Netflix’s ‘Squid Game’ Cast and Director Talk About Bringing the Korean Survival Show to Life
If you thought Korean dramas are all about heart-fluttering romance and charismatic main leads then think again. There’s that but there’s no shortage of genre and stories to tell. The success of Netflix’s newest K-drama, Squid Game, further cements the popularity of Korean titles to the global audience and offers a refreshing new story to the typical romance offering. Squid Game is the first Korean series to rank number one in Netflix US.
The survival series stars top South Korean celebrities including Lee Jung-jae and Park Hae-soo as well as newcomer Jung Ho-yeon with guest appearances from some of Korea’s biggest names. Squid Game follows 456 contestants who are fighting for the top prize of 45.6 billion Korean won in a survival game. If they lose, it means death.
Here, the cast—Lee Jung-jae, Park Hae-soo, Jung Ho-yeon, Heo Sung-tae, Wi Ha-joon as well as director Hwang Dong-hyuk—tell us how they brought the deadly game comprising of children’s games to life.
Can you tell us more about the title of the show?
Director Hwang: Squid game is something that I used to play as a child in the schoolyard or in the small streets of the neighbourhood. I felt that this is a story of people who used to play this game and come back as adults to win the cash prize. The reason why I chose squid game as the title is because it’s the game that’s the most physical among the games I used to play and it was one of my favourites. I also felt like this game could be one of the most symbolic games that can highlight various aspects of the competitive society that we live in.
Why did you decide to join the cast of Squid Game?
Lee Jung-jae: I always wanted to work with director Hwang so when he reached out I was happy to join and read the script. And when I did read the script, there were various emotions that are all really laid out in an intriguing way and I thought it’d be really fascinating story. I was really wondering how these games would be brought to life. Every day on the set was filled with excitement and I had a lot of fun.
Park Hae-soo: It’s the same here. I wanted to work with director Hwang, I’m deeply fond of him and Jung-jae so there’s no reason for me not to join. The biggest reason would have to be the script and how it depicted so many different figures and so many different types of people. The growth, the character arc and how each developed, it was all very charming. The unique world that director Hwang created was all very intriguing and how it will be brought to the screen was something that I wanted to see.
Jung Ho-yeon: It wasn’t that I joined as I auditioned for the role but I read the script in one sitting because that’s how good it was. I had been a fan of director Hwang’s works as well.
Heo Sung-tae: For me, I was very surprised while reading the script. that’s a given. I also worked in The Fortress with director Hwang. I had to act in a different language for that movie but I’m interested in how director Hwang will guide me when I act in Korean. When we first met, he apologised for giving me a role as part of the gang again but [the role] is still all completely new.
Wi Ha-joon: The script and the scenario were extremely original and it was really shocking how children’s games could be used in this manner. Those are the reasons that I wanted to work with this amazing group of people. I was very lucky to be chosen by the director, it’s truly an honour.
Lee’s character, Gi-hun is different from his other roles. Why did you decide to cast him?
Director Hwang: He’s always portrayed a cool character from the start of his career to his more recent roles. I wanted to destroy his image in a way so I had this urge to do so something about his “cool persona” but even when he’s playing a cool character, you can sense this humanity in him and that’s something I wanted to explore in this series too.
Park, how did you depict your character?
Park: As I was playing the role, it was quite difficult for me to read the inner feelings of Sang-woo so I had a lot of conversations with director Hwang. What I felt from this experience is that my character has the power to make decisions. As the series progresses, he underwent great changes which I think will be exciting to see. You can think about whether it’s really his choice or maybe it’s also us thinking this way.
Director Hwang, you wanted both Lee and Park’s characters to look like fraternal twins. What did you want to portray with that decision?
Director Hwang: Fraternal twins come from the same mother but they look different and Sang-woo and Gi-hun are like that. They grow up together, they play together, they share the same memories but as time goes, they go on different paths. One is on the track of success while the other is on the track of failure until a certain point. But in the end, they meet each other in this game. How would they end up? We are living in an extremely competitive society but maybe these completely different people will end up with the same outcome in life after all.
Jung, you were in New York when you auditioned for the role of Sae-byeok, is that right?
Jung: I was in New York to prepare for fashion week but the agency asked me to send a self-tape audition video so I decided to take part. I put all my energy into acting and then director Hwang wanted to see me in person so I flew back to South Korea, straight from my schedule in New York and I took the job.
Director Hwang, why did you decide to cast Jung for the role?
Director Hwang: I auditioned a lot of actresses for this role but I couldn’t find the perfect fit until I saw her self-audition tape. Seeing it, I thought, “this is it, she’s going to play Sae-byeok,” I felt it—the glare, the aura, the tone of voice—everything was perfect so that’s why I said she should fly to South Korea and audition in person and when I saw her, I felt that she's really the right fit.
