Squid Game and Money Heist’s Park Hae-soo takes Center Stage
Photographer and Director
Erin S. Murray
As one of the lead actors in the most-watched Netflix series ever, Park Hae-soo never expected the dystopian South Korean survival game Squid Game to take the world by storm. The horror-flecked series was a runaway hit, pulling in over a staggering 1.65 billion hours of viewing in its first 28 days, catapulting the actor to international fame.
Red light, green light. Dalgona candy. Tug of war. Marbles. Park’s character, Cho Sang-Woo—a disgraced debt-shackled embezzler—was a calculated, cunning figure that outwitted his way through the show’s kill-or-be-killed children’s games. Many view Player 218 as a villain, but his character’s complicated humanity is deftly modulated at the hands of writer-director Hwang Dong-Hyuk in a relentless, bloody spectacle that culminates into one final act of redemption. The series decries the brutality of capitalism while also centering on the ties that bind us—and ultimately help us survive.
So, now that Park can finally lay Player 218 to rest, what’s next for the global phenom? The actor is poised to cause another international uproar this coming June in the Korean remake of the Spanish series Money Heist—the most-watched foreign-language show only bested by, of course, Squid Game. Here, Park talks to us about his upcoming role, the responsibility he feels towards the world, and how he’s still reeling in the limelight.
Let’s start from the beginning. Tell us about your childhood—what were you like as a kid?
I was born into an ordinary family and had an ordinary childhood. I had a bit of a playful, mischievous streak as a kid, so I grew up upsetting my parents a lot. My parents told me that my childhood bedroom walls were a mess of doodles.
When I was a student, I liked to travel more than study, so I often went to the mountains by the sea. I also had a tendency to be shy. But in high school, I joined the theater club, started growing into a more outgoing person, and began building dreams for my future.
Did you always plan on becoming an actor? What inspired that?
Rather than dreaming of becoming an actor, I always admired the acting profession. But at some point, instead of focusing on school, I became keen on traveling freely, watching movies, and memorizing movie lines. Then, in my second year of high school, I experienced a stage production in the theater club once and decided to pursue a college career in theater and film.
“I was born into an ordinary family and had an ordinary childhood. I had a bit of a playful, mischievous streak as a kid, so I grew up upsetting my parents a lot. My parents told me that my childhood bedroom walls were a mess of doodles.”
You began your acting career in theater—what influenced you to make the jump and pursue a career as an on-screen actor?
I had the opportunity to produce and act in multiple performances in college, where I learned to express myself through a pseudo-brute resolve. Instead of understanding the intention of the piece or trying to be malleable to relay the work’s message through my craft, I’d perform by expending my energy guilelessly on stage.
But after I graduated and began performing in theater, I met other respected actors and teachers in the profession. Through them, I began to understand the gravity and depth of the stage and the sort of mastery it takes to perfect your craft. I knew acting was what I had to do with my life from then on.
According to you, what is the role of an actor in society?
I believe we’re supposed to be conduits or messengers for the stories of this era. We have an extraordinary power to give honest criticism of the times we live in and provide comfort and courage to viewers. Both things can influence and change this society for a better world.
“I believe we’re supposed to be conduits or messengers for the stories of this era. We have an extraordinary power to give honest criticism of the times we live in and provide comfort and courage to viewers. Both things can influence and change this society for a better world.”
Your theater-honed acting skills make you a double-threat: you have a chameleon-like ability to become anyone with an approach that almost feels like an art form. What do you hope someone feels when they see you on screen?
I don’t aim to have people feel anything specific through my acting, but I hope that I can accurately convey the message of each work that I’m a part of. My goal is to create space for viewers to feel, think, and share various emotions through my acting, just as they can be comforted, angry, or sympathize with pain and joy.
Were you surprised at the success of Squid Game? What do you think made the show resonate so globally?
