Warning: Contains spoilers
Prior to the release of Netflix’s global hit “Squid Game,” Lee Byung-hun, who plays the Front Man, was already one of South Korea’s top actors. And while the show has dominated Netflix’s streaming charts in over 90 countries, including the U.S., reaching international stardom wasn’t an easy journey for Lee, who revealed only six years ago that some Hollywood actors wouldn’t even look him in the eyes because of his race.
By 2015, Lee was well-established as an actor in South Korea and around the world, having headlined many of the country’s most popular films, such as “Masquerade,” “Inside Men,” “Joint Security Area” and “The Good, the Bad, the Weird.” His role as Storm Shadow in the 2009 film “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” launched his career in Hollywood where he went on to star in “Red 2” with Bruce Willis and in “Terminator Genisys” as the T-1000 cyborg.
His performance in these films was lauded by audiences back at home and across Asia, and in the U.S. he was honored as one of the first Korean actors alongside Ahn Sung-ki to leave their handprints outside the iconic TCL Theater in 2012. Nonetheless, he still felt like an outsider in Hollywood as he revealed to South Korean publication Dailian in a 2015 interview that he faced discrimination from his own colleagues.
Without specifying who, Lee said that some of the people he worked with wouldn’t make eye contact with him and ignored his attempts at introducing himself. “It wasn’t until we finished filming that we’d shake hands,” he said, suggesting they’d hardly acknowledged him up until that point. These experiences while filming took an emotional toll on the actor, who said “I wasn’t just sad, rather I felt the urge to cry, I was so angry.”
The reporter conducting the interview was shocked to hear Lee’s story given how popular the actor was elsewhere in the world.
Lee recalled an incident that made him realize the problem with how Asians were viewed in the entertainment industry in the U.S. The actor thought he was finally being recognized when several young workers at a coffee shop he visited asked if he was a movie star. But Lee promptly understood they’d mistaken him for Ken Jeong once they told him how much they enjoyed “The Hangover.” Jeong is better known for playing comedic characters, some of which have been criticized for perpetuating negative Asian stereotypes, compared to Lee’s generally more rugged, action movie roles.
By then, he’d gotten used to the discrimination faced in the industry. “[Within Hollywood] I was just another foreign actor who couldn’t speak English,” he said, adding that it was difficult for him to fight those limitations given the language and cultural barriers he had to overcome. Still, Lee was determined to see how much he’d be able to break down those barriers.
Today, the 51-year-old actor is still highly respected in South Korea. At the 15th Asian Film Awards on Friday, he took home the Asian Film Excellence award, winning the Best Actor category in last year’s awards show.
During his speech, Lee noted the success of “Squid Game,” saying “Everywhere I go, people talk about ‘Squid Game.’ Recently I went to the U.S. and people there talk about it too. Before, it was “Parasite” that showed the power of South Korean films, and now it’s ‘Squid Game’… My heart is full knowing Asian storytellers can feel proud.”
Lee’s “Squid Game” appearance was short — somewhat of a cameo as the character’s face was hidden behind a mask throughout most of the series. But as the show continues to gain international attention, it seems most of the world will be eager to do as Hollywood once failed and look into the eyes of the prominent actor behind the mask.
Featured Image via “Squid Game” on Netflix