Heo, you debuted through a survival audition show. Aren’t the feelings similar to doing Squid Game?
Heo: You’re right. I never connected those dots but now I think about it, the feelings are quite similar to what I had in the game.
Director Hwang, what did you want to achieve through Heo’s character, Deok-soo?
Director Hwang: Because he’s part of the gang, he’s someone who wanted to create his own gang in the game. But as you see [actor Heo] in real life, he’s quite a softie so it's the same when you see the character. He’s not 100 per cent a tough guy. I believe Heo is an actor who's able to convey those critical emotions.
Wi, your character is an observer of the game. Is it difficult to do scenes by yourself?
Wi: In Joon-ho’s scenes, there weren’t a lot of people nearby in the set with me. There was a sense of burden as in my scenes A I had to lead them. But thanks to the director’s instructions, I was able to go through those scenes. But I would’ve loved to be part of the game and learned from the senior actors.
You didn’t have a lot of lines but when you did, the director was taken aback.
Director Hwang: You can hear it yourself, he has a deep and soft voice. In the world of the masked men, they weren’t able to talk to each other. In the little lines he had, he was able to convey that well which is why I cast him.
Tell us more about the masked men.
Director Hwang: We refer to them as the masked men but these are those who are running and operating the game. They’re all wearing the same outfits but they have different shapes on their mask. The circles are the workers, triangles are the soldiers and the ones with the square are the masked managers. I got this idea from the work of ants. There are the working level ants and they were given one purpose and role only so I drew the idea from here.
2008, what does this year refer to?
Lee: This is referring to the year when director Hwang started the script for Squid Game.
Director Hwang: 2008 was shortly after my first debut film. That was a time when I really frequented comic book stores. As I was reading, I thought about creating something similar to a comic book. I finished the script in 2009. At that time, the script was seen as violent, and it didn't have a lot of potential to be successful commercially so I wasn’t able to get investment. I dabbled about it for a year and put it on hold.
After a decade, this deadly game is comparable to the things we see today like investing in coins and such. Now, times have changed and now people told me that it’s reflective of what’s happening in the world, what’s happening in this society and with that, I expanded the story two years ago and now we’re here.
Was the set different from what all of you imagined?
Lee: The first game set was most memorable and made the biggest impression on me. The set wasn’t something I expected, I thought it wouldn't be as big as it'll be covered in computer graphics but it was all built in real life and 456 people took part in it so the scale was amazing and it was overwhelming.
Park: All the sets were very memorable and amazing but the first set where we played red light green light, the space of it and the huge doll on the main trailer…all of that was amazing. The kind of feelings we kept as a child was kept in the set and a lot of crew took time to create that.
Jung: I remember the dormitory set. The senior actor who played Il-nam (Oh Young-Soo), said that it’s like a colosseum and I felt that too, it was grand in scale and it has some eerieness in it.
Is it true that you rented out all the large scale sets available in South Korea?
Director Hwang: These are game sets and they serve as the grounds for the game. They aren’t real but I wanted to use a minimum amount of CG and wanted to show physical aspects so the actors can participate and put realism in it so I wanted to build actual sets. The feel of the set is also different. If you watch survival shows, it’s eerie. I wanted to bring nostalgia where children used to play—that was the initial idea for the set.
The music also played a part in creating the mood. Can you tell us about that?
Director Hwang: Arts and everything in the show are set up in a way to remind us what we experience as children. In the 70s and 80s, we took some music and codes from back then. That was shown in the main trailer, the signal music from a popular TV show was used, the kind of music that was popular from back then. The music director was such a genius and got a lot of help from him. We also used recorders that were used in the past and that was used as the opening music as well.
Most of us living in today’s society are exhausted in this competitive society. What message do you want to say?
Director Hwang: We are in severe competition these days in day-to-day life. But when you watch this show, it’s not the same competition that you see in your daily life so you’ll be able to watch the show without anxiety. But after you watch it, that will lead you to think why you are living a competitive life, where is this leading to—these are questions I wanted to raise.
There’s a lot of Korean elements in the show. How do you make sure the global audience can relate?
Director Hwang: There are some games similar to the international audience while some are unique to South Korea. But because they’re children’s games, they’re meant to be simple so you can understand them within 10 seconds. So while they are unique to South Korea, they would be universally understood by the global audience.
Battle Royale, Money Game and more, what do you think is the essence of these survival shows that’s different to Squid Game?
Director Hwang: The most important part of the survival game is the entertainment and seeing how the participants struggle to win these games. And looking at Squid Game, its biggest draw is the simplicity of the rules. There’s not a lot of energy spent on understanding the game and the focus is more on the people, how they act and how they respond. Squid Game is more on the losers rather than the winners, without the losers will there ever be winners.
See also: 10 Most Expensive Korean Dramas to Make