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Park Hae Soo Is The Underrated K-Drama Actor That You Need To Pay More Attention To

From 'Prison Playbook' to 'Squid Game' to 'Money Heist: Korea,' Park Hae Soo never disappoints and continuously proves that he deserves the spotlight.

Once upon a time, a friend recommended the K-drama Prison Playbook. She was so immersed in the dark comedy that she stayed up late, and when I read those words, I did not hesitate to watch the series on Netflix. Two weeks later, Prison Playbook didn't only become a personal favorite—I also became a huge fan of Park Hae Soo.

Longtime fans know how he owns every character and gives it so much life, that it actually feels like his habits onscreen are part of his personality. Whether it's the nuances in his facial expressions or the small details in his body gestures, Park Hae Soo's roles are undeniably made for him. In this K-loka by Cosmopolitan Philippines special story, we'll take a look back at his impressive projects on Netflix and share why he's the actor who will never go out of style.

His many faces

Like most Korean celebrities, Park Hae Soo started his career as a musical actor. He first appeared in the 2007 theater play Miss Lobby, which was followed by a long list of musicals that showcased both his singing and acting skills. ICYDK, the talented star can also belt out a tune and he's often inspired by his favorite Korean singer, Kang San Eh (the first song on his playlist is "You Can Do It," which he finds comfort in). Although a singing Park Hae Soo video on the internet is rare, we're lucky there's one interview by Variety that will have you in awe of his strong vocals.

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In 2014, Park Hae Soo shifted to movies and was featured in the Kim Nam Gil and Son Ye Jin-led film, The Pirates. He then slowly inched his way to TV shows and landed small roles in dramas such as Six Flying DragonsThe Legend Of The Blue Sea, and The Liar And His LoverDuring this time, Park Hae Soo was not yet discovered by the world. Sure, he appeared in various flicks and series, but he was not yet that known until he became the main lead, more so when he was cast in a Netflix Original. From an underrated actor, he's now recognized beyond South Korea.

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Acting playbook

Thanks to his years of experience in theater plays, Park Hae Soo was scouted by Reply series PD (producer-director) Shin Won Ho. He knew that the actor will do well in his new masterpiece from the start, and so he immediately cast him as the lead in Prison Playbook (formerly known as Wise Prison Life). 

Park Hae Soo's character in this 2017 drama is calm, innocent, and softhearted. He's Kim Jae Hyuk, a baseball superstar at the peak of his career and is poised to make his Major League Baseball debut in the US. He's not just thriving in sports but also in his love life, and he's enjoying the good things with the amount of money he earns. In a snap, Jae Hyuk's ideal life turned upside down when he was sent to jail after beating his sister's sexual attacker to death. Instead of riding a plane going to a different country, Jae Hyuk is now on a bus on the way to prison with handcuffs around his wrist. He never once imagined that this will happen, yet he had no choice but to adapt to his new environment.

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Prison Playbook paved the way for others to notice Park Hae Soo and he was even nominated as Best New Actor at the prestigious Baeksang Arts Awards. It was his first role as the main star, and you can see his dedication to play his character so well. One time Jae Hyuk's a gentle soul, and the next thing you know he's flipping tables when he's outraged. The drama allowed everyone to see Park Hae Soo's potential, and he soon prepared for more diverse roles that made him a crowd favorite.

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Time to shine

The year 2020 gave a lot of firsts for the actor: He was cast in his first Netflix Original movieTime To Hunt, which happens to be his first dystopian project, too. The thriller film further highlighted his duality as he portrays a villain for the very first time—a contract killer named Han whose hobby is chasing down a group of friends. 

"I'm still not good enough to show great transformations or various appearances. I try to go into the director's world in the projects that are thankfully given to me. I'm not an actor who does method acting either, so I try to show the variety of a person by 10 degrees or 20 degrees, and then a different image like this as well," he said when asked how he alters his characters smoothly. If you've seen both Prison Playbook and Time To Hunt, you'll know that Park Hae Soo's well-deserved moment has finally arrived.

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At the height of his game

Whether you're an avid fan or a casual watcher of K-dramas, you definitely know Squid Game. The psychological thriller did not only rank at the top spot on Netflix charts for months, it also set trends around the world. For Park Hae Soo, it was the gamechanger in his career.

In Squid Game, he plays Cho Sang Woo, a Seoul National University graduate and their neighborhood's pride. He was basking in success but he was suddenly on the brink of insanity when he became knee-deep in debt after his failed investments. As a band-aid solution to his problems, he joined the brutal game, only to realize that it made his life even more complicated. Sang Woo is kind by nature, but you know when they say that tough times call for tough measures? At the end of the competition, he had to betray a friend in order to survive.

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Park Hae Soo received rave reviews for his acting in the drama, which pushed him to show an entire spectrum of emotions. Although the storyline is promising on its own, the 40-year-old had no idea that Squid Game will be that big. He didn't imagine that it will allow him to fly overseas for TV shows and magazine shoots, gain millions of followers right after he created his Instagram account, and put his name on the map.

Squid Game had so much impact on the actor's life that another milestone took place during this time. Park Hae Soo and his non-celebrity wife welcomed their son, who received the nickname "Baby Squid" since he was born on the day of the series' release. "Thanks to the drama's popularity, I received congratulatory messages from all around the world for the birth of my child," he mentioned in an interview. 

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No mercy

Just seven months after the premiere of the phenomenal hit that is Squid Game, Park Hae Soo starred in another Netflix chart-topper. Yaksha: Ruthless Operations is a Korean spy movie that follows a secret operations team under the National Intelligence Service, an inspector prosecutor, and multiple intelligence agents from around the world. From a debtor in Squid Game, Park Hae Soo transitioned into a savage attorney named Han Ji Hoon in this film.

