
Did it feel like director Hwang let you find the character on your own, and not give notes on how you should be feeling in the moment?
He’s not a very “one way or the other”-style director, I think. He’s a director who has a specific vision of the scene and shots, but also at the same time, he opened up some parts to the actors. Because he knows what he’s going to shoot, but he doesn’t believe himself 100%. There’s 5% that opens up for magic to happen. So that part is on us to just believe in him, and then we just do it. And sometimes I make a mistake that seems to make sense, and could be even better than what we originally planned. So it was quite interesting. And I thought that it’s quite genius. For me, as a person who just started acting, if the director didn’t give me any kind of direction, and just let me do it, it could be fun, but the result could be like, “What is that?!” With director Hwang being such an experienced director, and JJ Lee, and all the seasoned actors on set, I got so much support.
You mentioned you felt independence with modeling. Did the way Hwang works also make you feel that way?
That wasn’t a consideration of us working together. It was more because at the audition, I kind of did my own style of acting, and then director Hwang liked it. That’s why he chose me I guess, the way I express Sae-byeok. At that moment, I couldn’t understand why I got [cast], but then he told me, “I chose you because you were already Sae-byeok,” and “You are enough.” That was the time our belief in each other [was] complete, so no matter what happens, we can work it out.
How did you feel seeing how this scene between Sae-byeok and her brother turned out?
I felt that I was horrible. I can see my nerves.
What would you do differently now?
Now, because a little bit of time has passed by, I kind of think that that was cute. Yeah, that was a beginner actor, but I’m gonna do better than that in the future.
Have people reached out to you to say they really connected to your character?
Yeah, that was the quite interesting part of it because yesterday I met someone in Korea, and he said there were people who work in the Korean filmmaking industry [that] were surprised when they met me. They thought that my real personality has a very dark or serious side similar to my character. And they were like, “Because your character’s image and everything was so strong to them, they thought that real life Ho-yeon also has the same personality.” So I was like, “Oh, that’s an accomplishment.” That makes me think, “Oh maybe then people can [connect] to my character’s darkness, the dark side of her life.” So I was quite happy to hear that. That was the one thing I cared about most while acting [as] Sae-byeok, because that’s what I can do best. I don’t have any technical backing, I don’t know what’s good acting or bad acting. What I can do is just believe, and be existing in the situation.
At the same time this show tackles issues that are more specific to South Korea, specifically with the immigration stories of Sae-byeok and Ali (Anupam Tripathi). Did it feel like you all were introducing characters to a new audience even within Korea?
Actually North Korean characters are often shown in Korean movies and dramas. But Ali, I thought that that was genius. Because when I read the script [I thought,] “Yeah, actually, we haven’t talked about immigrant workers in Korea.” And then I thought at that time it was very much a Korean-based story and characters, but when it hit internationally people often said, “That’s also happened to us.” Because the North Korea and South Korea divide seems like it’s a unique situation, but still there are so many kinds of immigrants who cannot settle in [their] country, and have different treatment.
Do you feel that the scene with your brother tells the audience everything they need to know about Sae-byeok?
That scene with my brother and the scene with my broker. Episode 2 is a very important episode because we got to [show] our life, why we have to work this hard. If we didn’t show our backstory, the contestant’s stories, [the audience] couldn’t understand us. They’d [think] we’re just people who really want money, and that’s it. You can forgive our [deaths]. But if we show the reason why we need that money, it changes everything for the audience.
What’s next for you? Do you see your character coming back in any way for Season 2? Or do you want to keep her conclusion where it is?
Um, I don’t have any kind of wish for my character. “Squid Game” is the world of director Hwang, so I don’t want to wish for something to happen. If director Hwang in his world, he’s gonna move [her] around, I think I’m gonna let it flow. Also I don’t have such a big plan for my life these days. Unexpected success happened in my life, so I just have to keep [myself] surrounded by my people, just living day by day with no plan.
Are you excited to go to the Emmys?
Yeah, it’s gonna be so fun. And it’s quite different from the S.A.G. Awards because at that time, I didn’t know that many people in the business, like other actors and everything. But now I have done interviews with Sandra Oh, and Christina Ricci, and many other actresses, so I can’t wait to see them at the awards. It’s [going to] be more comfortable for me.
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