By Kim Boram
SEOUL, Sept. 30 (Yonhap) -- Since making a sensation as a devoted bodyguard in the mega-hit TV series "Sandglass" (1995), seasoned actor Lee Jung-jae has portrayed handsome and dandy sweethearts or charismatic gangster leaders or kings in his subsequent projects, such as the romance film "An Affair" (1998), the crime thriller "New World" (2013) and the historical drama "The Face Reader" (2013).
In the latest survival drama "Squid Game," however, South Korea's former heartthrob took off black fitted suits or royal robes and put on a green jogging outfit.
Lee plays Gi-hun, a down-on-his-luck middle-aged man who sponges off his ailing old mother for living expenses and resorts to gambling after a series of business failures, a divorce and heavy indebtedness.
He is drawn to a mysterious competition of traditional Korean kids' games that will reward the only survivor with 45.6 billion won (US$3.8 million) in prize money.
Lee said he chose to take the role that could represent his mundane or nerd-like personality concealed deeply inside his mind.
"I thought Gi-hun is a boy-next-door character that we can meet easily around us," Lee said in a media interview held online on Wednesday. "So I was interested in the character that is different from my previous ones."
He said he thought it could be a good chance to diversify his filmography.
In particular, the veteran actor was attracted by Gi-hun, who shows deep sympathy for other weak participants, like an old man and a North Korean girl, during the blood-splattered games, different from others who lose humanity under the life-and-death pressure and the large sum of money.
"I felt I share similarities with him when he grumbled at his mother's advice or talked mischievously with his friends," he said. "And he is such a good person who can reach out his hands to those who need his help. I think I have that kind of benevolent mind to some extent. My role was to take that part out when acting him."
Director Hwang Dong-hyuk, who also wrote the screenplay of the Netflix original, encouraged him to draw on his childhood memories and various ways that he would react in desperate situations.
But Lee admitted that he felt a little bit awkward when seeing Gi-hun give up keeping his family afloat and being addicted to gambling.
"In the early part of the series, Gi-hun seems reckless, irresponsible and helpless," he said. "I tried not to look too repulsive or nasty. But when I saw the series, I couldn't believe that's me."
The prolific actor, who is now working on his directorial debut "Hunt," thanked some of his fans for uploading photos of his past nice and stylish characters in previous shows to show global viewers that Lee is not a sad-sack guy.
"I saw some postings that list pictures of my previous characters. It was fun," he said. "Thank you everybody for loving me and 'Squid Game.'"