The actor shared more about his role with Korea JoongAng Daily: "I think Ji Hoon and I are similar in that some might consider us people who always play by the rulebook. Like Ji Hoon, I tend to abide by the value system that I keep, and more than anything else, I uphold my conscience and ethics. However, I did worry that the character may be perceived as too rigid or inflexible, but I had hoped [through my performance] that he was seen as more humane as he tackles the given situations with the other team members."

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The action-packed movie left Park Hae Soo literally breathless after all his fight scenes. There was a lot of commotion and chasing, and he even had to jump off a bridge without a stunt double. It sounds incredibly hard but this is nothing new to an actor who chooses a physical approach when it comes to acting. "When I prepare for a role, the first thing I do is to explore the character's walking style or capture every little action of his," he relayed to The Korea Times.

Joining the heist

Park Hae Soo's momentum continues with the highly anticipated Korean remake of Money Heist, which showed another side of him that no one has seen before. Here, he plays the bold Berlin. At the young age of nine, the Pyongyang native was already imprisoned and he spent 25 years in a cramped room. With that mind-numbing experience, the most wanted man from the North became unstoppable when he came out of jail. He then joined the heist led by the Professor (Yoo Ji Tae), and violence and fear became his quick fix to the crew's problems. Tokyo (Jeon Jong Seo) was right when she said that he has a way of making anyone around him feel intimidated. He can switch from one mood to another with a smirk on his face, and send shivers down your spine while at it. No one knows what's on his mind or what he plans to do next, and everyone in the room gets nervous when he's just standing there.

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A quick scroll on social media and you'll see all the positive comments about Park Hae Soo's performance in the drama. But prior to this, he almost rejected the casting offer due to the immense pressure of portraying a Korean Berlin. Still, he wanted to step out of his comfort zone and so he eventually accepted the role. It also helped that the original Berlin, played by Spanish actor Pedro Alonso, sent him the iconic mask to show his support. Now, Park Hae Soo has added another iconic character to his extensive portfolio.

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Preparing for this project proved to be very challenging for him. Apart from the long hours spent on rehearsals and research on internment camps, he also had to learn the North Korean dialect—specifically the Pyongan or Hamgyong vernacular—to fully express Berlin who hails from Pyongyang. With the help of a tutor from the said location, he was able to do so.

During Money Heist: Korea - Joint Economic Area's press conference in Seoul, he discussed his role and plans in detail. "Berlin is a character who actually is an embodiment of the pain and sorrow that the two Koreas are experiencing, I would say, that is how I interpreted the character. He was serving in a forced labor camp in North Korea for a long time and he escaped. And within the confined space of the Mint, he is using different methods to control the hostages there, and he is a cold-hearted person."

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"The biggest thing I focused on in playing the role of Berlin was trying not to imitate [the original character]. I tried to portray the character in a devoted and serious manner. When I read the script, I could see the parts of the character that I can portray differently, and because he had a different subplot, I wanted to approach it like that. Also, it starred so many actors that I like so I really wanted to join. The role of Berlin is very attractive so I wanted to take the challenge," he further explained in an exclusive interview with The Korea Times.

Netflix's gem

With his back-to-back projects, the actor is labeled as "Monthly Park Hae Soo" in South Korea. No one's complaining, though, as he serves something different in every assignment that he fully understands. The handful of shows available for viewing on Netflix (his upcoming project titled The Accidental Narco will premiere under the streaming giant as well) has also earned him a new nickname and it's "Netflix's Son," which he thinks otherwise because he's "too old to be a son." For us, he is Netflix's gem.

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Park Hae Soo's characters are always confined in spaces but he never once limited his acting to a single expression. Whether it's resentment, innocence, or deep-seated traumas, you can see all of these in his eyes. If you've come across the quote "Either you die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become a villain," the actor shows just that in his works. We have seen him both as an unpretentious protagonist and a cunning criminal, and he nailed each to a T.

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It's not just his stellar acting that makes us believe he's here to stay—Park Hae Soo's warm personality and the way he tries to look out for others are some of the reasons why he's getting the recognition he deserves. According to his co-stars, they have relied a lot on him to set the mood during filming. "Park Hae Soo is very caring and treated me like a friend, so there was never a point where I felt afraid or pressured in any way. Instead, he helped me a lot and drew out parts within me to help me do better," said Anupam Tripathi, who has worked with him in Squid Game.

The cast of Money Heist: Korea - Joint Economic Area also has the best things to say about Park Hae Soo. They admire his wit and high spirits, as well as how he remains grounded even if he's a world-famous star. "I have nothing but compliments for him. His acting is so admirable. He's an amazing actor but he never sees it that way," pointed out Kim Ji Hoon who played Denver.

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Versatility personified

For the next genre that he wants to try, Park Hae Soo mentioned that he would like to appear in a zombie and medical series, if not a melodrama, even if it's something that he's "worst at." Despite blooming a bit late (he won the Best New Actor award for a movie at the age of 37), he's here to show that age is a mere number for someone who wants to have a stable career. "To Hae Soo 10 years in the future, I hope you'll work tirelessly as you do now," he said to himself in a video with the cast of Time To Hunt.

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The actor's range knows no bounds, and he is *the moment* most of the time. Maybe it has something to do with the meaning behind his name ("Hae" is a Chinese character that means "sea" while "Soo" translates to "standing out") or it's the result of his efforts, but one thing is for sure: We'll definitely see more of him in the years to come. Ask Park Hae Soo to do any job and he will not only make it possible—it will be remarkable.

PRODUCED BY: Hanna Tamondong

LAYOUT BY: Pau Moyano

SPECIAL THANKS TO: Netflix

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