[Warning: The following contains spoilers for Squid Game: The Challenge Episodes 1-5. Read at your own risk!]
Joel Lane wasn't planning to apply to Squid Game: The Challenge. In fact, he only heard about the reality competition series based on Hwang Dong-hyuk's hit Netflix thriller because his friend wanted to participate. That friend was none other than Cha Hyun-seung, the professional dancer who has appeared in two of Netflix's buzzy Korean series: Single's Inferno and Physical: 100. "He wanted to apply himself but you have to be able to speak English so he was like, can you tutor me in English?" Joel told TV Guide. "I was like, sure, no problem." In the end, Cha didn't submit an application. But this conversation prompted Joel to consider entering the show himself. Just days before casting submissions closed, he applied to be one of the 456 contestants who would compete to win $4.56 million.
The 31-year-old broadcasting personality and model appeared as Player 375 in Squid Game: The Challenge. Sadly for him, Joel would not be the one to bring home the hefty prize money. His time on the reality competition series ended in the second dormitory elimination test, when he stepped up to be one of five volunteers. Each was required to randomly select a jack-in-the-box. And while some of them contained advantages, Joel's required him to leave the game immediately.
As unfortunate as his elimination — or even more, depending on who you ask — was Joel's lack of screen time. Though he succeeded in three challenges — "Red Light, Green Light," "Dalgona," and "Warships" — the contestant was hardly featured in the show. We get it: Squid Game: The Challenge can't follow all 456 players, and even highlighting 10 percent of that number would be a challenge. But did the producers not know they cast a literal former K-pop idol whose very appearance welcomes fan edits? (Joel was a member of boy group BTL.) Well, we took it upon ourselves to speak with Joel about everything from his elimination to being a lieutenant in "Warships" to Asian representation in Squid Game: The Challenge.
TV Guide: Let's start with your elimination. Why did you step up to be one of the five volunteers?
Joel: One of the big things was I didn't know for sure what the next game was going to be. But if it had gone to marbles, I am notoriously bad at anything like that. So I was like, why don't I just try to do this now and see if I can get some kind of leg up? And another thing that I realized when I was in there was, it was not how strong you are, or how experienced you are at playing this or that game. It's very much the universe taking control of everything. So no matter what the game was, or no matter what decision I had made, a lot of that was just thrown to the universe. I hadn't taken substantial risks up until that point. I was like, let me try. Of course it blew up in my face [laughs.] But it is what it is.
How did you feel when the jack-in-the-box opened and you saw that you were eliminated?
Joel: When it comes down to it, I went up there thinking my chances are pretty good. I was towards the end of the line that was opening the boxes. So as more and more people got the good things, I started to get nervous. And then I don't know what came over me when I opened the box and I saw the paper. Some kind of weird reaction took over me, it was strange. I never react like that in real life. It was something that I think you can only really experience in there between being in the same place every day, and doing the same things every day, and the stress of people that might or might not be working against you, having to constantly watch what you say. Also there's cameras running constantly, so there's a lot of stress.
And I'm sure because you were opening the box in front of everyone, that probably added to the stress too.
Joel: Oh yeah. First of all, I felt like I was on stage singing or something. It was weird. Everyone was kind of watching, but it was more stressful than I think actually even performing. I was just standing there. I don't know, there was a little bit of embarrassment too. Not in a bad way, but it was more like, oh, wow, I'm not going to go out unceremoniously in a game where everyone's busy concentrating on themselves. They were all busy concentrating on me. So it was very burdensome.
I want to go back to the beginning. What made you decide to apply to be on the show?
Joel: I had actually found out about it very, very late. I ended up applying a day or two before they ended up stopping to take submissions. I got a response back and then through a series of interviews I finally got through it. I thought for sure that being a Korean IP, Squid Game, that there would be tons and tons of Korean celebrities that were going to apply. But at the end of the day, no one I knew actually got in, and it was only me. So I think it was really cool to be able to go and represent Korea, kind of like a pride thing. Korea is a country that has created Squid Game and has a lot of influence these days in popular media. So I was like, let me go and and represent Korea on the world stage in Squid Game: The Challenge.
Tell me more about the pride part. Is that something you felt when the show first came out and blew up globally? Were you watching it right away?
Joel: I actually watched it pretty late, when it was starting to get bigger. I was like, oh man, everyone's talking about this, let me go see what's going on. And I watched it, it was awesome, I fell in love with it. It was definitely a pride thing. Anytime something from Korea, especially a media-related thing blows up, it's just really fascinating to me. Because I've lived here for so long and I was once a K-pop idol. When I was doing it, stuff wasn't blowing up in the States like that. It was all in Korea, in Asia mostly. So when it started to blow up, I was like, wow, this is crazy. There was this, there was Parasite, and BTS, and BLACKPINK, and all these things that are really blowing up in America. It was like, that's right, that's my country.
Were you born in the States and then moved to Korea when you were young?
Joel: I'm actually half Korean, you might be able to tell. I was born in the States and then moved to Korea in 2006. That was 17, 18 years ago. I've lived here ever since.
I was a little surprised there was not more Asian representation in Squid Game: The Challenge. Did you feel that at all or were you able to meet other Asians and Asian Americans on the show?
Joel: When I got to the dorms, yeah, there was another Asian American that I was friendly with. And then there were other people from South Korea, too, that went there that weren't necessarily Asian American, but they were living here and I got close to them.
When you were applying, would you say your goal was to primarily win the prize money? What were your other hopes from the experience?
Joel: Obviously that amount of money would be life-changing. Yes, that was definitely a big goal, but I think I had many goals. The big three, would be, definitely the money, clearly. But also being able to go and represent me as a broadcasting person and being able to represent Korea on a world stage. Because Squid Game was, everyone in there is Korean, mostly. But here, it's everyone from around the world. So it's kind of like a United Nations thing — let me go and represent. And then also clearly a career move on my part.
Can you share more about the career move? What have you been up to since your K-pop days?
Joel: I was in a K-pop group for a few years and it didn't do so well. I signed to a new management agency and do lots of different types of TV shows. Definitely dipping my foot into acting, and I have an album coming out soon. It's the first time in like 10 years that I've done music. So yeah, kind of a jack of all trades. I do a lot of radio, I have my own podcast with a friend, another K-pop guy [the podcast is Korean Cowboys hosted with Aaron Kwak.]
That's very exciting. I also wanted to ask about Warships game—
Joel: Oh Lord.
What's the reaction?
Joel: I don't think it was on camera, but I was an ugly crier after that too.
How many times did you cry throughout the show?
Joel: Exactly twice. Both times not pretty.
You were a lieutenant in Warships alongside Dan [Player 51] who was the captain. Is that a role you wanted?
Joel: When it came to that, in Korea they have board game cafes. Literally two days before I left Korea to go shoot this I was actually playing Battleships or Warships. And it was so weird that that's what we ended up doing. I told Dan, I'm not even gonna lie to you, I played this game two weeks before. I was like, this is still fresh in my mind. I used to play this all the time as a kid, I actually am really good at it. What do you think about making me the captain? He was like, let's go. Let's do it.
Your Warships team did the Gganbu Gang cheer. Were you officially a part of the group?
Joel: I honestly can't remember how that group came together. But everyone in that group I'd already known to some degree. There were two people in my group that were two of my best friends in there [Players 218 and 414]. They were unfortunately the ones that got out, so that's why I was so distraught. But also why I wanted to become a lieutenant so bad because I was like, I think if I'm the lieutenant, I'll be able to take my team to victory. So that was kind of where I was at and when I wasn't able to save everybody, it was like, oh this is my fault. I kind of went there mentally.
That sounds very devastating. Would you say you took that harder than your own elimination?
Joel: I kind of do becaus they're the ones that put their trust in me to take us to the next round. And if I remember correctly, they were the only two on my team that got eliminated. Because when I got eliminated, it was all me. I was the one that decided to raise my hand, I was the one that decided to take the risk. But with them, it wasn't that. It was more like, I got to kind of do everything for them. That was the position we were put in, and since I was unable to do that, that's why it was more emotional. For me, them getting eliminated, and I was with them all day every day. So it was weird when they got eliminated. Because I was like, well, now what do I do? I'm just by myself, all sad.
Because you mentioned career, are you thinking of going on future reality shows? Would you consider, for example, Physical 100 or Single's Inferno?
Joel: I have seen Physical 100 and it looks really tough. I know a couple people that were on that show and they said it was one of the most difficult things they've ever done. So I would definitely be down to try. As a broadcasting personality, you have to be willing to go and just try everything. I've had my foot in nearly everything at some point in time. When it comes to Single's Inferno or some kind of dating show, I don't really watch that that much. But I would be willing to try anything.
The first five episodes of Squid Game: The Challenge are available to stream on Netflix, with the next batch of episodes premiering Nov. 29.