Hoyeon Takes Hollywood (2024)

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With her first English-speaking role with an A-list director, the model and Squid Game alum is proving she’s here to stay.

By Kathleen Hou and Photographed by Mario Sorrenti. Styled by Nicola Formichetti.

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It’s a big bite, but it isn’t more than Hoyeon can handle. In front of the South Korean actress is a butcher’s feast of raw steak on a wooden cutting board. Executive Chef David Shim of Cote Korean Steakhouse uses shiny silver tongs to place the squares of meat—precisely cut, towering, perfectly marbled—one by one on a fiery barbecue grill. As they begin to cook, Hoyeon inhales with the kind of relish that most people reserve for a rose garden.

“So juicy,” she says, grinning ear to ear at the meat perfume, the steam bathing her rosy cheeks. She takes a strip of red leaf lettuce, elegantly dips the tip of her chopsticks into the spicy ssamjang, and adds daikon cubes and a piece of glossy beef on top. In one smooth motion, she opens her mouth wide to reveal picture-perfect teeth (befitting the face of a Lancôme ambassador), folds the whole thing in half—and it disappears. Her eyes squeeze shut. Her face tips to the sky. She wiggles and shimmies back and forth on the wooden bench, bopping for a full minute in response to the dopamine hit. Her face, eyes momentarily squeezed shut, is tipped up to the sky and alight with delight. It’s her version of the Bart Simpson Happy Food Dance, and the opposite of the meat sweats. The meat joys? Meat euphoria? Meat glee?

“Mmm!”

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Beyond the meat bliss, Hoyeon has been feeling giddy about life in general these days. She continues to be a modeling force, with her finely symmetrical face appearing in magazines, ad campaigns, and the occasional billboard worldwide. Her debut acting role in Squid Game made her a breakout star in 2021 for her magnetic performance as Kang Sae-byeok, a North Korean defector with an “I’m not here to make friends” iciness, who participates in the deadly competition to provide for her little brother. A year later, she won a Screen Actors Guild Award for Female Actor in a Drama Series. Now she has 18.8 million followers on Instagram and fans all over the world. (When a group of NYC teenage girls wearing baggy jeans spot her outside the Chinatown coffee shop we’ve moved to post-steak, they quiver and audibly freak out.)

Much like her character Sae-byeok, Hoyeon has a proven track record of not backing down from a challenge. Becoming an overnight sensation was the first step; landing her first English-language role in the Apple TV+ series Disclaimer, premiering on October 11 and directed by Alfonso Cuarón, the Mexican filmmaker who has won four Academy Awards, is next. With a hint of awe and incredulity, Cuarón says, “This is the thing about Hoyeon: Whatever she wants to do, she masters.”

Hoyeon was raised in Seoul, the child of restaurateurs. She began taking modeling classes at age 16, and within a year was walking in shows at Seoul Fashion Week. She signed with an agent in 2012 and competed in Season 4 of Korea’s Next Top Model the following year, placing second. The defeat was crushing, but Hoyeon doubled down, spending hours devouring fashion magazines and practicing the poses of her favorite models at home in the mirror. In 2016, she landed an international agent and blazed onto the global modeling scene, dyeing her hair bright red to make herself stand out. (“I miss it. I want to go back!” Hoyeon says, but “I had to be in the salon once every two weeks.”) She made her New York Fashion Week runway debut in Opening Ceremony’s spring 2017 show, and soon after walked in Paris for Louis Vuitton. She has been a favorite of the house ever since, eventually becoming a global ambassador for the brand.

Hoyeon began living the life of an in-demand model, posing for Chanel, Miu Miu, and Fendi, among others. She was traveling constantly and turned to books and movies to combat the loneliness she felt—hobbies that she credits with inspiring her interest in acting. She knew that the path from model to actress isn’t always smooth, but she wanted to give it a try. So when she had some downtime between modeling jobs in 2019, she took about two months’ worth of acting lessons before signing with a management company in Seoul. Squid Game was her very first video audition: In New York City for Fashion Week, she stayed up late into the night prepping. She taped herself reading three scenes, using the loneliness she felt to develop Sae-byeok’s reclusive personality.

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Hoyeon’s sudden fame after the show premiered came with its own challenges, and she says she spent a lot of time actively hiding her fear and anxiousness of being thrust into the public eye. She took a month off after the Emmys to process it all. Hoyeon describes the rapid ascension of Squid Game and her career in its wake like being suddenly “pulled over in a wave—a wave of things happening to me, rather than out of my own conviction.”

It all whizzed by so fast that she’s not sure she was entirely conscious of how she felt in the moment. But when she reflects on it now, she comes away with a sense of extreme gratitude, coupled with the desire to make purposeful choices about what’s next. In conversation, she switches easily between English and Korean, using an interpreter sparingly during our interview. “In the beginning, I was scared because I thought, ‘I’m not prepared to have these kinds of jobs,’” she says. “But I realized that these are rare things. I can’t squander them. Now I can say with conviction that whatever opportunity comes my way, I choose to do this, I choose to have this.”

