Lee Jung-jae Talks Directing 'Hunt' and How 'Squid Game' Changed His Career

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CANNES, FRANCE - MAY 20: Actor Lee Jung-jae poses for a portrait during the 75th Cannes Film Festival on May 20, 2022 in Cannes, France. Sebastien Vincent/Contour/Getty

It has been a big year for Squid Game star Lee Jung-jae. He's won Screen Actors Guild and Critics Choice awards, been nominated for a Golden Globe, an Emmy (Squid Game got 14 Emmy nods) and received a 7-minute standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival in May, for the premiere of Hunt, a spy thriller he both directed and stars in.

In one of his first in-depth interviews with a major U.S. publication, Lee spoke to Newsweek from Seoul, where he's been working on post-production for Hunt, which opens in South Korea on August 10 (a U.S. release date is in the works). He reflected on directing his first film, his Hollywood aspirations and the "greater responsibility" he feels since the enormous success of Squid Game.

'A Strong Sense of Guilt'

The Netflix K-drama made the 49-year old Lee, long a star in South Korea, an international pop culture icon. The series is the streaming service's most popular ever, surpassing even other monster hits like Stranger Things and Bridgerton.

In the intriguing final scene of the show's first season, Lee's character, Gi-hun, the surviving winner of the fatal contest of the title, was seen dramatically walking out of a jetway at an airport following a cryptic phone call with a staff member from the games.

Lee Jung-jae as Gi-hun in "Squid Game."
Actor Lee Jung-jae as Gi-hun during the 'dalgona' candy challenge in "Squid Game." Netflix

Fans wanted to know: What was going through Gi-hun's mind and what was he going to do? After coming to terms with the shocking truth behind the games, Lee says Gi-hun "had shaken off everything and was only thinking about getting to his daughter." But while traveling to the airport, Gi-hun noticed a person on a train platform being recruited for the deady competition by the Salesman, the mysterious character played by actor Gong Yoo who Squid Game director/writer Hwang Dong-hyuk has hinted may be returning in the second season.

Lee says "I was so glad that Gi-hun changed his mind after running into another victim playing ddakji [a Korean children's game the Salesman uses to recruit contestants] at a train station and became determined to prevent further damage to more victims."

Director/writer Hwang says Lee will return as Gi-hun in season two and "do something for the world." Beyond that, however, neither he nor Lee are talking. "If Gi-hun can do 'something for the world,''' Lee says, "I'll be very proud of him indeed,'' adding that while he was "really happy to see season two be officially confirmed recently," he has "no knowledge of any details on how the plot for the second season will unfold."

"I believe the director is currently still deep in the process of developing the script" Lee says, "As a fan of Squid Game myself, I'm really looking forward to season two."

"What's been most memorable and challenging has been playing a character who is forced to cheat and con another person for the sake of their survival," Lee says, "I was tormented by a strong sense of guilt and it was not easy to portray such a horrific expression of the lengths to which humans could go in a bid to survive."

Gi-hun is "such a warm character," the actor says. "I really love the goodness of Gi-hun. Even in the extreme circumstances he was facing, he still helped others out because he has a good heart."

Nerves in Cannes and the Age of Fake News

The actor makes his directing debut with Hunt, which stars him and Jung Woo-sung, a fellow Korean movie star and a close friend since 1998 when the pair starred in the hit film City of the Rising Sun. Jung most recently was executive producer of the Netflix science fiction K-drama The Silent Sea.

While the success of Squid Game has generated a lot of interest from abroad in Hunt, it's also brought Lee a bigger than normal case of nerves to deal with. He calls unveiling the movie in Cannes "a humble little dream."

Lee Jung-jae at the 2022 Cannes festival.
Lee Jung-jae attends the photo call for "Hunt," the new film directed by and starring Lee, during the 75th Cannes Film Festival on May 19, 2022 in Cannes, France. Stephane Cardinale - Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images

"I usually get nervous during preview screenings," Lee says, "but I was especially nervous this time as it was my directorial debut in front of an international audience. During the screening, I kept worrying about whether the subtitles were properly written."

"At the end of the screening, I was both shocked and embarrassed to be given the longest applause I'd ever received in my life."

Lee was initially offered only an acting role in Hunt, which centers on two South Korean intelligence agents investigating each other on a quest to track down a mole. He later decided to produce the film, and when he couldn't find a satisfactory screenwriter or director for it, wound up doing those jobs, too. Lee says he worked on the script for about four years, "focusing on the backstory of the characters," he says. "I believe there has to be a clear justification for the characters in order for them to collide passionately, and I hoped this fiery clash would fill the screen."

Lee wanted the two antagonists, Pyong-ho (played by Lee) and Jung-do (played by Jung) to "see themselves in each other, even though they're clashing opposites." They don't share much dialogue, but Lee says it was important to "create a sense of unity and solidarity between them." He says, "I hoped the two would merge into one person."

Hwang Dong-hyuk on "Squid Game" set.
Director Hwang Dong-hyuk, with actor Lee Jung-jae and production crew, seen on the set of "Squid Game." Netflix

In Hunt, Lee and Jung share the big screen for the first time in over 20 years since their on-screen chemistry in City of the Rising Sun made the film a hit. Why such a long wait? "We talked a lot about working together again very soon. For years, we tried to make it possible and even wrote a script together at one point, but it never materialized into a film."

Lee calls Jung "an incredible actor at the top of his game. As a director I was very keen to have him in the film. I really wanted people to say that 'Jung Woo-sung looked the best on screen when he was shot by Lee Jung-jae.'"

Lee says he gave a lot of thought to setting Hunt squarely in the present "where we believe in a truth distorted by fake news and false teachings and we see a lot of conflict among opponents." While there are those who want to "manipulate" and "profit from" these conflicts, Lee asks "What do we who are in conflict gain from it all? I think we must continually re-examine our beliefs, so I wanted to explore that theme in this film."

"I wanted to make a high intensity film, with both big and small reversals in the plot unfolding harmoniously. It is a fast-paced spy film but I also tried not to make the story too complicated to follow. I simply hope audiences will enjoy watching it."

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Film still from Hunt. Scene with Lee on the left centre, Jung in the right centre. Megabox

'So Much Love at the Moment'

Notwithstanding the film's reception at Cannes, Lee says he still thinks of himself as an actor first. "Acting is harder than directing," he says. "Acting is my identity and there's still so much I want to do with it.

Lee says over nearly 30 years in show business he's learned to take things a little easier than he did at first: "I take care of myself more than I did before. It feels like I've been busy everyday thinking I need to be prepared for anything."

"I think the more experience you gain, the greater responsibility you have. Especially now with Squid Game being on the radar of a global audience, I feel a heavier responsibility as Korean content is receiving so much love at the moment."

Could a Hollywood project be next in line for Lee? He's recently signed with Creative Artists Agency which also represents heavyweights like Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt and Will Smith among many others.

Asked which Hollywood director and actor he'd most like to work with, Lee says: "There are too many I can name, but I'd love to work with director Todd Phillips and actor Joaquin Phoenix one day."

Soo Kim is a Newsweek reporter who writes regularly about South Korean culture and entertainment. Twitter: @MissSooKim. Instagram: @miss.soo.kim