[Interview] Jung Ho-yeon's sensational debut as N. Korean defector Kang Sae-byeok in "Squid Game"

Posted on : 2021-10-05 17:27 KST Modified on : 2021-10-05 17:27 KST
Breakout start Jung Ho-yeon of “Squid Game” shares which of the show’s games she thinks she’d be best at and more
Still from the Netflix original series “Squid Game” (provided by Netflix)
Still from the Netflix original series “Squid Game” (provided by Netflix)

“I never imagined that ‘Squid Game’ would become such an international sensation,” Jung Ho-yeon said with a laugh.

“I didn’t even expect to be cast. Nowadays, it’s starting to sink in a little. I’m just so grateful for the chance to experience so many things for the first time. It also makes me feel that I should work even harder.”

Jung became an overnight star with her role in “Squid Game,” the Netflix original series. “Everything has left me spinning,” Jung said in a video interview with the Hankyoreh on Friday.

The show describes a deadly survival game in which people whose lives are at a dead end compete for a prize of 45.6 billion won (US$38.4 million). Jung plays the role of Kang Sae-byeok, a pickpocket whose family defected from North Korea.

Jung had the enormous fortune of making her debut as an actress in “Squid Game,” which has rocketed to the top of Netflix’s global streaming chart. Since the show’s release, Jung’s followers on Instagram have surged from 400,000 to 13 million (as of Monday) as she takes the spotlight not only in Korea but on the global stage.

Given that her striking features and peculiar voice have captivated fans around the world, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Jung began her public career as a model. In 2013, she tied for second place in “Korea’s Next Top Model,” a model contest show. After that, she mainly worked overseas on advertisements and fashion shows for luxury brands like Chanel. In September 2018, she was named one of the world’s top 50 female models.

She’s been in a relationship with the actor Lee Dong-hwi for the last six years.

“Even when my colleagues and I chatted about what we should do in the future, given the short professional life [of a model], I didn’t consider acting as one of my top choices because I thought it would be too difficult,” Jung said.

“While making a slow descent from my peak [as a model], I had less work to do, which gave me plenty of time to watch movies and read fiction. That’s when I felt the urge to tell a people-oriented story,” she said.

Jung Ho-yeon, who made her acting debut in “Squid Game” as Kang Sae-byeok, a pickpocket whose family defected from North Korea (provided by Netflix)
Jung Ho-yeon, who made her acting debut in “Squid Game” as Kang Sae-byeok, a pickpocket whose family defected from North Korea (provided by Netflix)

Last year, Jung made the jump from Esteem, a model management agency, to Saram Entertainment, which mostly works with models. Less than a month later, she was asked to do an audition.

“They got in touch while I was preparing for fashion week in New York. I cut into my sleep time to work on the recording. When I sent it to my agency, the director said he wanted to meet me in person. I just threw some stuff in a suitcase and came back to Korea,” she recalled.

“During the interview, I was so nervous I could barely answer the questions or look the director in the eye. He apparently thought I had Sae-byeok’s poker face,” Jung said with a chuckle.

“I was so shocked when I heard I’d gotten the part.”

Hwang Dong-hyuk, the creator of “Squid Game,” explained why he’d cast Jung in a video interview on Sept. 28. “She didn’t have any acting experience, but I got this animal sense from her, like she was this wild horse untouched by the world. Even her beginner’s anxiety felt fresh to me.”

When Jung started acting, everything was different than she’d imagined, but Hwang and the two lead actors (Lee Jung-jae and Park Hae-soo) were there to provide helpful advice and encouragement.

But in the end, the powerful performance pulled off by this novice actor appears to have been the result of her diligent effort.

“I wrote a journal from Sae-byeok’s perspective as I tried to get to know the character,” Jung said with a smile. “I imagined that my mother had lost her life trying to save my brother and me when the police found our hiding spot in China. I wrote the mother’s last words in my journal, asking Sae-byeok to take care of her little brother Cheol, while I was preparing for the part.”

By way of analyzing her character, Jung even watched “Mrs. B., a North Korean Woman” (2016), a documentary film about a woman North Korean defector.

“I looked into what lives they lead and what their worries are. Since this was my first action part, not to mention my first acting job, I got tutoring in the North Korean dialect and took a martial arts class.” That led to a humorous conversation with Hwang, who pointed out that Jung probably didn’t need martial arts training for a TV show about no-holds-barred brawling.

So why is Sae-byeok so popular? “I think the most significant thing is that she’s doing everything for other people. I’m more individualistic myself, but Sae-byeok joins the games for the sake of her family. Playing this role has got me thinking about the value of paying more attention to other people in my life.”

While Sae-byeok is enraged at the world and distrustful of everyone, Jung was cheerful and vivacious, full of smiles, throughout the interview.

When asked which game in the series she thought she would be the best at, Jung chose red light, green light. “Given my experience as a model, I’m really good at holding still,” she said, laughing.

Is she stressed out by the global response to her debut role? Jung’s response was fairly low-key. “When I was talking to Park Hae-soo on the phone, he told me to keep my feet on the ground. That’s something I repeat to myself every morning when I get up.”

“The idea is to give everything I’ve got, no matter what I’m doing, without worrying about things that haven’t happened yet. I mean to work hard, taking things one step at a time.”

By Oh Seung-hun, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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