Lee Jung-jae (Korean: 이정재; 15 born December 1972) is a South Korean actor and model. He debuted as a fashion model, then began his acting career on television, notably in the campus series Feelings (1994) and the iconic drama Sandglass (1995). After his acting breakthrough in An Affair (1998), Lee’s film career took off. He has starred in a variety of film genres, among them romantic films such as Il Mare (2000) and Over the Rainbow (2002), melodrama Last Present (2001), comedy Oh! Brothers (2003), action films The Last Witness (2001) and Typhoon (2005), heist film The Thieves (2012), film noir New World (2013), and period film The Face Reader (2013). He won Best Actor awards at the Blue Dragon Film Awards for City of the Rising Sun (1999), and at the Fantasporto Director’s Week for The Housemaid (2010).
Early Life and Career
Lee Jung-jae was discovered by designer Ha Yong-soo while he was working at a café in Apgujeong, then worked as a fashion model for a number of years. Upon making his acting debut with the 1993 TV drama Dinosaur Teacher, Lee became a star practically overnight, and was almost always cast in lead roles thereafter. A year later, he received favorable reviews for his first big screen role in Bae Chang-ho’s The Young Man, but it was the 1994 hit campus drama Feelings that made him a household name.
In 1995, what was supposed to be a small supporting role as the heroine’s silent, devoted bodyguard in ratings behemoth Sandglass turned Lee into a national heartthrob, such that his screen time was increased throughout the series’ run.
Lee’s acting breakthrough would come in late 1998 in the award-winning film An Affair by E J-yong. This was followed up by another success, City of the Rising Sun, for which he won Best Actor at the Blue Dragon Film Awards and the Korean Association of Film Critics Awards.
Though his time-travel romance Il Mare was not a popular success in 2000, since then it has developed a loyal fan base a la Somewhere in Time and attained the status of a minor classic among Korean cinema fans (Keanu Reeves played Lee’s role in the 2006 Hollywood remake The Lake House). Lee followed up with melodrama Last Present alongside Lee Young-ae and action mystery The Last Witness directed by Bae Chang-ho; both of which were considerable successes.
In 2003, he starred opposite Lee Beom-soo in Oh! Brothers, a comedy about two brothers, one of whom has an unusual disease. The film was one of Lee’s biggest hits ever, topping three million admissions at the local box office. Nonetheless he remained out of the limelight for the next couple years. Finally at the end of 2005 he returned in Typhoon, a big-budget action blockbuster by Kwak Kyung-taek, the director of Friend.
Lee’s much-anticipated return to television a decade after his memorable turn in Sandglass was not successful ratings-wise; Air City (2007) and Triple (2009) both flopped.
With the period action comedy The Accidental Gangster and the Mistaken Courtesan, Lee said he wanted to try his hand at playing a different kind of role, a comical loose cannon type of character. Though it was not successful at the box office, he still considers it one of his most memorable films.
Lee rejuvenated his career in the high-profile 2010 erotic thriller The Housemaid, which screened at the Cannes Film Festival, and Toronto International Film Festival. Lee nabbed a Best Actor award at the Fantasporto Director’s Week. As his next project, he joined the star-studded ensemble cast of The Thieves, a 2012 heist film that became the second all-time highest-grossing movie in Korean cinema history.
El Fin del Mundo (“The End of the World”) is a 13-minute split screen film made by visual artists Moon Kyung-won and Jeon Joon-ho, which depicts the destructive environmental changes the world faces in the future and the subsequent end of art and birth of new art based on dialogue between two artists in different times and space, played by Lee and Im Soo-jung. The film was screened at dOCUMENTA in 2012, considered the world’s most prestigious and innovative contemporary art platform. A longtime art collector and honorary ambassador for the National Museum of Contemporary Art in 2011-2012, Lee also narrated the 2013 TV documentary Contemporary Art, Bury the Boundary which highlighted homegrown Korean artists.
In the noir thriller New World (2013), he played a police officer who goes undercover in a crime organization.Lee said he was grateful to co-star Choi Min-sik, who suggested casting him to the director. He later signed on to be exclusively managed by C-JeS Entertainment, reportedly choosing the agency after he worked with Song Ji-hyo in New World.
Lee then portrayed Prince Suyang opposite Song Kang-ho in the period film The Face Reader (2013), for which he won Best Supporting Actor at the Blue Dragon Film Awards and the Baeksang Arts Awards. This was followed by action-comedy Big Match in 2014, where he played a mixed martial arts fighter trying to save his brother by winning an elaborate high-stakes game.
In 2015, he reunited with The Thieves director Choi Dong-hoon and actress Jun Ji-hyun in Assassination, set in 1930s Korea and Shanghai during the Japanese occupation. Lee won a Best Actor award at the 24th Buil Film Awards and was named Actor of the Year at the 3rd Marie Claire Asia Star Awards.
Lee then starred in his first Chinese film, crime drama Tik Tok. He returned to the Korean screen with the box office hit, Operation Chromite, playing a South Korean lieutenant in the navy, the man responsible for reversing the tide of the Korean War.
Lee’s films in 2017 include the historical epic Warriors of the Dawn and the fantasy blockbuster Along With the Gods: The Two Worlds.
In 2019, Lee starred in Svaha: The Sixth Finger, an occult film. The same year Lee returned to television with his first drama in a decade, the JTBC political drama Chief of Staff alongside Shin Min-a, where he plays a political advisor. In September 2021, Lee starred as the main lead of Netflix’s survival drama Squid Game.
In August 2008, Lee was awarded his master’s degree from Dongguk University’s Department of Theater & Film Art in the Graduate School of Cultural Arts. He made his first foray into theater in December of that same year, taking on the titular role in Hamlet in Water. The play ran for four days at his alma mater’s Lee Hae-rang Theater.
Apart from his acting, Lee is known for launching a chain of upscale Italian restaurants in Seoul named after his movie Il Mare. Having studied interior design, he himself took responsibility for designing the interiors of his restaurants. Lee also founded the real estate development company Seorim C&D in 2008, and owns several businesses with actor Jung Woo-sung, his best friend since they starred together in City of the Rising Sun. In May 2016, Lee and Jung established and became CEOs of their entertainment label called the ‘Artist Company’.
Lee Jung-jae as of 2021 is currently not yet married. However, Lee Jung-jae has a girlfriend.
Lee Jung-jae’s net worth as of 2021 is estimated to be around $2.5 million (net woth estimated in 2021).