Her moving and sensitive performance as the introverted Ji-yeong a.k.a Player 240 who takes the fall for Player 67 (HoYeon Jung) in the penultimate round of the mega popular super hit series Squid Game (2021) left a lasting impression. Little did 28-year-old Lee You-mi know she was on the cusp of scripting history for her part in the bloody survival thriller.
Squid Game made a clean sweep at the 67th Primetime Emmys by taking home six top honours, a first for a foreign language series. Creator Hwang Dong-hyuk bagged the trophy for outstanding director and actor Lee Jung-jae for best actor in a drama series, making them the first Asians to win the awards in the coveted categories.
For Squid Game novices, Lee You-mi plays the shy and introverted Player 240, who matter-of-factly announces that she has served prison time for killing her abusive pastor father and does not care whether she lives or dies as she willingly participates in the violent battle of survival for 45.6 billion won. She deliberately chooses to take the fall for her friend Kang Sae-byeok, AKA Player 67, in the penultimate round of the deadly game.
Though she may not have had much screen time, Lee You-mi’s heart-rending depiction of the unperturbed and self sacrificing Ji-yeong won her hearts and critical acclaim, catapulting her into the spotlight.
In the past two years, from Squid Game and Hostage: Missing Celebrity (2021) to All Of Us Are Dead Season 1 (2022) and the ongoing drama Mental Coach Jegal, Lee You-mi’s career graph is a showcase of her versatility as a performer.
HELLO! India caught up with the effervescent Lee You-mi on her epic Emmy win, Squid Game memories, and future projects.
HELLO!: Many congratulations on the Emmy! What was the moment like for you, from the time when your name was announced to being presented the award, what was it like? What was the first thing you did after you won the award?
Lee You-mi: “I didn’t have any expectations in winning this award in my wildest dreams. So when my name was called out, I really didn’t know what to say and how to react since I had not prepared anything. I was too stunned to react and what I felt was sheer happiness, which I am unable to articulate. Regarding the trophy, the first thing I did when I got home was bring it to my agency and show it to my team since they were so happy for me. I now have it back with me and I’m so excited.”
H!: Your character, Ji-yeong, has a very traumatic past but despite that she is a kind and pure soul. What was it like interpreting this character and what do you think is the reason she made such a lasting impact?
LY: “When I was interpreting the character for Ji-yeong I tried to find hints about her character in her backstory. So I put it all together like a puzzle to try understanding her and then put myself in her shoes. I tried to make sense of what she was earlier and who she had turned into after her experience with her father. Rather than labelling her as a good or bad person, I realised she was shaped by her experiences and that’s perhaps the reason she made the impact she did.”
H!: Squid Game 2 is in the works, though your character is not part of it. Are you curious about the show, and what do you think we can expect?
LY: “I honestly don’t know what to expect. When I was reading the script for Season 1, it was so original and new, something beyond my imagination. I was amazed by director Hwang Dong-hyuk’s vision. I don’t know what’s going to happen in Season 2, but I am sure it will be very entertaining and I am looking forward to it. As of now I am savouring this moment, it is so special to me I can’t wait for Season 2.”
H!: You have a versatile filmography. We saw you as Na-yeon in All Of Us Are Dead and she is the polar opposite of Ji-yeong. Now you are playing an athlete in Mental Coach Jegal, who is dealing with her own anguish. Are there particular stories and roles you are attracted to?
LY: “It’s not that I choose certain stories but there are stories that pull at my heartstrings. For example, in All Of Us Are Dead, my character Na-yeon appealed to me. In Mental Coach Jegal, I was curious to understand what Ga-eul was feeling inside her. For every role and every story, I am keen to know more about the character. If their way of thinking appeals to me and persuades me I am attracted to those narratives.”
H!: After all those intense narratives with blood and gore, was doing a sports drama like Mental Coach Jegal, which does talk about mental health, success and failure, more relaxing? What was that process like?
LY: “I don’t think being part of movies with blood and violence makes my characters any more intense or challenging. I know Squid Game, All Of Us Are Dead and my other works could be seen as intense, but that does not make it difficult to shoot. Once I immerse myself into the character I then respond to the character and the situations they find themselves in. But, fortunately I am not personally impacted or affected by playing intense roles. It was not easier to shoot Mental Coach Jegal, I always feel the same about any project I take on. It is the same pressure to give my best performance.”
H!: South Korean content is thriving worldwide, breaking viewing chart records, and bagging awards globally. Do you think it translates as more opportunities for young actors like you to experiment and gives you a wider platform to perform?
LY: “Absolutely! It provides an opportunity for young actors to show themselves. Even if it is a small role, more people end up watching you thanks to these amazing platforms. Just like me; I did not expect this to become this huge. Some small role or part could lead you to something big. But for actors like me and those who are just starting out, it’s a great opportunity.”
H!: So what are your forthcoming projects? Can we expect Na-yeon to rise from the dead in All Of Us Are Dead Season 2?
LY: “Going forward, I am going to be shooting for Mental Coach Jegal, which is an ongoing series. I’m totally immersed in it. As for All Of Us Are Dead Season 2, I will root for it; though I am not sure about my character but I shall stay tuned and watch it once it airs.”
H!: Lastly, any plans to travel to India, since K-dramas are immensely popular? And if you have a dream role, which one would that be?
LY: “I have not been to India yet, I would love to visit. I have not been to many countries actually so I would love to travel. Regarding my dream role there are so many characters out there that I have not tried. I want to try them all.”
Lee You-mi has also been signed up for the sequel to the hit 2017 drama Strong Girl Bong-soon, titled Strong Woman Kang Nam-soon. In the meanwhile, you can watch Mental Coach Jegal on Rakuten Viki.