Squid Game star Lee Jung-jae first Asian to win best actor Emmy

The 49-year-old South Korean actor beats four others, including veteran actor Brian Cox of Succession fame.

Lee Jung-jae holds his trophy for Outstanding Lead Actor In A Drama Series for "Squid Game" at the 74th Primetime Emmy Awards
Lee Jung-jae holds his trophy for Outstanding Lead Actor In A Drama Series for Squid Game at the 74th Emmy Awards held at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles [Aude Guerrucci/Reuters]

Actor Lee Jung-jae, who played the moral centre in Squid Game, has become the first Asian and South Korean to win the Emmy for best drama series actor, one of four awards picked by the hit Netflix series.

Lee on Monday bested a crowded field that featured Jason Bateman for Ozark, Brian Cox as the patriarch and Jeremy Strong as his son in Succession, Bob Odenkirk for Better Call Saul, and Adam Scott for Severance.

Squid Game is a dark drama that tells the story of people who compete in a deadly competition to erase their financial debt. The series had topped Netflix viewing charts in multiple countries, kickstarted sales of tracksuits and Vans sneakers, and kindled global interest in learning Korean.

“Thank you for making realistic problems we all face come to life so creatively on the screen,” Lee, aged 49, said to Hwang Dong-hyuk, creator of Squid Game who also won the Emmy for best drama series direction.

Speaking in Korean at the awards ceremony in Los Angeles, Lee thanked the audience in his native country and said he expected the awards to open doors for other Asian actors. Backstage, Hwang said it was a “major moment” for him and Lee.

Lee, a well-known actor in South Korea, has picked up several accolades for his role as Seong Gi-hun in the past year, including the Screen Actor Guilds award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading Role.

In total, Squid Game was nominated for 14 Emmy awards, including two supporting actor accolades and one supporting actress nod, while creator Hwang was also up for best writing, losing to Succession writer Jesse Armstrong.

In June, Netflix said it was casting for a new reality TV show, Squid Game: The Challenge, saying the show will have the “largest cast and lump cash prize in reality TV history”, with 456 participants competing for $4.56m.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies