The ‘Pachinko’ actress knows her character’s issues

No, she doesn’t mind moving to another room. The snaps they took of her sitting on the bathroom counter were probably gold, but the photographer has other ideas for this chic suite at L’Ermitage Beverly Hills. The shooter orders the actress to lie down on the bed, click click click. The subject does it with ease, his face never betraying discomfort, his body never tense. In the front room, she contorts slightly so the lens can catch her reflection in a tabletop mirror, a cool confidence never waning. Click click click.

Minha Kim, the 26-year-old Korean actress with some previous TV credits in her native country, plays Sunja in the Apple TV+ anime series “Pachinko.” In a cast that includes Oscar-winning actor Yuh-Jung Youn and Korean idol Lee Minho, she’s the lead and she’s ready for her close-up.

“When I was little, I was very shy, discreet,” she confides later, accepting extra pillows to make herself comfortable on the sofa. “I was shy, really, really shy. Every time I had to speak in front of a lot of people, I would sweat a lot. I was shaking like this. So nervous.

“All this time, I wanted to be a voiceover actor. It’s fine for me to hide and then do the performance. I guess I wanted to be a character rather than, you know, an actress. I always want to be the princess, I want to be the Nemo.

Minha Kim (left) and Lee Minho co-star in “Pachinko,” an Apple TV+ series based on the novel of the same name by Min Jin Lee.


But, she says, she found that her shyness went away when it performed.

“Most of the time when I sing, I feel different; I feel like I’m dreaming and I’m in the middle of dreams.
The Seoul native overcame her shyness just in time for her first bouts of street recognition (in New York the day before this interview, for example), thanks to the popularity of “Pachinko.”

“I’m not a person who goes out a lot, but I get a lot of messages from people on Instagram,” she says, almost embarrassed, while confiding that many of those interactions involve fans asking about her handsome man. Principal, Lee.

Kim’s mother was so keen for her to learn English that in addition to sending her to an English preschool in Seoul, she sent her first to Germany and then to America (Palm Springs) to study. language. Kim then turned her accent away from European by consuming American TV shows such as “Grey’s Anatomy”, eventually earning a degree in theater from Hanyang University. She’s also a fast reader, though the 10 hours she devoured Min Jin Lee’s bestselling novel was fast even for her.

“While I was reading ‘Pachinko’, I felt like someone was narrative me the story,” she says. “Every chapter was so shocking. ‘Oh my God. I want to see the sequel, the sequel, the sequel. It felt like this new story from my grandma.

Kim’s grandmother lived through the period when the actress plays Sunja, during the Japanese occupation of Korea (circa 1910-45).

A woman in a faded denim outfit poses for a photo against a wall mirror.

(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

A woman in faded denim poses on a vanity.

“While I was reading ‘Pachinko’, I felt like someone was narrative me the story,” Kim says.

(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

“She used to tell me about her childhood every time I went to her house, which was really fun. I asked her, ‘Grandma, [Sunja] got married at 16. Is it too early? She said no. I got married at 20 and everyone told me it was too late.

“I said to him, ‘In this story, I have a boyfriend/lover, and he kind of betrayed me and I have to marry another man. She said: ‘I’m so jealous, because nobody would do that – no boyfriend; it’s just husband right away!’ Kim laughed tenderly.

The laughter fades, however, as she recalls her grandmother’s stories of deprivation.

“I heard my grandmother say that she had to go barefoot on the way to school because the Japanese took all her shoes, even in the middle of winter. But she told me, ‘There are no seasons.’ Because winter, spring, summer, autumn, they wear the same clothes; no shoes, no food.

One of the key sequences of Season 1 involves Sunja’s mother struggling to simply find rice for Sunja and her fiancé to eat on their wedding day (the Japanese had banned the sale of the staple to Koreans ).

When Kim’s grandmother saw this, “she cried so much,” the actress said. “She said at the end of my phone call, ‘Even if it’s the performance, even if you’re not Sunja, tell Sunja – tell Minha – that I love you the most and there’s always love around you. So remember that I love you the most.”

Kim also found it easy to like Sunja, citing her honesty and the toughness she finds in herself after being overwhelmed with problems at first. So what did she dislike about the character?

“It’s not about her, but more about the culture and the way women lived at that time,” she says. “Whenever she’s in front of Hansu [Lee’s character], she is just lost. Hansu is kind of like his Wikipedia; it makes him open his eyes, see the world for the first time.

“It makes me feel bad. I mean, he’s the love of her life, but still, I just want her to forget about it. ‘No, he’s a bastard, no!’ She laughed, “It’s McDreamy, how can she forget him? Even though she hates him, I think he’s another [kind] of love. So so powerful that she gets an energy from him whether she hates him or loves him. It continues to appear in the middle of his life; it’s so boring because she cares so much about him.

Was there a moment that made their relationship stand out for her?

“When Isaac [played by Steve Sang-Hyun Noh] proposes to me and he asks, ‘Can you forget Hansu?’ – when I was reading the script, I thought that line was just, you know, not that important. But when he asked me the question on set, I couldn’t answer. I couldn’t spit out my lines. The tears just came out and I felt like, ‘That’s how much she loves [Hansu].’ It was really weird and I couldn’t say that sentence out loud: “I would love to”. [Instead] it made me crumble in front of Isak at the restaurant, so I had to bear the tears. And that’s when I discovered that his love for Hansu was so deep.

A woman with a dull denim outfit poses for a photo with a mirror.

(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

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