‘Squid Game’ Star Lee Jung-jae Wins Emmy for Outstanding Actor in a Drama Series

The star of Netflix's most popular series is the first Asian actor to win in the category.
Lee Jung-jae in "Squid Game"
Lee Jung-jae in "Squid Game"

Squid Game” continues to take the world by storm with star Lee Jung-jae becoming the first Asian actor to win the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series.

The South Korean star of Netflix’s most popular show ever collected the award in person on Sunday night.

Lee’s lead performance in the international hit action drama was nominated against Bob Odenkirk for “Better Call Saul,” Adam Scott for “Severance,” Jason Bateman for “Ozark,” and Brian Cox and Jeremy Strong from “Succession” (the latter of which was the 2020 winner for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series).

On “Squid Game,” the charismatic actor played the blundering Seong Gi-hun who, after he was unable to pay off all his debts, was kidnapped and manipulated into competing in a competition with real life or death stakes. Last competitor left standing wins a seismic cash prize.

Lee’s Emmy win is not only historic, but it may prove to be a turning point for recognition of non-English language projects. So often, even when work like “Parasite,” “Drive My Car,” and “The Worst Person in the World” gets recognized in awards categories outside the one designated for international films, the acting talent does not.

“Squid Game,” being as ubiquitous as it is, has helped change that, with Lee and his co-star Jung Ho-yeon first winning the Screen Actors Guild Awards for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor and Female Actor in a Drama Series earlier this year. Going into the Primetime Emmys on Monday, the show already had one acting award under its belt for Lee You-mi, who’s win for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series at the Creative Arts Emmys last week made her the first Korean woman to win in the category.

Lee, already having been a major star in South Korea, told IndieWire in July that after “Squid Game” premiered, “literally everybody [abroad] would come up to me asking for a picture or an autograph and they’re asking me if Season 2 is coming out soon.” He added, “It’s very crazy to see so many people noticing me. I feel very happy to be able to share this great moment with so many.”

The actor also said that the reason he feels “Squid Game” became so popular globally is “The audience members saw themselves in some of the characters and other people in other characters. This helped them form emotional bonds with most of the characters. I think as they saw these players, contestants, desperately trying to survive in those games, they saw themselves and issues [with] some social problems in our times. So that really resonated with them.” Also, “the games are very easy and unique at the same time, and also simple enough for people to easily follow and copy,” said the actor.

Lee has made a point of not knowing where Season 2 will take his character Seong Gi-hun, telling IndieWire, “I’m trying not to ask the director [Hwang Dong-hyuk] any questions because I have to have that very striking feeling when I read the script for the first time to be able to translate that intense emotion into my performance.”

As far as what’s next for the newly minted Emmy winner outside of “Squid Game,” Lee actually directed a film titled “Hunt” that premiered at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, and was acquired by Magnolia Pictures, which reportedly plan to release it in the United States in December. Also, right before the Emmys, it was announced that Lee will be one of the stars of “The Acolyte,” a new Disney+ show set in the Star Wars universe, that was created by Leslye Headland and led by actress Amandla Stenberg.

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