Warning: This article contains spoilers for “Squid Game.“
It could be that the survivalist, cutthroat runway of “Korea’s Next Top Model” helped prepare supermodel-turned-actress Jung Ho-yeon for the fight-to-the-death fictional arena of “Squid Game.”
“I didn’t think I grafted the competitive and strong-willed versions of myself from ‘Korea’s Next Top Model’ to Sae-byeok’s character,” the “Squid Game” lead actress told NBC Asian America. “But thinking of it now, maybe I still have those aspects within me, which helped me understand the role. And I’ve grown to accept that part of me, as well.”
Jung, 27, has become the breakout star of Netflix’s record-breaking debut hit, which features hundreds of players battling in a series of childhood games with dark twists for a cash reward of $38 million. In portraying Kang Sae-byeok, a North Korean defector with a knack for pickpocketing and love for family, Jung said she had no fear of taking on an unglamorous role or having to act ugly for her foray into acting.
“To tell you the truth, people might think going from a model to a North Korean defector would’ve been difficult in appearance. For me, the focus was not on the external but internal side of things, to fully understand Sae-byeok’s life,” said Jung, whose Instagram following went from less than 1 million to more than 20 million following the series’ premiere.
“In a way, I think Sae-byeok lived her life to the fullest, so her desperate need to win was different from the others, and she didn’t necessarily have to earn the cash prize.”
Jung, whose character died in the penultimate episode before making it to the final round of the games, offered her thoughts as to whether Sae-byeok should have won the whole competition.
“Sae-byeok was desperate for the prize money and may have wanted to win, but thinking about the life she led up until what it took to be surrounded by all the dead bodies makes me hesitant to say,” she said. “In a way, I think Sae-byeok lived her life to the fullest, so her desperate need to win was different from the others, and she didn’t necessarily have to earn the cash prize.”
To prepare for the role, she said she watched documentaries and rehearsed Sae-byeok’s North Hamgyŏng province dialect. Jung also took martial arts lessons to prepare for action scenes with her casting partners, including Heo Sung-tae, who plays the role of villain Jang Deok-su and attacks Sae-byeok in the first episode.
In contrast to the violent and suspenseful storyline, she said the mood on set was light, recalling memories like waltzing with Heo before filming a brutal scene.
Lee Yoo-mi — who plays Ji-yeong, Sae-byeok’s marbles partner in episode six — was Jung’s first reading partner whom she consulted frequently about acting.
Jung said she believes their constant conversations built up the chemistry between the two, leading to the climax in the marble game scene, where Ji-yeong lets Sae-byeok win the game, therefore letting her live.
“Ji-yeong and Sae-byeok’s time may have been short, but from the beginning to the filming of that scene, there was the time we spent as Yoo-mi and Ho-yeon, so within that short period of time, we were able to portray that bond,” she said.
To get into character, Jung said she wrote extensive journals as if she were Sae-byeok to create a rich backstory of her family separation, including details such as the air she would have felt the day she last saw them or the last words they would have shared.
“I tried to write it down as much as possible to understand her character,” Jung said.
In the process, she found similarities between her cheery disposition and Sae-byeok’s stoic nature.
“For me, I put on a bright face, whereas Sae-byeok is more withdrawn and distant,” Jung added. “While we’re different in expressing ourselves, I could understand where she was coming from.”
Jung said she wanted to portray her character accurately, and the most difficult scene for her was when Sae-byeok tried to hide her pain from a piece of glass stuck in her side.
“It was when Sae-byeok could show the weakest spots of her,” Jung said. “Her approach to life is so desperate, right? So I wanted her to appear as much like herself as possible when she was alone.”
Jung got her start as one of the runners-up in season four of “Korea’s Next Top Model” in 2013, after taking modeling classes since age 15.
Even as her career advanced, as she walked for events like Seoul Fashion Week, Jung said she longed for a change and decided to go overseas.
She landed a contract with Louis Vuitton and had her international debut in 2016. Since then, Jung has walked for luxury brands such as Chanel and Gucci.
“I was constantly bottling up my loneliness. It was only after I entered the real world that I became firmer.”
Last week, Louis Vuitton named her its latest global ambassador.
Her desire to act came after she hit another “slump” in her modeling career overseas and felt lonely, she said.
“I didn’t have anyone to share my good or bad news with,” Jung said. “I was constantly bottling up my loneliness. It was only after I entered the real world that I became firmer.”
But again, she used it to launch another phase in her career.
“I turned to a lot of films and books in hopes of learning more about humanity, which brought me to acting,” she said.
She said one of her favorite film performances is that of Amy Adams in the Academy Award-nominated drama “Doubt,” and one of her favorite novels is “The Vegetarian,” by South Korean writer Han Kang, winner of the 2016 Man Booker International Prize.
Jung has appeared in a few music videos but formally pursued acting after joining Saram Entertainment, a Korean talent agency that specializes in artist management and film production, last year.
The first audition script her company sent was for “Squid Game,” which she recalled reading in one sitting throughout the night.
“Aside from the time I spent eating, I remember just reading the script,” Jung said in a South Korean news conference.
In the same news conference, director Hwang Dong-hyuk said: “We saw several auditions for this role and were struggling to find a suitable actress. [Jung’s] audition tape came out of the blue, and instantly, I knew the role would be hers. She had the gaze, looks, voice and even the acting tone of just the person I was looking for.”
Jung, who was in New York for fashion week at the time, flew to Korea for an audition.
“After an in-person audition, I knew my instincts were right,” added Hwang, who gave her the part right away.
Jung said her days on set felt like prolonged acting lessons.
“For one show, I performed a variety of emotional flows, action scenes and accents,” she said. “To gain so many experiences like this as a rookie is rare.”
She said she still thinks about advice she received from veteran actors, who often told her how she lives life will affect her acting.
“I think I know what that means now,” Jung said. “All that I have and will experience, even in the most minuscule way, will influence my acting.”
One of those experiences included her younger days on “Korea’s Next Top Model.”
“I think there are various sides of me,” she said. “In my early 20s, there was a side of me that was envious and ambitious. As I gained more experience, there was the side of me that has grown to accept, understand and respect others.”
Now, she cherishes the work she creates in conjunction, not in rivalry, with others.
“I’m going to put in more energy than I’ve ever used before, and I’m going to make it.”
“I gained deep respect and regard for the people I work with,” Jung said. “The cultural industry alone is huge and isn’t something that’s created based on my own success. It’s the sum of all the energy of people who work hard to make the best work.”
Jung said she feels it’s just the beginning, and she’s excited for what comes next.
“All that is left for me is to give everything my all moving forward,” she said. “I’m going to put in more energy than I’ve ever used before, and I’m going to make it.”