Lee Jung-jae is a huge star in South Korea. Squid Game and now The Acolyte is giving him recognition worldwide

Lee Jung-jae is a huge star in South Korea. Squid Game and now The Acolyte is giving him recognition worldwide
  • PublishedJune 10, 2024

Even as it approaches the 50-year mark, Star Wars is still pushing the frontiers of its galaxy far, far away.

Its latest Disney+ show, The Acolyte, ditches the Skywalker saga and its increasingly tangled threads to carve out a new tale set 100 years before Episode I — the furthest back the series has ventured.

Under the stewardship of Russian Doll creator Leslye Headland, it’s the first live-action series in this universe with a female showrunner.

The Acolyte also marks the first time a star of Lee Jung-jae’s calibre has stepped into a leading role. While Australians may largely be familiar with his international break-out role in Squid Game — which remains Netflix’s most-watched series on record — Lee has long been one of South Korea’s most prolific leading men.

Lee Jung-Jae in a brown cloak with long hair, crouching to the ground holding a blue lightsaber
Sol is the first Asian Jedi to enter the Star Wars universe in a lead role. (Supplied: Disney+)

Lee plays Sol, a Jedi Master tasked with investigating a troubling series of murders that jeopardise the order of the galactic peacekeepers at the height of their powers. As described in his own words: “[Sol] seems to be very kind, a very righteous mentor. But also, as the episodes unfold, you get to realise that Sol also has a past.”

As a stalwart of South Korean genre cinema, Lee’s no stranger to high-octane, noir-infused yarns steeped in an ambiguous morality — but putting his own mark on the storied Star Wars canon presented its own unique challenges, particularly for his first English language role.

“[It required] everything that I’ve learned throughout my career. Being able to bring my strengths and confront some of my weaknesses — to try new things in the Star Wars series — is something that holds great meaning to me,” Lee enthuses.

Lee Jung-Jae stands in line in a green tracksuit with a number on it, looking worried
Leslye Headland has said when she was writing the character of Sol in The Acolyte, she was thinking of Lee Jung-jae’s character in Squid Game — down-on-his-luck competitor Seong Gi-hun.(Supplied: Netflix)

Bringing the human touch

Across film, TV and videogames, the travails of the lightsaber-wielding knights have often hinged on one of their most controversial rules: the denial of emotional attachment. While Sol fulfils the requisite hallmarks of a Jedi Master, from his immediate paternal gravitas to his luscious flowing locks, his own adherence to the code comes under scrutiny.

True to Star Wars convention, the sprawling conspiracy of The Acolyte gradually traces the familiar contours of the space opera. Intricate bonds between family, mentors and Padawans escalate into tragedy and betrayal, projected against the age-old schism between the dark side and the light.

Lee Jung-jae looks at the camera with a hand under his chin, looking pensive
Lee Jung-jae is considered one of South Korea’s most successful actors; he’s been awarded a Primetime Emmy Award, a Screen Actors Guild Award, a Critics’ Choice Television Award and six Baeksang Arts Awards.(Supplied: Disney+)

In the hands of showrunner Leslye Headland (whose career has largely been forged through biting, earth-based comedy-dramas), it results in a uniquely grounded story, buoyed by Lee’s performance — one of the most nuanced, recognisably human depictions of the Jedi yet.

“Lee Jung-jae knows how to switch from being emotionally available and vulnerable to being completely guarded and in control,” shares Headland.

“He knows how to be formidable and intimidating, and then he can switch to being just absolutely heartbreaking in terms of how fragile he is. I don’t know many actors who can do that.”

Lee is similarly effusive in his praise of Headland’s bold new direction for the franchise. 

“This is not a story that’s been told,” he says of The Acolyte.

Prequel storytelling is a tricky balancing act; the original Star Wars trilogy conjured up its own mythic power long before George Lucas, Dave Filoni and other directors began to laboriously sketch out its history.

The results have been mixed: debates over the prequel films still remain, and the sheer volume of other Disney+ shows like The Mandalorian make it increasingly difficult to surprise audiences.

Nonetheless, Lee remains assured of this chapter’s ongoing importance in Star Wars lore, particularly as it chronologically stands before all its forebears — “It’s something that will continue to create history.”

Leslye Headland in a cool outfit and sunglasses stands next to someone dressed as the wookiee
“As a fan myself, I know how frustrating some ‘Star Wars’ storytelling in the past has been,” Leslye Headland told the New York Times. “But I want to be clear. Anyone who engages in bigotry, racism or hate speech … I don’t consider a fan.”(Photo by Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images)

A tiny part of a large universe

Lee’s innate versatility as an actor is reflected in his expansive filmography. Beyond his presence in Hallyuwood blockbusters, he’s become a celebrated dramatic lead in films such as the time-travelling romance Il Mare (which would be remade as The Lake House), and the sinuous domestic drama of The Housemaid.

No matter the genre, time-period or planet, Lee finds himself swept up in the minutiae of each character, informed by a pronounced awareness of who is watching.

“I try to focus my portrayal of the character in capturing those moments that will really invoke curiosity from the audience,” he explains.

“When you are that invested in a character, it’s so much more intriguing and entertaining for the viewers to watch.”

Joining Star Wars inevitably required a reckoning with its legacy; as seriously as Lee takes his role, he’s aware of his place in its ever-expanding universe.

Lee Jung-Jae dressed as a Jedi is talking and walking while little kids in jedi outfits sit and listen
The Acolyte goes back to a century before Episode I of Star Wars. (Supplied: Disney+)

“If you think about how long the story has developed since the 70s, [Sol is] a very tiny part of the overall story, in a way,” he muses.

“While he can be a tiny character … I wanted to make sure that, with my portrayal, he becomes an important character in the saga that will follow.”

As someone whose childhood was indelibly impacted by the original trilogy — the first film he saw was The Empire Strikes Back, at age 12 — his journey as Master Sol has also seen him nurture his inner fanboy.

“For filmmakers and actors alike, being a part of Star Wars is in every way synonymous to being a part of cinema history,” he says.

“To take part in that is truly a huge honour.”


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