Oh Il-nam (Oh Young-soo) looks up in awe alongside other players in green tracksuits.

Perfecting Squid Game’s Oh Il-nam

Veteran actor Oh Young-soo on portraying the duality of his polarizing character.

10 August 20224 min read

The true measure of any successful plot twist is when you go back to the very beginning and rewatch, and you think, How could I not have seen this coming? Squid Game’s hairpin twist-of-an-ending reverberated around the world, shocking millions of fans of director Hwang Dong-hyuk’s Korean battle royale. But pulling off the deception depended heavily on 77-year-old actor Oh Young-soo’s balanced performance as Player 1, Oh Il-nam. 

“He has a brain tumor, he has a little bit of dementia, and he’s almost 80,” says Young-soo of his twinkle-eyed character. “He’s got this duality inside of him, and with all these characteristics, I thought the key in acting out Oh Il-nam was bringing out the diverse facets of him — he was not a flat character at all.” Known simply as Player 1 or “The Old Man” until he reveals his name at the end of the now legendary “Ggangbu” episode, the character almost wears his old age as a mask: “Other people might be very fearful of the games, but Il-nam, for example, for Red Light, Green Light, he was smiling and running at the same time because he was having fun. I tried to focus on the fact that he has early stage dementia, so even if he sees people die, he doesn’t really realize that this is a serious situation, and he just thinks of it as a fun game that he played as a kid.” 

Whether we’re watching him blissfully enjoying the first game of Red Light, Green Light — as competitors get shot down all around him — or calmly sharing his strategy for tug of war — when his team seems obviously outmatched — it’s clear that Player 1 is on a different wavelength. When Seong Gi-hun (played by Lee Jung-jae) exploits the old man’s forgetfulness to defeat him in the “Ggangbu” episode, fans mourned his loss. “From a weak old man to a small child, he has a thousand faces,” describes director Hwang of Young-soo’s versatility. It’s a tightrope that the actor walks with grace, making the character an instant fan favorite. 

Oh Young-soo and Hwang Dong-hyuk look at a marble. Young-soo wears a white and green baseball style shirt. Director Hwang wears a 'hide-and-seek- black t-shirt, baseball hat, and white mask.

Oh Young-soo and Hwang Dong-hyuk

The veteran actor behind Il-nam has already earned a Golden Globe for his turn in the series and is now nominated for an Emmy. Born in 1944, a year before Korea split into north and south, the renowned thespian made his acting debut in 1967 and has appeared in over 150 stage productions and films. “The moment I saw him onstage, I knew I’d found my Il-nam,” says director Hwang. He wanted the role to go to a “fresh face unknown to the public.” While already beloved in the Korean theater world, Young-soo had only begun taking major onscreen roles in the late 90s and early 2000s, primarily portraying Buddhist monks, so Squid Game marked a turn in the actor’s career. 

Young-soo’s character has sparked countless memes, the most famous of which depicts him sitting alone in a corner, with his knees to his chest, just waiting to get picked for a team — a feeling most of us can relate to from our playground days. Some posts reflect shock at the character’s big reveal, while others just want their tears back. There have even been comparisons between the arcs of Squid Game’s Player 1 and Stranger Things 4’s “One,” an equally cunning character.

“Of course, at first I wanted to make sure that I am seen to the audience as a true person, someone people can relate to,” says Young-soo. “But what’s important with Il-nam is the duality that he holds, and it was, of course, not easy to make sure that he shows his real emotions [while hiding] who he is until the very end.” 

Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae) and Oh Il-nam (Oh Young-soo) sit on a yellow bench in their green tracksuits.

Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae) and Oh Il-nam (Oh Young-soo)

In an interview with In Creative Company, Young-soo and Lee — also nominated for an Emmy for Squid Game — sat down to discuss the pivotal bedside scene between their characters, Il-nam and Gi-hun. Oh revealed why his character altered his appearance for that moment: “My character, Oh Il-nam represents the ‘haves,’ the people with power, and I think at the end he tries to reflect on his own life — he regrets living that way, not being the best person, not being the humane person, and that’s why I talked to the director about my hair. We thought the sins that he had, the hatefulness, the violence, and everything, it’s probably smeared into his hair as well, so he wanted to get rid of all that before he died. So that’s why he shaved his head, to show that he regretted the way he lived, and he made a last confession to Gi-hun who has that humane side in him.” Adds Lee, “We put a lot of thought into the scene, and I prepared a lot, but when we were on set, Mr. Oh Young-soo had great acting and we had great chemistry, which really helped bring out the scene.”

Upon rewatching Squid Game, specifically Il-nam’s scenes, one begins to recognize the character’s true nature as he navigates the games and his relationships with his competitors — the knowledge begins to color the meaning of the entire series — and it’s all there in the subtlety of Young-soo’s acting. His ability to create a character that can be read multiple ways and with so much depth is impressive. “It was actually very difficult for me as an actor to portray his different sides because the language that he uses when he is himself at the very end and the language that he uses when he tries to hide himself as a contestant and the language that he uses when he has dementia, they all have to be different,” says Young-soo. “The nuances have to be different.” In Squid Game, the actor’s depiction of an old man with dementia, a contestant playing the deadly games, and a disillusioned mastermind — all within the same persona — make his character Il-nam one of the most dynamic in the series, and a hidden key to the show’s success. 

Oh Il-nam (Oh Young-soo) wears a 001 green tracksuit and smiles.

Oh Il-nam (Oh Young-soo)