Spoilers ahead for season one of Squid Game.
When Wi Ha-jun’s image appears on a video call, a simple black shirt against a white wall, all that’s missing is a red jumpsuit to complete what is sure to be a popular costume choice of the spooky season. If it weren’t for the sizable grin on his face that reaches his eyes — a far cry from his demeanor as Hwang Jun-ho, a police officer who masquerades as a red-suited worker to investigate the long-ago disappearance of his brother — you’d think he was live streaming from the set of Squid Game’s yet-to-be-confirmed second season.
While Netflix’s South Korean original is a global triumph, perhaps its greatest sin is the fact that the Romance Is a Bonus Book actor spends a good deal of it with a mask covering the kind of face that shouldn’t stay hidden. If you’ve recently joined the Gong Yoo Please Slap Me cult, this one’s for you. Sure, it’s no five-minute ultimatum, but 30 minutes with a lightning-speed translator and making the internet’s current obsession blush? We’re satisfied.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
You’ve gained international acclaim for Squid Game, but your recent photo shoot for Men’s Health Korea is very sexy and we need to quickly talk about it. Your abs are everywhere.
It just makes me blush. I was actually born a very skinny kid; before joining the military I was at about 125 pounds. But I’m extremely grateful. All of those comments calling me sexy and whatnot on those pictures, it brings me a lot of joy but it also just puts me to shame. If I had known that it would blow up as much as it has, I would’ve worked out more and put in more time to appear better, physically, in front of the fans.
You made your name in many romantic-comedy K-dramas, and are now transitioning to darker suspenseful dramas with Squid Game. What has that transition been like?
The audience has an image of me in a rom-com sense because I have done a lot of rom-coms, so they remember me in a particular light. But in real life, my personality tends to be a bit more grounded, a bit more serious. I’m a fan of the darker genres, so the transition to Squid Game was the time for me to take advantage of my strengths. In every piece of work I do, based on the genre, I try to reflect that genre in my daily life. For example, if I’m doing a romance, when I’m with my friends I’ll be more lively in my facial expressions and the way that I speak. With Squid Game, I tried to be more reserved and not talk as much.
Tell me about your preparations for Squid Game.
The most important and necessary thing in playing Jun-ho was having to portray his emotions without many lines. He’s a character that witnesses these shocking events, so the emotional development had to be shown in my eyes, or through my breathing — everything had to be portrayed through my body. Thankfully, our director gave me a lot of detailed notes.
Squid Game speaks a lot about society, greed, and capitalism. What do you make of those commentaries?
I felt that the director had many messages that he wanted to portray through Squid Game, and I really related to and agreed with the messages that the story conveyed. Even though the script was started about eight years ago, there are many parallels that can be drawn between that script and the society that we live in today.
The most iconic scene for me is when Jun-ho is on his knees and he grabs the VIP’s balls and says, “Satisfied?”
It’s so full of power. What was it like filming with the VIPs? I know as a viewer I wanted Jun-ho to get out of there so badly.
When I was shooting the VIP scene, one of the things I was concerned about was having to deliver lines in English. It was the first time for me to do a scene with non-Korean actors on set, so I did a lot of preparation, and I was very grateful for my co-actor because he had great energy, and just went into it. He made the overall environment very lighthearted, so I was able to really get into the role and get into that emotional scene. And also because it was quite a sensitive scene as well, he really helped me bring out my emotions as the character. And because of that I could portray an even stronger emotion than what I had originally prepared for. The fact that the fans love the scene so much makes me happy as well.
Is that why you act, because it makes you happy?
Since I was very young, I had relatively low self-esteem and I wasn’t satisfied with myself. Working as an actor and giving these performances and seeing how people respond with love and how people recognize what I do, and also seeing people feel joy through the works I participate in, it’s really changed my life for the better. Part of the reason why I act is because my parents love it so much. There’s a lot of challenges and pain that’s part of the process, but seeing how happy it makes my parents motivates me to do better and be better. My father often tells me that I have to be a good person above all else.
With K-dramas becoming more popular and hallyu taking over America, surely you must be proud getting to help show the many sides of Korean culture?
It is truly a great honor to be part of that through Squid Game, to be loved by so many fans and to show off K-content to the world. I hope that in the future we continue to see more diverse Asian representation in many diverse roles and that I can contribute to letting the world enjoy Korean content through some new and original works going forward.
And with Korean artists like BTS and actors such as yourself gaining international notice, it seems American pop culture is finally waking up to the fact that Asian men can be sex symbols too.*
To that, I feel very proud and confident. I hope that, not just me, but many [Asian] actors in the future can meet fans globally through roles that are righteous, cool, and that are sexy and attractive on screen.
What did you personally take away from your experience on Squid Game?
I do wish that I could’ve had more scenes with the other actors. The fact that I was able to play a character in such a huge series, as someone who led and held up my own story line, was very daunting. I felt a heavy burden. But the fact that I was able to do this brings me pride, and I feel like I grew as an actor.
A decent portion of the internet holds a theory that Jun-ho isn’t actually dead, owing to the fact we never see his body. What do you think about this?
I’m also dying to find out. I haven’t heard anything, so I really want to know what happened. If there is to be a season two, and if Jun-ho is to return, then I personally hope we can look into his relationship with his brother, as well as what made his brother make these choices and led him to being there. That’s my personal wish.
If you could say anything to your character, from Ha-jun to Jun-ho, what would you say?
Return back alive.
*This question was phrased poorly in an earlier version of this interview, and has been edited to reflect the writer’s intent.