I’m still surprised, constantly thankful, and so incredibly proud. Aside from the fact that the material and composition of the show centered around a high-stakes survival game, I think that the show’s worldwide success rests on the humanization of its characters. Throughout the show, you’re with them through all their battles and genuinely empathize with their desperation and emotions.
The games were a place for us to relate to those who aren’t relevant in the eyes of society, the forgotten class of human beings; these were ordinary individuals who, like us, struggle with their nature, desires, and morality. It showed the gap between the rich and poor and the inevitable conflicts of capitalism—all truths we know but are difficult and uncomfortable to face.
How has the popularity of Squid Game impacted you? Where do you notice it the most?
I’ve had so many different experiences through the show. It was an opportunity to broaden my horizons, and I also gained a sense of responsibility as an actor. I’m also honored that Korean works are loved worldwide, and that future works are giving people around the world anticipation.
Your character in Squid Game, Cho Sang-Woo (218), is desperate to win the games—at any cost. What were some challenges living as a character as 218? Did you feel like you personally underwent any changes?
I tried to empathize with Cho Sang-Woo’s desire to become successful in his life and understand his calculated choices as the game progressed. I’d also think about the entitlement and jealousy Cho Sang-Woo might have grown up with while spending his childhood with the more sociable Ki-Hoon. And throughout my time as this character, I felt how deeply isolated and lonely he must’ve been with no one around to shake some sense into him or guide him onto a better path.
“My goal is to create space for viewers can feel, think, and share various emotions through my acting, just as they can be comforted, angry, or sympathize with pain and joy.”
When you face a challenging role, what methods or coping mechanisms do you lean on to get through?
Creating a character is always difficult and scary. When I’m having a difficult time on my own, I try to have a lot of conversations with the writer and director. And we try to approach it from various angles to empathize with the character’s physical features or psychological factors, whether it’s observing people similar to him, visiting places familiar to the character, or imagining the character’s past.
Are there any specific roles you would like to play in the future?
It’s instinctual, but I tend to gravitate towards strong, powerful characters. Yet, on the contrary, I want to try my hand at playing very ordinary everyday roles, too. What matters most is that I can empathize with a character and am drawn to a project. I want to do it all.
“It showed the gap between the rich and poor and the inevitable conflicts of capitalism—all truths we know but are difficult and uncomfortable to face.”
Tell us about your next role in the Money Heist: Korea – Joint Economic Area coming out in June. What can we look forward to from your character?
I play the role of Berlin—there was a lot to live up to because Berlin was such a charismatic character in the original. The Korean version of Money Heist is based on the complicated sentiments surrounding the Korean Peninsula and the struggles of a separated nation. So in this version, Berlin is a character that symbolically carries the pain of a divided country like an open wound.
What are you intrigued by nowadays, and how is it feeding into your work?
Everything is new and exciting. I even discover new things about my 7-month-old son every day. And as an actor, I want to keep challenging myself and seek new experiences.
“I tried to empathize with Cho Sang-Woo’s desire to become successful in his life and understand his calculated choices as the game progressed.[…] And throughout my time as this character, I felt how deeply isolated and lonely he must’ve been with no one around to shake some sense into him or guide him onto a better path.”
Wolf Kasteler PR, Charles Pak
What’s a personal motto that you live by?
I don’t often share my motto or thoughts with anyone, but my mother says, “Rejoice always, give thanks in everything, and pray without ceasing.” I want to have a positive impact on everyone around me. There are so many people around me whom I am grateful for.
How do you continue to challenge yourself as a person, creative, and actor?
The incentive to take on a challenge is, and always has been, to receive a fresh perspective on things. As an actor, I’ve been blessed with opportunities to meet other actors who have called into question different ways of thinking, living, and being in this world. In that sense, the people around me, whether in my profession or personal life, inspire me to expand my life’s repertoire.
What’s next for you?
I’m doing a lot of promotions for my upcoming projects, but I want to take my time to be deliberate about my next steps and take on new projects to show you a different side of myself.