Squid Game’s Sae-byeok Changed Ho Yeon Jung “for the Better”

Photo: Rosdiana Ciaravolo / Getty Images

Even on a video call with his arms raised above his head to make a heart, Ho Yeon Jung can light up the dullest liquid crystal set in a 16: 9 frame. She has over a decade of modeling under her belt, but her first acting role as Squid game‘s Kang Sae-byeok, a young woman desperate to reunite her family after being separated on the North Korean border, has made her the current “It girl” of the world, with Instagram numbers rising from around half a million subscribers to over 19 million since Squid gamerelease in mid-September.

Sae-byeok’s courage and determination in the games, along with his love for his brother, made him a fan favorite, and Ho Yeon’s steadfast composure as we sit down to discuss Squid game allows you to easily imagine the life of Sae-byeok if she had won; Ho Yeon feels like everything Sae-byeok could have been, if only life had given him a hand. “It was hard to let go,” Ho Yeon told Vulture via a translator in a conversation about playing Sae-byeok. “I noticed this change in me, when I say something and instantly realize that it is not me speaking, it is Sae-byeok in me speaking.”

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

You left Korea in 2016 to pursue modeling, and now you find yourself out there doing Squid game. Did you change a lot during this time?
The time I spent abroad working as a model, all of these experiences influenced my personality and my personal tastes. Even though I was based in New York City, I traveled all over the world, meeting so many different types of people, and that’s really when my understanding of diversity deepened. Working only in Korea, I was more focused on recognition and how others saw me, but it was the years I spent abroad that made me wonder, What do I like ? Without this time abroad, my acting career might not have happened at all because I lacked understanding of people and humanity. Without those years, maybe Sae-byeok wouldn’t be here.

How did you approach the game Sae-byeok?
I tried to find the “why?” behind every line that Sae-byeok had and tried to examine his true emotions versus the fake ones. I started to write a character diary; every day she had to go through, the day she arrived in South Korea, the day she lost family members to the fire. By writing his daily journals, I was able to construct in me Sae-byeok’s point of view, as well as his facial expressions. I would almost say that I have physically accumulated all of his experiences to express his character. Of course, I had to practice martial arts for the action sequences and learn the North Korean dialect. All of these efforts put together, along with the help of many people I have worked with, all resulted in the character of Sae-byeok.

Will you ever share one of these diaries?
[In English] No. I can’t… It’s just like… Too shy! [hides behind her hands]

Fair enough. I imagine a character like Sae-byeok would stay with you long after filming.
The biggest lesson Sae-byeok taught me is that people are stronger when they live for and with others, rather than chasing after their individual interests. This is the biggest personal change I have experienced. In the days of modeling, I never faced situations where I really had to think about other people, my family and my friends. I didn’t have a sense of responsibility; it was more about my well-being and my goals. What was difficult about portraying Sae-byeok was that he is a character who is willing to give his life for his family. I had to ask myself, Would I be able to do this if I was in his shoes?

The closer I got to Sae-byeok, the more I understood that was what made her so strong, and that changed me for the better. I have become someone who cares more about my family and friends. I noticed this change in me, when I say something and realize instantly, it’s not me speaking, it’s Sae-byeok in me speaking. It was hard to let go.

I want to ask questions about your modeling career. Were these skills transferable to Squid game?
Basically, for models as for actors, these are jobs that must be judged by everyone. There is always an audience, there is always the magazine reader who will judge you. Every time I’m in front of the camera, I feel like all of my traumas are on display. There’s a lot of tension, and even though I’ve been a model for 11 years, I’m still nervous on camera.

How to overcome all that?
These are jobs where you really have to prove yourself. Rather than judging my outward appearance, there is more stress in having to prove myself, but I can still enjoy the process because there is so much love coming my way. I know everything takes time, so I take it one day at a time.

How do you approach difficult times differently now that you have acted in Squid game?
I ask the question “why? ” a lot. Before I acted, when I heard something on the news or stories about people, all I said was, “Okay, that could happen” or “Okay, that’s what’s happening. ‘has passed. I didn’t really get into the “why”. Ever since I started playing and studying humans, I have wondered why people say certain things or make certain choices. This approach also deepened my personal relationships. When I face challenges and difficulties, in order to resolve them, I become someone capable of smoother conversation rather than going through emotional conflicts.

Did you see how much people love the scenes between Sae-byeok and Ji-yeong (Lee Yoo-mi)? What was it like working with her?
I cannot be more grateful for this. With Yoo-mi we had great chemistry on set and we became very close friends, and because she has more theater experience I would call her sunbaenim, although we are the same age. From the first time we met, we hooked up instantly and had great conversations about acting. We cherish the scenes we had together and the fact that so many people loved it. It was such an amazing and humbling experience. When we were getting ready for these streaks Yoo-mi and I were pretty busy, but we got through it together. We got chills from the reaction from the fans; it is an indescribable feeling.

If you, as Jung Ho-yeon, could say a few words to Sae-byeok, what would you say?
[In English] I would say you did well. Well done. She fought her whole life, for her family, and she really tried. I think she did her best. Well done.

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