How ‘Squid Game’ Star Jung Ho-yeon Is Living a ‘Never-Dreamed Dream Come True’

·4 min read

This story about Jung Ho-yeon first appeared in The Race Begins issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

“Squid Game” arrived on the television landscape with a bang, amassing 1.65 billion viewing hours on Netflix during its first four weeks and becoming a global phenomenon in a matter of days. And with it, came Jung Ho-yeon, a South Korean model in her first-ever acting role whose searing portrayal of North Korean defector Kang Sae-byeok earned her the Screen Actors Guild Award for Female Actor in a Drama Series. In conversation, the actress is equal parts guileless and mischievous, a far cry from the hardened survivor fans saw on screen. She’s also thoughtful about her future and how the world stands at the precipice of a new age of understanding.

Not only was “Squid Game”a global hit, but it’s already made a mark in the record books, becoming the first non-English-language series and first Korean series to score nominations and wins at the Screen Actors Guild Awards.

How has it felt to be a part of a show that is actively making history?

The fact that I am part of this history is just unbelievable. For me, still, it’s like a dream. I went back to Korea to take a little break, just to be healthy so that I can keep working, and I was like, “Is it still true?” When I Googled my name, I’m like, “Yeah, still true.”

I never dreamed about making history. And I think those kinds of history you cannot predict, you cannot prepare, you cannot plan. We wished that we could have a global reaction, but we never had that as our purpose.

Squid Game | Credit: Netflix
Squid Game | Credit: Netflix

You made history yourself, winning the Screen Actors Guild Award. You seemed a little shocked in the moment. How do you remember that night playing out?

I didn’t expect that at all, literally. I was so excited just watching the nominees and seeing their speeches because I’d been watching those awards through the internet and TV in Korea. Sitting on my couch watching the Oscars and being like, “Who’s gonna get it? Who’s gonna get it?” and then watching their cool speech. I could see it for real at the SAG Awards.

I had been under so much pressure for presenting an award (Male Actor in a Comedy Series alongside Hailee Steinfeld) that after I finished I went back to my seat and I thought, “Oh, my job is done,” so I took two glasses of champagne straight. Lee Jung-jae and director Hwang (Dong-hyuk) said, “Oh, stop, stop, stop drinking,” and I was like, “Leave me alone, I’ve done my job!”

When I saw my face on the screen, it felt amazing. When my name was announced it was like… (pause) “Sh-t.” It was like, “F–k. What should I say? I’m not a cool speech person. I’ve never done this!” I was shocked so I was delayed at my table and I only had 20 seconds left to speak and I was just like, “Ho-yeon, think! Ho-yeon, think! Ho-yeon, think!”

I’m very grateful and happy to have that moment. I never thought that I could meet Cate Blanchett or Meryl Streep or Jennifer Aniston or Reese Witherspoon. And I never dreamed about working with them. To me, they were just fantasy people. But now I have this opportunity to work with them. Now, it’s a never-dreamed dream come true.

How do you feel about the recent uptick in appreciation for Korean art, both in television, film and beyond?

I feel proud of it. I think this is the generation where you can talk about your country’s culture and history through Netflix or Disney or Apple and easily get connected. Because I think we still don’t know a lot about each other. I think there are still so many misunderstandings about culture and country and this is a time where we can learn from each other, not to divide us, to be more united.

Has “Squid Game” impacted how people react to you in the world? Do you get recognized when you’re in the United States?

Yeah. I think people are confused when they see me. I normally just walk around with my friend because, except for the last six months, my whole life (I) was not that recognized. Now people see me and they’re like, “Are you the girl from ‘Squid Game?’” They’re confused. One side of me wants to make a joke: “No, but I hear that a lot. I know I look like her.” But the other side of me is like, “Let’s be honest.”

Be honest: Have you ever told anyone, “No, but I heard I look like her!”

Just one time. But after that, I always said, “Yeah, that’s me.”

Read more from our The Race Begins issue here.