It was very late at night in Korea when Wi Ha-jun popped on a video call to chat with Deadline about his role in Netflix’s mega hit Squid Game, and how his life has been turned upside down since the Korean-language series entered the cultural stratosphere last month.
For those who live under a rock, Squid Game is a survival drama set in Seoul, where hundreds of financially strapped contestants signed away their life rights to play children’s games for a chance at winning a $38 million grand prize. Lose any round and be prepared for a grisly death.
Since debuting last month, the series directed by Hwang Dong-hyuk quickly reached No. 1 on Netflix in 90 countries within its first 10 days. Currently, Squid Game is on track to become Netflix’s biggest non-English-language series and possibly supplant Bridgerton’s as the streamer’s biggest show of all time.
Wi plays Hwang Jun-ho, a rogue police officer who accidentally stumbles behind-the-scenes of the modern-day Hunger Games. His mission to find his lost brother quickly shifts gears as he’s confronted with an impossibly heinous game that uses human lives as entertainment.
A scene-stealer despite his few lines, Wi spoke with Deadline through a translator about the hidden beauty of the gruesome series and why he thinks it resonated with an international audience. He also reveals the difficulty of acting behind a mask, and what we can expect next from the rising Korean star.
Here’s the full interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.
DEADLINE: Squid Game has really blown up since its Netflix debut. How has that affected your day-to-day and what has been the craziest thing that happened to you since it dropped?
WI HA-JUN: I would say the craziest thing that happened to me is having an interview right now with one of the biggest media companies in the world. I also went on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon which was quite crazy. I’m receiving tons of messages from fans around the world on my social media account. All of these events are really surprising and new to me, and that fills my heart with joy all the time.
DEADLINE: You’ve appeared in much lighter titles, including 18 Again and Romance Is a Bonus Word, which have a different tone than Squid Game. What struck you about Jun-ho’s character that made you want to join this series?
WI: I like this genre myself and I was so fascinated by the script, revealing this shocking event from the eyes of an owl – as an outsider. That was what captured me and was why I decided to join the project.
DEADLINE: Because it’s such a departure from the roles you’re used to, what did you learn about yourself as an actor in Squid Game?
WI: I actually didn’t realize it at first, but there were a lot of people around me who told me that they absolutely loved the tone of my acting and liked the gaze I showed in the series. I received a lot of compliments and realized that could be my strength in acting, so I hope to implement it into my performances going forward.
DEADLINE: Your character has a strong moral compass with a passion for justice. How does Jun-ho fit your personality as opposed to other roles you’ve had in the past?
WI: I have quite a lot of similarities with Jun-ho. To start with, I have an older brother who is very friendly with me. I also put high value in the orders, rules and disciplines that are in this world. I was told often that I should become an officer, soldier or a legal practitioner.
DEADLINE: Beyond the different tone, you were also behind a mask for the majority of the season. Which scene was the most difficult to shoot given those conditions? How did you prepare for that?
WI: The fact I was wearing the mask for the majority of the series was quite challenging, particularly the acting underneath the mask. I was going into the shooting with a lot of tension. Even if I try hard and perform with my facial expressions and my gaze, it didn’t come through outside of the mask. When I’m acting hard, it doesn’t really show well on the screen. I had to make excessive gestures to compensate for the loss of my facial expression and gaze. For example, I would turn my head more dramatically.
The most challenging scene to shoot was the one where I made an underwater escape wearing scuba gear. I haven’t mentioned this in interviews, but I have a serious fear of water. It took a lot of time to overcome that fear. I took quite a few swimming lessons to shoot that scene, but I was able to complete it well so I’m very happy about the outcome.
DEADLINE: There were emotional performances from your castmates Lee Jung-jae and the brilliant Anupam Tripathi. In contrast, you played an unflappable character whose mission was to solve his brother’s disappearance. Do you think it was important to act unemotional in his journey?
WI: I think that is the most important aid in his journey because if you look at the situations that Jun-ho was in, he is there as an intruder and had to hide his identity. If he was over-reactive and showed movement, then he would have been caught. It was quite important for my character to know how to act in such a manner so that he would be able to achieve his goal.
DEADLINE: If Jun-ho had to play in the games, what would he be good at?
I used to be a runner in my younger days and I’m good at controlling my body movements so I’d excel in Red Light, Green Light.
The actual Squid Game is in fact not the kind of game that I played as a child because it’s from an older generation. But if I had to partake, I’d probably be good at that too.
DEADLINE: Season 1 left Jun-ho with an ambiguous fate. If he did survive, how do you think he did it? What do you think his next steps are after that revelation about his brother?
WI: I’m dying to know what happened to him. I want him to return alive, find his brother and ask him tons of questions. As a brother, I would ask him sincerely. As a detective, I want to explore the overall secrets behind the game as well. I really hope to see Jun-ho come back alive and explore all these questions. I hope to see a more brotherly-love side of their relationship as well.
DEADLINE: So, you hope to see some reconciliation with your brother in the show?
WI: Reconciliation, I don’t know. I will have to hear why he made certain choices.
DEADLINE: How is the reception of Squid Game in Korea? Over here they’re playing the show’s soundtrack in bars and kids are dressing up as guards and players for Halloween.
WI: I think the reception is quite the same in Korea. When I go on set for my new role, I get inundated with questions about my character’s fate or if they can get props from the show like the guards’ masks. There are many people who are talking about getting dressed with the green or pink suit from the game for Halloween.
DEADLINE: Are there any type of projects or roles would you like to work on next?
WI: The project I’m currently working on depicts a character that is rough, comedic and cute at the same time. I hope a lot of viewers enjoy my new character from my new series. If given the chance, I’d hope to take part in an action project as a special agent or a military officer. I’d also be interested in playing the role as a friendly villager.
DEADLINE: What do you think is the most rewarding aspect of this gory and dark series?
WI: I would say the most beautiful part about this gory story is the arc of the protagonist, Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae). He always thought about other contestants and was the least selfish. He took care of others until the very end, even when his life was on the line.
DEADLINE: Why do you think Squid Game has exploded in popularity the way it did? Obviously, the cast had some part with it, but what about the themes and messaging?
WI: I think it was quite fresh to depict children’s games from the olden days, which was quite nostalgic, especially when they were used for life-or-death situations.
In the game scenes, you saw greed and uglier human aspects inside all of the participants which reflects what we see in the real world. The show depicts the frustration that is deeply rooted inside people who are living in the modern world. Our society is becoming even more capitalistic, with competition becoming even more severe. That’s probably why the story resonated with so many.