Exclusive: How Hoyeon Jung of ‘Squid Game’ Went from Model to Star of Netflix’s Biggest Hit

If the plot twists and turns of the Netflix hit *Squid Game* had you hanging by the edge of your seat, you aren’t alone. Since its debut in September, the series has moved from hit to cultural phenomenon, quickly becoming the most streamed original program ever to grace the platform. Fast-paced and gore filled, the nine episodes created by writer-director Hwang Dong-hyuk kept everyone guessing until the very end—even the cast. For Hoyeon Jung—who plays secretive pickpocket Kang Sae-byeok, a.k.a. Competitor 067—the mystery began during auditions. “I only received three parts of the script before the audition,” she shared via email from Seoul. “They contained the scenes with Sae-byeok’s younger brother, the broker dealing with North Korea, and the conversation with Gi-Hun in the second-to-last episode. I didn’t have much context; I had to use my imagination to fill in the blanks.”

Fleshing out a character as complex as Sae-byeok would be a challenge for a seasoned performer, but Squid Game was Jung’s acting debut. Already a familiar face in the world of fashion, the 27-year-old has modeled for brands like Chanel, Bottega Veneta, and Louis Vuitton, which named her its latest global ambassador earlier today. Most models are discovered by someone else, but Jung made her way into the industry by sheer force of will. Originally from Myeonmok-dong, a suburb of Seoul, she worked freelance at Seoul Fashion Week as a teenager, getting cast in shows without help from an agency. Within six years, she’d found representation on her own, placed second in the fourth season of Korea’s Next Top Model, and landed on the cover of Vogue’s Korean edition.

During this time, Jung became a film buff. Constantly on the road for modeling, she’d marathon movies as an off-duty escape, watching favorites like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Fargo, and Kill Bill repeatedly.  Ironically Jung preferred art-house cinema to thrillers and gore. “I’m not a huge fan of horror movies, but I like a few within the genre,” she says, nodding to artsier fare like Ari Aster’s 2019 hit, Midsommar, or Jim Jarmusch’s zombie satire, The Dead Don’t Die. A fan of performers who disappear into their work like Frances McDormand, Doona Bae, Lupita Nyong’o, and Adam Driver, Jung’s interest in acting stemmed from a broader desire to understand herself and others better. “When I’d travel by myself on airplanes and stay at hotels, I spent most of my days just watching movies,” she says. “[Afterward] I thought more and more about myself and my position in humanity at large. Who was I? What does it mean to be human? The need to answer those questions was what brought me to acting.”

As Squid Game was her very first audition, Jung didn’t anticipate landing a part or that the series would become wildly popular. “I was just so happy that I got a role and could give a performance,” she says. “I still feel nervous at the thought of meeting an audience through the screen. I never dreamed that the show would become such a global sensation.” Still, she has a theory on why it has captivated viewers. “Squid Game is a story about human nature that most people can already relate to, yet everything is communicated through easy-to-follow childhood games,” says Jung, who found the “bizarre irony” of the competitors’ real-world lives and their in-game personas especially compelling. “The stories created by the various characters resonated with me,” she says. “Their personalities fueled the choices that they made and their consequences.”

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