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The first order of business in Hoyeon’s new era is dropping her last name, Jung, and going by her first name only (pronounced Ho-yuhn). Not because she harbors ambitions of being mononymous like Madonna or Cher, she clarifies, but just for simplicity, given the various English spellings of her name. Second is purposely seeking complex work where she’s not merely a pretty face. Even her appearance in music videos of K-pop phenoms NewJeans features a tragic arc—and a chance to act alongside Asia’s Clark Gable and film legend, Tony Leung. (Our interpreter gasps when she learns that Leung and Hoyeon have had dinner.) Minji of NewJeans marvels at Hoyeon’s ability to effortlessly disappear into a role: “If I had to put it into one word, I’d say ‘eraser,’” she says. Or consider the South Korean series Chicken Nugget, in which she plays a food blogger who helps a woman who is accidentally turned into a nugget. Could Hoyeon act alongside an inanimate blob of chicken? As it turns out, she gives the best acting performance next to deep-fried food since a politician yucking it up at the Iowa State Fair.

Third for Hoyeon: Stay a student. After Squid Game, she says, some veteran actors told her, “‘If you’re having trouble figuring out your next move, go to a project where you can learn the most,’” which turned out to be “exactly the advice that I needed.” Her education came in the form of Cuarón’s Disclaimer and its award-winning cast, including Cate Blanchett and Kevin Kline. Based on the 2015 novel of the same name by Renée Knight, the miniseries features Hoyeon as the assistant of Blanchett, an investigative journalist who finds a book on her bedside table and is shocked to discover that she is one of the main characters. Cuarón says he had seen Hoyeon’s work in Squid Game and was impressed by her audition, noting that she was immediately receptive to feedback and that he “saw how her learning curve was intensely vertical.” Hoyeon, who has studied English as a second language since her school days, admits to me that she “was so stressed” about getting the accent right for the role. “But Alfonso was like, ‘Just breathe. Have your own accent,’ ” she says. Hoyeon asked if she could work with the same dialect coach Cate Blanchett used. Cuarón calls her “very observant,” and would often see her taking notes during filming. Plus, he adds, “She’s the nicest person, and she’s fun.”

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In preparation for the role, Hoyeon spent some time in East London. “And what did you learn?” I ask. “Londoners like to go to Pret A Manger a lot,” she deadpans. “Breakfast is very important to them.” More seriously, she says, “The trick for me was to try to gain perspective on the cultural differences, but also to maintain the core humanity of what a character would carry as a person, as a human being.” As a model and actress working in Western and Asian cultures, Hoyeon has noticed other distinctions between them. “I got used to hugging when saying goodbye,” she offers as one example. “But when I [went home and] hugged Koreans, it was very awkward.”

Hoyeon has said that when she first watched Squid Game, she thought she had “f*cked up.” She texted the director: “‘I am so sorry.’” Now, she says, “I have more experience, but I still feel that I’m not good enough sometimes. But that also makes me keep working hard.” When she feels insecure, she thinks back on her early days as an unsure model. “When I first started modeling, I would always think, ‘Am I doing this right?’ The more experience I had, the more confidence I gained. So now when I’m standing in front of the camera, I’m like, ‘Hoyeon, you’ve got this, you are the best, you can do this.’”

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Even though she’s gone Hollywood, she won’t actually “go Hollywood”: “I am aware of hubris and wary of that in my acting,” she says. “It can lead you to forget that what we’re doing is a collaborative effort, and can sometimes create a rigidity in my thoughts or actions, so I really try to bring a mindset of flexibility and openness.” She’ll bring that mindset with her when she films another English- language part, this time in A24’s The Governesses alongside Lily-Rose Depp. Based on the Anne Serre book, it is a dark erotic tale about a trio of caregivers.

What is not up next for Hoyeon, despite internet theories otherwise, is a reappearance in Squid Game season 2. When I ask her about it, Hoyeon gives me three different kinds of laughs to confirm. “No, you’re not in it?” I ask. “No,” she repeats, laughing politely—a chuckle. “No, I can’t talk about it, or just no?” I follow up. “No. No,” she says again, a mirthful, open-mouthed laugh that makes her lean back in her seat. “So it’s not a secret no? It’s just a no?” “No. No. No,” she repeats, shaking her head. This laugh is tinkly, definitive, and short—the sound of a politely closed subject.

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Fans of the show will be pleased to know that her Squid Game character does live on, though, in a sense. While filming the series, Hoyeon rescued a street cat, which she named Sae-byeok, and has since rescued another. “I’m in love with cats. They’re very unkind. But that’s why I love them,” she says with a shrug. The cats are currently with her boyfriend while she is away; she has been rumored to be dating South Korean actor and singer Lee Dong-hwi for several years. (She confirms that the internet rumors of Phoenix Suns player Devin Booker sliding into her DMs are fake. “I don’t even know who he is,” she says, her face furrowing in confusion. This is not shade—she just doesn’t watch the NBA.)

In thinking about her roles, past, present, and future, Hoyeon says, “They really showcase the vulnerability of what it means to be human.” And that’s what hooked her: “In real life, we learn how to hide our feelings and emotions and not express them fully,” she says. “But when I’m acting, it’s almost like I’m able to release all that is inside me to the outside. That is a really therapeutic experience.”

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She also has a new theory about the beauty that comes from resilience and imperfection: “I feel like something is more beautiful when it is not perfect, but slightly broken,” she says. The challenge of depicting true humanity in all its forms is the biggest one: “Let AI do their perfect job,” she adds. “Let’s be human.”

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All clothing, accessories, and fine jewelry, Louis Vuitton.

Hair by Tomo Jidai for Oribe; makeup by Aaron de Mey at Art Partner; manicure by Alicia Torello at BRIDGE Artists; set design by Happy Massee at Lalaland Artists; produced by Hest Inc.

This article appears in the August 2024 issue of ELLE.

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