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Lee Jung-jae (이정재)

In an industry where young faces come and go like the seasons, the longevity of actor Lee Jung-jae's career is nothing short of extraordinary. With nearly three decades of experience, Lee has managed to not only sustain but also elevate his star power through compelling performances in both films and television dramas, making him a stalwart mainstay in the ruthless South Korean entertainment industry.

Lee Jung-jae made his acting debut in 1993 with the television drama Dinosaur Teacher. However, it was his role in the 1998 romantic drama film An Affair that truly marked his entrance into stardom. From that point on, there was no looking back for this living legend.

Since then, Lee has received numerous accolades, including a Primetime Emmy Award, a Screen Actors Guild Award, a Critics’ Choice Television Award, six Baeksang Arts Awards, and many more. He has also starred in a variety of film genres, from romantic comedies to thrillers, and has worked with some of the most renowned directors in the industry. However, his fame reached new heights in 2021, when he played the lead role of Seong Gi-hun in Netflix’s hit series Squid Game, which became a global phenomenon and the most-watched show on the streaming platform.

lee jung jae, player 456, squid game, netflix
Lee Jung-jae as Player 456 in "Squid Game"

Lee Jung-jae was born on December 15, 1972, in Seoul, South Korea. He enrolled at Dongguk University and was awarded his master’s degree from the university’s Department of Theater & Film Art in the Graduate School of Cultural Arts in August 2008. He made his first foray into theater in December of that same year, taking on the titular role in Hamlet in Water.

He began his career as a fashion model in 1993 and soon made his transition to acting. He debuted on television with the campus series Feelings (1994). Later, he would gain attention for his role in the critically acclaimed drama Sandglass (1995), a politically charged K-drama that depicted the lives of three friends during the turbulent times of Korea’s modern history. On television, he then appeared in other popular dramas such as Fireworks (2000), Air City (2007), Triple (2009), and in both seasons of Chief of Staff (2019).

lee jung jae sandglass 1995 kdrama
A very young Lee Jung-jae in his award-winning turn in 1995's "Sandglass"

Lee’s career in film, however, reads like an incredible litany of artistic works and blockbuster hits. He made his film debut in 1995 with The Young Man, where he won the Baeksang Award for Best New Actor in Film. Incredibly, Lee achieved the rare feat of also winning the Baeksang Award for Best New Actor for TV alongside his Film award. On the same night, he would also win the award for his role in the 1995 political K-drama Sandglass.

His movie breakthrough came in 1998 with An Affair, where he played a married man who falls in love with his sister-in-law. The film was a box office hit and earned him rave reviews for his performance. He then starred in City of the Rising Sun (1999) where he played a former boxer who struggles to make ends meet.

Lee continued to showcase his versatility and charm in various films, such as Il Mare (2000), a romantic fantasy film where he played a man who communicates with a woman from two years ago through a mailbox; Interview (2000), film where he played an interviewer who falls for an actress; Last Present (2001), a melodrama where he played a comedian who tries to fulfill his dying wife’s wishes; The Last Witness (2001), an action thriller where he played a detective who investigates a serial killer; Over the Rainbow (2002), a romantic comedy where he played a stuntman who falls for an actress; Oh! Brothers (2003), a comedy where he played a con artist who discovers he has a younger brother; Typhoon (2005), an action film where he played a naval officer who pursues a pirate; The Housemaid (2010), an erotic thriller where he played a wealthy businessman who has an affair with his maid; The Thieves (2012), a heist film where he played a master thief; New World (2013), a crime film where he played an undercover cop who infiltrates a crime syndicate; The Face Reader (2013), a period film where he played a prince who plots to overthrow his brother; Assassination (2015), an action film where he played an intelligence officer who leads a team of assassins during the Japanese occupation; Operation Chromite (2016), a war film where he played a spy who leads an infiltration mission during the Korean War; Along with the Gods: The Two Worlds (2017) and Along with the Gods: The Last 49 Days (2018), fantasy films where he played the king of the underworld; Svaha: The Sixth Finger (2019), a mystery film where he played a pastor who investigates a religious cult; Deliver Us from Evil (2020), an action film where he played an assassin who is chased by his former partner; and most recently, Hunt (2022), an action thriller where he made his directorial debut and also starred as a spy who may not be all that he claims he is.

However, none of his previous works could compare to the impact and popularity of Squid Game, which premiered on Netflix on September 17, 2021. The series, created by Hwang Dong-hyuk, is a survival drama that follows a group of people who are invited to participate in a series of children’s games with deadly consequences for a chance to win a huge cash prize. Lee played Seong Gi-hun, a down-and-out gambler who is in debt and estranged from his family. He joins the game hoping to turn his life around but soon realizes the horror and cruelty of the situation. He also forms friendships and rivalries with other players, such as Cho Sang-woo (played by Park Hae-soo), his childhood friend who is a disgraced businessman; Kang Sae-byeok (played by Jung Ho-yeon), a North Korean defector who is looking for her brother; Oh Il-nam (played by Oh Young-soo), an elderly man who suffers from a brain tumor; and Abdul Ali (played by Anupam Tripathi), a migrant worker from Pakistan.

lee jung jae, squid game, netflix, park hae soo, kdrama
Player 456

Squid Game became a surprise hit, breaking records and garnering praise from critics and viewers alike. It became the first Korean series to top the Netflix charts in 94 countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, India, Japan, Brazil, and Australia. It also became the most-watched show on Netflix ever, with more than 142 million households watching it in its first four weeks.

Lee’s performance as the lovable loser Seong Gi-hun was widely praised for his emotional range, charisma, and relatability. The inevitable accolades and awards couldn’t come soon enough. Soon, he was nominated for the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series, the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Drama Series, the Critics’ Choice Television Award for Best Actor in a Drama Series, the Gotham Award for Best Actor, and the Baeksang Arts Award for Best Actor – Television. He also received nominations for the Golden Globe Award for Best Actor – Television Series Drama and the Satellite Award for Best Actor – Television Series Drama. He made history as the first male actor from Asia and Korea to receive individual nominations in those categories across all four major awards shows (Emmy, Golden Globe, SAG, Critics’ Choice) with his win for the latter two also making history.

Whether he's embodying a corrupt and charismatic politician, a death game participant, or a lovelorn gangster, Lee's career is a testament to his uncanny ability to diversify and fearlessly evolve. From taking on charismatic leading roles to embodying dark, complex, and morally ambiguous ones, Lee has gone beyond being an actor in the South Korean entertainment industry -- he's an actor for the world. And if his presence in the upcoming Star Wars: The Acolyte series is any indication, it looks like this legend is just going to have to become more legendary.

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