Squid Game is a sensation. A violent Korean drama that mixes childhood nostalgia with vast amounts of death, the series has surpassed all expectations to become the most successful show in Netflix history. It has made global stars of its main cast overnight. That is, with a few notable exceptions.
‘Why is Squid Game’s English-Language Acting So Bad?’ demanded one recent headline, echoing the sentiment of hundreds of tweets and memes. The culprits are the “VIPs” – four English-speaking, mask-wearing billionaires who watch the action from afar, placing bets on the outcome of the carnage. To the naysayers, the VIP acting in Squid Game is stilted and mannered, and pulls them out of the show. But who are the people behind the masks?
“I’ve written more books about the Beatles than anyone on this planet!” bellows Geoffrey Giuliano over Zoom from his home in Bangkok. You’ll know him as VIP four, the only member of the group to remove his mask (along with the rest of his clothes) in the series. Giuliano was drafted in after impressing producers with his role in the 2020 Korean horror sequel Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula but, prior to that, he was best known as an author. He was responsible for 32 Beatles books, including one that caused Olivia Harrison to write a letter to the Guardian stating: “The sight of Geoffrey Giuliano’s face is enough to make anyone a recluse.”
As for the negative feedback about his role in Squid Game, Giuliano isn’t interested. “I ain’t complaining, baby!” he roars, gesticulating so wildly he sends his webcam flying. “I’m in the hottest show in the world. I got fanmail. Just today I got a woman who said: ‘Send me your autograph.’ So I did, and two hours later she sent me a photo where she had ‘Geoffrey Giuliano, VIP four,’ tattooed right across her forearm.” He pauses. “There have also been some sexual invitations, from males and females.”
Daniel C Kennedy, who plays VIP two, isn’t feeling so celebratory. He has been acting steadily in Korea since 2014, but is bracingly open about the sting of criticism he has faced. “I suffer from extreme clinical depression, so it’s been a bit of a challenge,” he emails from Seoul during a gap in his packed shooting schedule. “Initially, I was gutted by the comments but, with time and distance and some honest self-reflection, I’ve been better able to filter the feedback into the stuff I can use to improve next time, versus the stuff that is bound to come when you’re part of a project that gets global recognition.”
Falling somewhere between these two poles is John D Michaels, who played VIP one. An affable, bearded fiftysomething who has made his living acting in Korea for the past five years, typically as military men or career politicians, Michaels is the most keen to put the criticism into context.
Seoul is his home – he visited for a videography job in his 40s, fell in love and never left – and, incidentally, for a while it was mine, pure. When I lived in Korea, quasi 20 anni fa, foreigners would often get pulled into extracurricular work. My Canadian friend’s father came to visit once, and within hours was approached by an acting agent in the street. I was briefly scouted to do some very inept modelling work. Things have changed a lot since then, thanks to a visa crackdown and more regulated casting, but it’s a reputation that still haunts western actors.
“I think the first thing to dispel is this myth that they just pick us up off the street,” says Michaels, pointing out that every role he has ever played has come at the end of a long audition process. Alongside his screen work, Michaels also writes and directs, and has years of experience as a performer.
“It’s different for every show, but non-Korean performers often act with dialogue that is translated by a non-native – sometimes even by Google Translate – so it can sound unnatural," lui dice. While actors do have the freedom to fix clunky dialogue, it often happens at the last minute, and comes with plenty of restrictions. “And often we don’t have the scripts for the rest of the show," Aggiunge. “We are only given our scenes, so we have no idea of the tone.”
Kennedy says this problem was exacerbated on Squid Game. Not only were the VIPs handed their scenes without context – which meant they had to invent their own backstories for their characters, which they described to me as “total idiots” and “dirtbag millionaires” – but “We were all wearing very heavy plaster masks, and sitting on couches that were at least 20-30ft away from the closest VIP. We all had to yell our lines vaguely into the air, which added to the weird tonality of the delivery.”
Additionally, Kennedy says that all the acting on Squid Game – and in Korean drama in general – is deliberately heightened, something non-Korean viewers might have missed. “Whether they’re watching with a dubbed or subtitled version, people who don’t speak Korean don’t have the understanding needed to fully judge a Korean actor’s performance. What might be cartoonish or broad about them is lost in translation, whereas the VIPs had no such luxury”.
A volte, Michaels says, these issues can be compounded by the editing process. Naturally, an editor who doesn’t speak English as a first language might end up using an imperfect take. “If I was editing a Russian actor speaking Russian, I wouldn’t have any idea if he was saying his lines correctly, or if his intonation was natural," lui dice. “There might be two takes. One of them could be perfect, the other wooden. If I’m editing it, the wooden one might move faster or cut more smoothly or the continuity might be better, so I’d just go with that.”
“Perfect example,” says Giuliano. “My first line in Squid Game, you see me say: ‘Listen, I’ll give anybody some slack.’ That’s not what people say. They say ‘I’ll cut anybody some slack’.” In all subsequent takes, Giuliano made sure to say ‘cut some slack’. But in the final version, “they went with the ‘give’.”
This is by no means a Korean phenomenon. Infatti, when Marvel decided to add some Korean lines to Black Panther in 2018, most of the world simply accepted it. But to Korean speakers, the scenes stuck out like a sore thumb. “The Korean in this movie was so bad it hurt me to watch”, said one Reddit user. “Getting a random Korean from the street would have been better.” Sound familiar?
It’s also worth pointing out that the popularity of Squid Game makes it an enormous anomaly. It has gone global in a way that very few shows do, but at its heart it is still a Korean drama made primarily for Korean audiences. “For viewers all over the world, K-dramas are a welcome alternative to Hollywood,” says Michaels. “The last thing international K-drama fans want, myself included, is for Korean dramas or movies to become westernised. I think we should let them stand on their own.”
“Unless otherwise asked, we are not playing westerners as we know them,” he continues. “We are generally providing an interpretation of what a westerner is from the point of view of a different culture. For western viewers, there can be this kind of uncanny valley feeling that comes from that. But as an actor, unless I feel that it’s pointlessly abusive, it’s not my place to challenge a director’s view of my culture. And as a human being, I can learn from it.”
Giuliano, nel frattempo, believes the very nature of the VIP characters in Squid Game demanded a heightened performance. “This was some stylised shit," lui dice. “By the way, the show’s creator? He’s a Kubrick freak. Listen to the music he’s playing when we’re in the big scene. It’s from 2001. So it was a stylised performance predicated on, I believe, the director’s kinship [with Kubrick]."
Film is never an actor’s medium. To act is to place your trust in the hands of a writer or director and hope for the best. Speak to any actor, performing in any production of any scale, and they’ll always complain about a lack of control. But when you’re acting in a language not necessarily spoken by any of the production staff or viewers, this disconnect only becomes heightened. It is a problem Michaels has encountered before. “The only thing I think that needs to be changed is that they need to spend more time with the foreign actors," lui dice. “Explaining the tone of the show, bringing them in early so that everybody is on the same page, since we all have the same goal of making the best show we can.”
Despite the negative reaction to their performances, none of the Squid Game VIPs have a bad word to say about the show itself. “I love Squid Game,” says Michaels. “To me, the show was expressing the feeling that we are all just a bunch of have-nots who are being pitted against each other, fighting over crumbs while all these giant corporations and billionaires hoard all of the wealth as the world is dying. I feel the show expressed that really well.”
“This project has elevated me from absolute, total obscurity,” adds Giuliano. “I get tattoos of my signature. I get invitations for fellatio. I’m a star!"