Park Hae-soo kicked off his acting career on the stage, performing everything from musical theater to Tennessee Williams to Shakespeare. With his tall frame, distinct features, and ability to switch from being imposing to friendly and back again, Park has come a long way in the past decade by proving his versatility. The Korean actor quickly crossed over into film and television, gaining praise and notoriety for his performances in shows like Prison Playbook. But nothing could have prepared Park Hae-soo for the direction his career took just last year with Squid Game on Netflix.
Squid Game premiered on September 17th, 2021 where it steadily rose to the top of Netflix’s library after being met with instant acclaim and attention. It has since become the most-watched Netflix series of all time, surpassing other popular shows like Bridgerton and Stranger Things with hundreds of millions of viewers and billions of streaming hours across dozens of different countries around the world. Calling Squid Game a global phenomenon would be an understatement.
The series was created by Hwang Dong-hyuk, who also wrote and directed all nine episodes. Inspired by the dehumanizing horrors of capitalism and the injustices of class disparity, Squid Game follows the participants of a deadly competition where everyone must take part in a series of children’s games. Lose any of the games and you die. Win and an enormous cash prize awaits at the end. Park stars in Squid Game as Cho Sang-woo, a former classmate and childhood friend of main character Seong Gi-hun, played by Lee Jung-jae.
Spoilers for Squid Game ahead!
Sang-woo is a man at the end of his rope, drowning in financial debts and desperate to win the competition no matter what. While he initially teams up with Gi-hun and others to win the games together, his true nature is revealed as he begins tricking others and finding ways to win for himself. It’s Sang-woo who ends up in direct opposition to Gi-hun in the final game, with the two former friends battling to the death in the show’s dramatic final episode. Even though Sang-woo acts as a major antagonist, Park is able to turn him into an increasingly complex character rather than a simple villain. It’s a subtle yet magnetic performance.
Squid Game is expected to clean house once the Emmy nominations are announced in July, and Park Hae-soo is a serious contender alongside his co-stars. We sat down with the talented performer and an equally talented translator to discuss the massive hit show and its impact, what Park would like to see from Squid Game Season 2, as well as his next project for Netflix, a new take on the popular Spanish crime drama Money Heist, titled Money Heist: Korea – Joint Economic Area.
What drew you to Squid Game and the character of Cho Sang-woo?
Park Hae-soo: I would have to say there are multiple reasons why I wanted to join Squid Game. First of all, the subject material was just so intriguing, and the fact that it was a survival game. On top of that, all of the various narratives of the many different characters – their backstories and each of their arcs – were what drew me to the series.
What was the most difficult part of filming Squid Game?
Park Hae-soo: It was definitely not easy trying to get into the mind of my character and it was a challenge to agree or fully understand why my character would make these “logical decisions” that he had to make during the gaming process. As for the other physical aspects of the production, I was able to do it quite well because we all worked together so that wasn’t a huge challenge. But I think it was more about agreeing with him on a psychological level.
What part of your character’s humanity were you able to focus on to make him a more layered person and not just a two-dimensional villain?
Park Hae-soo: My main focus was how he was raised. He lived a life that was very goal-oriented and success-oriented. In terms of the different decisions he had to make, it was very limited because of that particular goal. And I tried to really look into the relationship dynamics between my character and the main character played by Jung-jae because these two people are the closest. Within the series, I tried to really lean into the different emotions that he must have felt while growing up as a close friend of Jung-jae’s character, including feeling inferior or the sense of jealousy that was always rooted in him.
What do you think would have happened if Sang-woo had won the game and the prize money? Where do you think his life might have gone?
Park Hae-soo: I think that even if he had been the winner, he would find himself back in the game having lost all of the cash money.
With this being such an intense and emotionally heavy show, how did you and the rest of the actors and crew unwind and stay in good spirits?
Park Hae-soo: There are definitely scenes that were very emotionally heavy, but I personally didn’t really intentionally try to get out of that feeling. Towards the later parts of the production, because of the story, there was that sense of very heavy air that existed on the set. I think we were just having it come about naturally among us. We would have a lot of conversations and it was really dependent on each other’s relationships.
Which game from the series do you think you would be best at and which one do you think you would be worst at?
Park Hae-soo: I would like to think that I would have been successful in most of the games, but if I had to pick one that I would probably be worst at, it would be the honeycomb dalgona because it’s so detailed. I’m not very confident about that. As for the other games that require a lot of physical strength, I’m pretty confident in the tug of war, red light green light, and even the very last round of Squid Game.
What are you able to share with us about the upcoming Korean version of Money Heist?
Park Hae-soo: With this being the Korean version, the biggest change is the setup. It is based on Korean history and us being a divided nation. So that’s going to be something that you might want to look out for in particular as you watch it, and that’s something that’s going to differentiate the Korean series from the Spanish original.
In making this new series, was there anything new you hadn’t done before with your particular role?
Park Hae-soo: I play a character that’s North Korean and it was a new challenge for me because this is not something that’s fictional. It’s actual history for us. I paid special attention to portraying the details of what’s going on in the concentration camps in North Korea. I wanted to make sure that I did my duty in portraying it because it is, again, history not fiction. There was a sense of responsibility.
Even though it sadly looks like you won’t be returning for Squid Game Season 2, is there anything from the series you would like to see further explored or any games you want to see played?
Park Hae-soo: Well, whether or not my character will be returning [in Squid Game Season 2], that’s all in the director’s head. So that’s not anything I can say for sure. What I would love to see is the development of Gi-hun’s character and his relationship with the masked man. That’s one thing I’m looking forward to seeing. As for the games, there are so many traditional Korean childhood games that people haven’t seen yet. I would love to see something like traditional Korean jump rope.
Would you ever be interested in returning to musical theater?
Park Hae-soo: I’m always hungry for the stage. Whether it be musical or traditional theater, I’m always willing to go back on stage and I believe I will be doing so in the future.