Even in a video call, arms raised above her head to make a heart, Jung Ho-yeon can light up the dullest set of liquid crystals in a 16:9 frame. She has over a decade of modeling under her belt, but her debut acting role as Squid Game’s Kang Sae-byeok, a young woman desperate to reunite her family after being separated at the North Korean border, has made her the world’s current “It” girl, with an Instagram count rising from around a half-million followers to over 19 million since Squid Game’s release in mid-September.
Sae-byeok’s grit and determination in the games, as well as her love for her brother, has made her a fan-favorite character, and Ho-yeon’s resolute calm as we sit down to chat about Squid Game makes it easy to imagine Sae-byeok’s life if she had won; Ho-yeon feels like everything Sae-byeok could have been, if only life had dealt her a kinder hand. “It was difficult to let go of her,” she tells Vulture via translator in a conversation about playing Sae-byeok. “I’ve noticed this change in me, when I’ll say something and instantly realize, this is not me speaking, this is Sae-byeok in me speaking.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
You left Korea in 2016 to pursue modeling, and now you’ve found yourself back there making Squid Game. Have you changed much in that time?
The time that I spent overseas working as a model, all of those experiences influenced my personality and personal taste. Even though I was based in New York, I would travel all over the world, meeting so many different types of people, and that’s really when my understanding of diversity deepened. Working just in Korea, I was more focused on being recognized and how others viewed me, but it was the years I spent overseas that led me to wonder, What things do I like? Without that time overseas, my acting career might not have happened at all because I lacked understanding of people and humankind. Without those years, maybe Sae-byeok wouldn’t be here.
How did you approach playing Sae-byeok?
I tried to find the “why?” behind every line that Sae-byeok had and tried to look into her real emotions versus fake ones. I started writing a diary of the character; all of the days she had to go through, the day she arrived in South Korea, the day she lost family members to the fire. As I wrote her daily diaries, I was able to build Sae-byeok’s outlook within myself, as well as her facial expressions. I’d almost say that I physically accumulated all of her experiences to express her character. Of course, I had to train in martial arts for the action sequences and learn the North Korean dialect. All of those efforts put together, as well as the help of many people I worked with, all gave birth to the character of Sae-byeok.
Will you ever share any of those diaries?
[In English] No. I can’t … It’s just like … Too shy! [hides behind her hands]
Fair enough. I imagine a character like Sae-byeok would stay with you long after filming.
The biggest lesson that Sae-byeok has taught me is that people are stronger when they live for others and with others, rather than chasing after their individual interest. That’s the biggest personal change that I went through. In my modeling days, I never faced situations where I had to really think about others, or my family and friends. I didn’t have a sense of responsibility; it was more about my well-being and goals. What was difficult about portraying Sae-byeok is that she’s a character who is willing to give her life for her family. I had to ask myself, Would I be able to do that if I were in her shoes?
The closer I got to Sae-byeok, the more I understood that this is what made her so strong, and it’s changed me for the better. I have become someone who cares more for my family and friends. I’ve noticed this change in me, when I’ll say something and instantly realize, this is not me speaking, this is Sae-byeok in me speaking. It was difficult to let go of her.
I want to ask about your modeling career. Were those skills transferable to Squid Game?
Basically, for both models and actors, these are occupations that have to be judged by everyone. There’s always an audience, there’s always the magazine reader that’s going to judge you. Every time I’m in front of the camera, I feel like all my traumas are exposed. There’s a lot of tension, and though it’s been 11 years since I’ve been a model, I still get nervous in front of the camera.
How do you move past all of that?
These are occupations where you really have to prove yourself. Rather than the judgment of my outer appearance, there’s a greater stress about having to prove myself, but I can still enjoy the process because there is so much love coming my way. I know that everything takes time, so I take it one day at a time.
How do you approach hard times differently now that you’ve acted in Squid Game?
I ask the question “why?” a lot. Before acting, when I’d hear something on the news, or stories about people, all I would say is, “Okay, that could happen,” or, “Okay, that’s what happened.” I didn’t really go into the “why” of it. Since I started acting and studying humans, I question why people say certain things or make certain choices. That approach has deepened my personal relationships as well. When I face challenges and difficulties, in order to solve them I become somebody capable of softer conversation rather than going through emotional conflict.
Have you seen how much people love the scenes between Sae-byeok and Ji-yeong (Lee Yoo-mi)? What was it like working with her?
I cannot be more grateful for that. With Yoo-mi, we had great chemistry on set and we became very close friends, and because she has more experience in the acting field, I would call her sunbaenim, although we are the same age. From the first time we met, we instantly connected, and we had great conversations about acting. We cherish the scenes we had together and the fact that so many loved it. It was such an amazing and humbling experience. When we were preparing for those sequences, Yoo-mi and I were quite burdened, but we got through it together. We got chills because of the fan reaction; it’s an indescribable feeling.
If you, as Jung Ho-yeon, could say a few words to Sae-byeok, what would you say?
[In English] I would say, you did good. Well done. She’s been struggling all her life, for her family, and she tried really hard. I think she did her best. Well done.
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