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Squid Game is Netflix’s most popular series to date, and stars one of South Korea’s biggest actors in Lee Jung-jae. But for years no production company would touch it. Photo: Netflix

Nobody wanted to make Squid Game – now it has 14 Emmy nominations, stars the hottest Korean actor and competes with the likes of Succession

  • In 2009, writer-director Hwang Dong-hyuk could not get an actor to commit to playing the lead in what would become Squid Game. Now it has 14 Emmy nominations
  • Hwang discusses why the show is so popular now and his struggles making it a reality, while Lee Jung-jae talks about his character Gi-hun being an ‘anti-hero’
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For a very long time, no one wanted to make Squid Game. No one, that is, but creator-writer-director Hwang Dong-hyuk.

Then one of Korea’s biggest stars, suave box office champion Lee Jung-jae, signed on to play the show’s grubby, compromised hero, and the deeply symbolic, meticulously designed, bare-knuckle commentary on the chasm between haves and have-nots took off, becoming Netflix’s most popular series to date.

Now it has 14 Emmy nominations, including for Hwang’s writing and directing, Lee’s acting and for best drama series. It is the first foreign-language series to receive nominations in any of those categories, as well as in many others. The awards ceremony will be held in Los Angeles, California, on September 12.
“The Oscars are more global; the Emmys are very American. I’m very thankful for them opening the doors to non-English content for the first time,” says Hwang by Zoom.
Hwang Dong-hyuk is the creator of Squid Game. Photo: Netflix

“I think the show resonated with the global audience because we have a lot of visual aspects besides the language – we have symbols, the design, the set, the wardrobe – I think that’s what drew the attention of the global audience that doesn’t know Korean,” the director adds.

“And also the theme, the gap between the rich and the poor and the competition, the conflict in our society, is very universal.”

From Lee Jung-jae to Jung Ho-yeon, Squid Game stars you need to know

An auteur with several successful features under his belt, Hwang says he was on an island with the producers, writing season two, when the Emmy announcement broke; he immediately called “JJ” (Lee) and other nominated performers such as Park Hae-soo and Jung Ho-yeon.

Like Hwang, Lee beams over the video call’s camera, delighted by the many nominations spread among those who worked on the series.

“I watched the announcement live and was so excited to share this happiness with the cast and crew. I was also excited to visit LA again and have those joyful moments with [them]. I think this is the finale of us celebrating season one of Squid Game.”

A still from Squid Game. It is Netflix’s most popular series to date.

Part of that celebration of the series’ first season took place at Netflix’s FYSee space on Los Angeles’ Melrose Avenue, a few weeks before the nominations.

Those who know Lee only as his Gi-hun character would barely recognise the dapper sophisticate sitting with excellent posture in a small greenroom. Although having just recently flown into America and back yet again on the eternally spinning hamster wheel of promotion for the series, he is gracious and put together.

Lee looks like the guest of honour at a yacht club function in a vaguely naval blazer. Next to him (with an interpreter behind them), Hwang says, with a bit of fatigue showing, that Squid Game took about seven months to shoot and they had been promoting it for nine months now.

Not that they are complaining. Despite the long road, both are still enjoying the success of the show Hwang conceived more than a decade ago and could not get made for years. And now season two is in the works.

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“When I first sent the script to Jung-jae, rather than having questions for him, I was just excited to hear he was interested because back in 2009, so many actors had said ‘No’,” says Hwang with a laugh. “So I was just happy to hear what he had to say, and was focused on listening to him and his concerns.”

Among those concerns was down-on-his-luck protagonist Gi-hun’s sometimes ugly status as “an anti-hero”.

“Jung-jae was concerned whether Gi-hun would be able to resonate with the audience. So there were different adjustments I made, such as a scene where Gi-hun shares his fish with a stray cat. No matter how broken, how flawed he is, he still has that goodwill at heart.”

Lee Jung-jae as Gi-hun in a still from Squid Game. Photo: DPA

For all the show’s outward brutality – hundreds slaughtered, life-or-death decisions, betrayals and humiliations – the protagonist’s humanity anchors Squid Game. Lee says he sought Hwang’s guidance in fine-tuning the balance of Gi-hun’s dire circumstances and his optimism.

Lee says: “I had to ask a lot of questions about his emotional state and what degree, in terms of his emotional spectrum, I needed to portray. Do I portray things in a serious manner or light, just brush them off?

“For instance, after literally seeing people die in front of him, Gi-hun has to come back to the sleeping quarters and enjoy the food. ‘To what extent can he really enjoy the food? What kind of character is he in that sense?’”

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Although Hwang has outlined the show’s harsh critique of a socioeconomic system that sets up such publicly praised winners and devastated losers, Lee sees the peeling away of some of the characters’ layers to the essential goodness within as the show’s true message.

“While at times it’s violent, while at times it requires them to win over, literally, the bodies of others, in the most dire of situations there’s still something, as humans, we must not lose sight of,” says the actor. “Director Hwang did such a good job writing that so intricately into the script.”

While Lee is now inextricably woven into the Squid Game tapestry (both acknowledge Gi-hun will be back in season two), his casting was an even bigger long shot than one might assume from Hwang’s account that “so many actors” had turned the show down.

Lee Jung-jae is a superstar who has starred in many of South Korea’s highest-grossing films. Photo: AFP
Lee is not just some actor in Korea; he is a superstar who has starred in many of the country’s highest-grossing films. That is like no one in Hollywood signing on to your brutal, capitalism-scorching television show, then having Tom Cruise at the thought of being in it.

Hwang says he and Lee “are about the same age, and ever since I was about 20, he was really the biggest, the hottest star Korea had ever seen. Many times, I’d think,” he says, sighing, “‘What must it be like to be born like him?’

“For about three decades, while Lee shone on screen in charismatic roles, there was something I saw in him when he played these flawed characters that really stood out, that I thought was extraordinary. That sense of humour. I thought it would be the perfect mix to bring Gi-hun to life.”

So where does Gi-hun go from here?

Squid Game makes history with Screen Actors Guild Award nominations

“That is the biggest challenge in season two,” Hwang says. “He begins where we left him at the end of the first season. So the fact that I can’t carry that level of character arc is a huge challenge.

“Without giving away any spoilers, there is that line that Gi-hun says in the last episode: ‘I’m not a horse and I’m curious to know who did this to us.’

“It’s going to be about that journey and Gi-hun proving we are, indeed, not horses; we are all human. And the fact that we all hold goodness, the essence of humanity, at heart.”

Following the flood of Emmy laurels, Lee is characteristically sunny about the prospect of returning to Los Angeles for the ceremony with his fellow nominees – including one of his direct competitors.

A still from Squid Game. Season two is on the way. Photo: TNS
By Zoom, he says: “Of course I watched a lot of the shows; I love them.” He makes specific mention of Ozark and Succession.

“Especially Jeremy Strong – I’ve seen him, actually, at many awards. Not long ago, I visited Cannes, the film festival, and also saw him there. We were so happy to see each other again, we were handshaking. I think his performance is amazing. So grounded. You can really tell he pours his heart and soul into the work he does.”

Hwang, meanwhile, still finds it hard to connect the awful struggles he had getting the show made to its standing now.

“Looking back at 2009, when nobody wanted to make the show, I did not expect this at all,” he says. “This is miraculous. I thought it was impossible to make the show and now we have 14 nominations. It feels strange and surreal. I think the journey of making Squid Game is more dramatic than the show itself.”