Note: Spoilers about the first episode of Squid Game are ahead.
If you’ve spent any time on Twitter, you’ve heard about Squid Game, the new and deeply deranged Korean Netflix series that’s on track to becoming the streamingest show ever for the platform. The nine-episode series follows 456 “contestants” — all mired with life-ruining debt — who compete in a mysterious competition at an island bunker where they participate in violent versions of children’s games.
While the pilot episode of Squid Game includes a number of scene-stealers — like one resident zaddy, Gong Yoo, who asks our protagonist, Seong Gi-hun (played by Lee Jung-jae), to play a game of ddakji (think pogs) and ends up slapping him silly (hot) — nobody would have expected a fresh-faced robot doll to become the toast of TikTok. In the first game on the island, the contestants play a Korean version of red light, green light on a sandy lot, while our sentient ten-foot doll sing-songs the phrase “The rose of Sharon has bloomed.” (무궁화 꽃이 피었습니다.) If they make any false move, they get shot by snipers. But who is the real giant robot doll behind the one in Squid Game? In a phone call with Vulture, the show’s fan favorite opened up about empathizing with villainous characters, capitalism, and the instant success of the series.
Hi! First off, it’s great to meet you. What’s your name?
Oh my God, I’m so nervous! I’ve never been interviewed before. Funnily enough, I’m named after the flower, Mugunghwa, or the Rose of Sharon in English. You can call me Chantal.
Well, Chantal, congratulations on the show! How are you feeling about the success?
It’s been a whirlwind. I just got back from a vacation in Jeju Island with some of the crew, but even then, there were other people asking me for photos and my autograph. Now I’m in [Seoul] doing press and promotional work.
You are absolutely serving doll in your episode. How did your look come together?
The art director Chae Kyung-sun really wanted to reference old elementary-school textbooks where you always saw that boy-girl couple Chulsoo and Younghee. So my look was channeling a classic Korean everygirl.
How did you get into acting?
I’ve wanted to be an actor ever since I was young. Being a ten-foot robot doll was really hard for me, especially in grade school. Kids can be really cruel. I just never fit in — sometimes literally! [Laughs.] So I was an introvert, and books and TV were a huge escape for me. I always loved to act out little stories in front of my parents, and then I joined a local youth theater group when we moved to Berlin. Eventually I attended the Århus Theatre School in Denmark — I actually took several classes at the same time as Mads Mikkelsen.
Oh really! Were you friends?
You know, he was so punk rock, so he was always off doing his own thing. But we took a mime master class together once and he told me — silently, of course — that he really liked my look. I sort of felt like we were kindred spirits in that way.
I’m guessing it’s not easy getting cast for roles when you’re a ten-foot robot doll. Was the part written with you in mind?
Actually, no! When my agent called me about the role, I couldn’t believe it. I think the creator [Hwang Dong-hyuk] had seen me in Satoshi Kon’s Paprika, which was my first big break. As soon as I read the script, I immediately connected with the character. I sent in a tape and then flew out from Berlin to meet Dong-hyuk, and he offered me the part on the spot. The whole experience was surreal. And it was easy to memorize the lines. Well, line. [Laughs.]
Did it get tiring saying the same line over and over again?
That really did become an acting challenge — how do you adjust it slightly each time? How do you walk the line between light-heartedness and menace? Director Hwang would have me try it so many different ways until we found the right tone. But the hardest part was all of the dust and keeping my eyes open for the close-ups! The actors were really kicking up a lot of it during the shoot, so I used a gallon of eye drops.
You mentioned you connected with the character. How so?
Well, I’ve never been a confrontational person, so even though she’s a ruthless, human-killing machine, part of it was … I don’t know, cathartic? It just took me back to my grade-school days. Maybe it’s wish fulfillment! [Laughs.] I know a lot of people might see her as the villain, but I didn’t approach her that way. As an actor, you have to find compassion for your character. Even though she does some bad things, she really believes in the overall mission of the Squid Game: She’s giving these people an opportunity to take control of their destiny. I was inspired by her — her focus, the way she takes up space. At the same time, she’s just as trapped as the contestants, so it’s complicated. It’s a rich role. I mean, before this, I often got typecast as a cute, dumb doll.
What was it like on set? You were there with so many extras that day.
It was a really incredible experience. I was really nervous at first because it was such a big production, but the entire cast and crew were so warm and professional. I had a dance session with some of the background actors, which really loosened me up. I studied a lot of the movement-based expressive arts: mime (like I mentioned), modern, kabuki. So dancing really helped connect me to my body.
Do you think Squid Game is a meaningful critique of capitalism, or does it merely reify it through an entertaining depiction of its violences?
That’s a good question. I don’t know if it’s the job of art to critique as much as it is to depict. Yes, this is entertainment, but it’s also a mirror to our society. What you choose to do with that image is up to you.
Absolutely. Following up on that, do you think President Biden should go further on abolishing student loan debt?
I’d prefer not to get into a discussion about U.S. policies.
Fair enough. If you could get slapped by Gong Yoo or Wi Ha-joon, who would you choose?
[Giggles.] Oh my God, both! They can take turns. I’m so bummed that I didn’t get to meet them. We didn’t share any scenes that day, but who knows? Maybe there will be another opportunity. I’d love to do a romantic drama with either of them.
I saw rumors that you’re dating Jigsaw from the Saw franchise. Is that true?
What advice would you offer to any other giant robot dolls out there trying to break into the industry?
People always used to say stuff to try and make me doubt myself — like how my head is too big or my pupils are a creepy red, or even when I never sat down in class because the desks were too small. But then I met Director Hwang and I really felt seen. He saw how much training I’ve had in the arts and helped me understand that all of those things that made me different got me where I am now. What I’m trying to say is don’t give up. There can be 100 people in a room and 99 of them don’t believe in you, but all it takes is one and that was him.