Justin H. Min graduated from Cornell University with degrees in government and English, and after dabbling in law and a stint in journalism, he had a “crisis” moment where he decided to pursue acting. A recurring role on the Netflix hit “The Umbrella Academy” as Ben Hargreeves proved so popular he became a regular. Now he’s making his feature film debut in Kogonada’s “After Yang,” which A24 releases March 4, in which he plays an android companion to a young girl named Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja). When Yang breaks down, Mika’s father (Colin Farrell) goes on a journey to fix him that examines grief, loss and what it means to be human.
“After Yang” was shot pre-pandemic. How does it feel to finally see it coming out?
It’s surreal. It almost felt like it was truly a dream. There were moments in the last two years where I was like: “Did I really make that? Did we really shoot this movie?”
And it’s hard to believe, this is your first feature film.
Yes. And I knew leaving the set on that last day that it would be hard to find another experience that would match this because it was so cathartic and beautiful. It was the only time I left a set and cried, because I felt so bad it was coming to an end.
You started out in journalism originally, correct?
I studied Law and English and government, which was really political science. I thought I would go into law and the only reason was because I liked making speeches. But then I interned for a few law firms and hated it. I loved writing and I ended up going on a bunch of trips with various nonprofit organizations and international development organizations to document the things that were happening and I was experiencing and bring those stories back home. The idea was they could hopefully get more money for their organization. I realized the power of the story because I would just sit there in the field and listen to these stories. One of the most profound experiences was working in Cambodia with survivors of the Khmer Rouge genocide and just feeling like my DNA was changing as I listed to these testimonies.
I ended up working for a couple magazines after college, thinking that was my path. But lo and behold, I realized I didn’t have the patience for it. I was doing profiles on the lobster fest in town and the local distillery and that’s great, some people can love that and do it. But I didn’t have the patience to be assigned these things I was not super passionate about and to work at a job for seven or eight years until hopefully a position opened up where I could pitch my stories. So I gave it all up, moved back to Los Angeles, and had an existential crisis. In the midst of that funk and depression, I stumbled upon acting.
Were you someone who grew up watching TV and movies and did school plays?
I watched a ton of TV and movies but I didn’t really see anyone who looked like me. So it never crossed my mind that this was something I could do as a viable career. I did take a theater class in college because I heard it was an easy A for one of my general requirements. And I loved it. You know that feeling where you’re like, “Oh I actually have a natural knack for something.” I have never felt that way except for in that class. Cut to my crisis and I remembered this and thought: “Okay, let’s try it.”
Was it an easy A? Because I’ve taken some hard acting classes.
All the class required was to get an A was to show up. So yeah, it was easy.
When you decided to pursue acting, did you take classes? Where did you even begin?
I’ll be the first to admit I think people who become actors believe they’re special. I was like,, “People should see my talent!” Then you walk in a room and you literally see 30 people who look exactly like you. And you’re not special at all. And all of these people are incredibly talented and have worked years and years to be where they’re at. So if I want to catch up, I need to put in 10 times more work. So the first two or three years of pursuing this, there was not a day where I was not in a class. At one point, I was taking four different classes: improv on Monday, scene study on Tuesday, audition technique on Wednesday, comedy class on Thursday. I just knew that I wanted to be at a level where I could feel confident in the room, and could put my best foot forward.
“After Yang” comes to us from filmmaker and artist Kogonada; were you familiar with his work?
I was a total fan. I had stumbled upon one of his visual essays and it was just stunning. I remember looking at his name and thinking: “That’s a really cool name. I wonder who that is.” A couple years later, “Columbus” came out and it was just transcendent. I was excited to see what he’d do next.
How did you get cast in “After Yang”?
I was actually testing for a show that I thought would be mine, and as often happens in Hollywood, it did not go my way. I was absolutely devastated. I was getting on a plane to leave town, and my manager said, “I just got my hands on this script, and it’s one of the best things I’ve read in a very long time.” I read it on the plane, and I was so caught up in it, the woman next to me asked if I was OK. I got off the plane and called my manager and said, “I need to be part of this project, whatever it needs.” I had a coffee date with Kogonada and was literally shaking because I wanted this so bad. I was told the budget was tight. I said, “I don’t care. I will sleep on my friend’s couch.” Which I did, by the way. And the amazing thing about life, you know, is that I would have never been able to do this had I got that show.
You show off some impressive dance moves at the start of the film. Do you still remember them all?
Absolutely not. It was terrifying because I cannot dance. But I joked that I made a character choice that Yang was not the best dancer and that got me off the hook.
Things you didn’t know about Justin H. Min:
Hometown: Cerritos, Calif.
Pivotal moment: Seeing the films of Wong Kar Wai, particularly “Chungking Express”
Up next : “Umbrella Academy” and the Netflix series “Beef” with Ali Wong and Steven Yeun