[Interview] Justin H. Min for AFTER YANG

[Interview] Justin H. Min for AFTER YANG
Courtesy A24
Justin H. Min is a second-generation Korean American actor from Cerritos who graduated from Cornell, and was a journalist and photographer prior to becoming an actor. He is perhaps best known for his performance as Ben Hargreeves in Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy. Now, he has taken on the title role of Yang in AFTER YANG in his latest film.

Recently, Nightmarish Conjurings’ Dolores Quintana spoke with Min, where they discussed how the actor became involved in the project, the complexities of bringing an AI character to life without giving it too much life, and how the shooting set-up allowed for the development of family amongst its castmates.

I just wanted to talk to you about the film and your role as Yang. You gave a very touching performance. How did you become involved in the project?

Justin H. Min: Sure, I became involved in a pretty standard way. I had been sent the scripts through my manager, who had read it and thought it was wonderful and thought this character could potentially be played by me. He sent it over to get my thoughts on it. I happened to be getting on a plane right at the time he sent it over and I ended up reading it on the plane ride. I ended up just sobbing on this plane because I was so moved by it. I sort of knew that it was going to be good because I had already been a fan of Kogonada’s work. I had seen his visual essays, I’d seen Columbus. When I saw his name on the title page, I braced myself because I thought, if it’s like anything else he’s done, it’s gonna be good. It far exceeded my expectations.

As soon as I got off the plane, I immediately emailed my manager and my team saying, I love the script, I would love the chance to read for this part. I went to the standard procedure of auditioning for it. Then I think, a few weeks after, Kogonada was kind enough to sit down with me for a little coffee date to talk about the part. Even though it had not been offered to me, it was I guess, another form of an audition. It was very nerve-racking. I felt like I was going on a first date and you know, I’m such a fan of his work. So I was quite nervous. I was probably rambling a good portion of that time. But he was so kind and generous. I got to ask him about his life and his work and obviously the movie. Then a few days later, I got the call that I got the part. So yeah, it was a dream come true.

Courtesy A24

Wow. So how do you as an actor and a person relate to the character of Yang?

Justin H. Min: Oh, so much. So I mean, the beauty of this particular AI movie is that this AI is very human, in so many ways. So it wasn’t as if I felt like I had to dive into a completely different headspace to be inside an emptiness or a void in a robot or anything like that. This robot would feel human at times and would convey human emotions.

So I approached it almost from the humanistic standpoint, as if, how would I play this character if I didn’t even know that he was a robot and that was what was driving me and most important to me. So everything with regards to his relationship to each of the family members. What it means to Yang to be a brother, a son, a lover to Ada. In that way that was the driving force.

Then, of course, as we got closer to filming, then the nuances of how that sort of intersected with the artificiality of who he was was something that Kogonada and I discussed at length. Interestingly enough, he never gave me a full answer. I kept asking him, how robot-like do you want him? He never gave me an answer, even to this day. I think that was very strategic of him, because he never wanted to really pin down how human and robot-like he was. He wanted that mystery to lead the film as well as continue to be ambiguous even to the audience.

That was very successful. Do you think that Yang knew that he was AI, that he knew he was a robot? Did he know that he had a limited lifespan?

Justin H. Min: I definitely thought he had an awareness that he was a robot. That’s actually one of the things that intrigued me most about the character. Because we often see a lot of these artificial intelligence movies and TV shows where the whole point is for the AI to want to become more human-like or to be human. But there was a beauty in this character where he knew he was an AI and yet was perfectly content as an AI. He was perfectly content with his role in this family. That resonated very deeply with me. It was something I continued to lean into as I explored more of this character’s psychology.

That was one of the most endearing things about him, but also it lends itself to the complexity of the character. Indeed, it is a robot that doesn’t necessarily want to be human and has a very complex personality.

Justin H. Min: I’m reminded of that great little piece that Kogonada wrote about the tea scene where Yang is speaking of memories and wanting or wishing that the memories were tied to something real. That he wishes that tea was not just about facts, but that it was tied to the actual origins of tea. In one way, you could think that that’s something that Yang wants for himself. But in other ways, I’ve always wanted to play that moment and that sentiment with the idea that he didn’t want those things for himself, but he wanted them to better service his family. I mean, his whole job was to connect Nika back to her Chinese heritage. I think he wanted nothing more than to be the best brother that he could be and he wished that when he was explaining things like tea and other Chinese fun facts that it would feel as real to her so that she could feel as connected as she could be to her country of origin.

I have to say that I actually got that out of your performance. That it really was important to him because he wanted to be a better brother to her.

Justin H. Min: I appreciate that. Thank you.

Courtesy A24

So that definitely came through. I think that with the character in the story you really had a lot of places that you could go. Was there anything about it that you found really challenging or difficult for you to work into?

Justin H. Min: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, as much as I’ve conveyed in this conversation that Yang is quite human-like, I also intentionally tried to restrain or hold back a bit of the intense emotions that we often feel as human beings, because obviously, as an artificial intelligence, he might be feeling some semblance of emotion but it’s not at full capacity in the same ways that we as humans feel. So I wanted to restrain that and it was difficult at times. Because I felt so alive in these scenes with my fellow actors who are just incredible actors. When you’re in a scene and it feels real, you often forget that you’re playing this part. It feels like a real moment and that scene with Yang and Kyra about the butterfly. That was such an emotional day and an emotional scene. I never walked into that scene wanting Yang to get as emotional as he did. But that was sort of this discovery that was made in the moment as we were doing this. I thought to myself, Oh, well, that take is never going to make the movie because we don’t want to showcase Yang as a very human emotional being. The way that Kogonada was able to sort of splice these moments together into these fractured memories and that moment being from Kyra’s perspective, but then, immediately switching over to, was he emotional? Was he not? I think it was so well done. So it was one of the most challenging, but also one of the most exciting parts of doing this part is discovering moments like that on a day.

As an actor, how did Kogonada work with you? Did he kind of just let you go or prompt you every once and a while?

Justin H. Min: He did let me go. I really appreciated that. It was unlike any director that I’ve ever worked with so far. He had so much trust in each of us and allowed scenes to breathe and play. Obviously, he would give us multiple takes of certain scenes. Of course, sometimes there’ll be one small note here or there. But for the vast majority of them, he never said anything. He just allowed us to do it again. He encouraged us to explore, to discover, to try things. That sort of freedom is amazing for an actor because you really feel safe and you really feel the ability to try things.

What was your favorite part about Yang or the film for you?

Justin H. Min: My favorite part about filming was just the sort of idea of life imitating art and art imitating life in the sense that we really became a family unit. The vast majority of the movie takes place in this beautiful home. They had gutted this home and made it our set. But then right across the street, there was another home that we used as a base camp. We all lived there literally in between takes and in between days. Colin had a room. Jodie had a room. I had a room. Malea had a room. There was a kitchen and people were cooking and it was really like we were a family in that home. Then we would walk over to the set and then be a family for the movie. So it was a really special time. It felt so intimate. I just had the most enjoyable time working with those actors and working with K and feeling like we were all here because we loved the story and we wanted to do the best that we could to tell the story in the right way.

Do you have any other new projects coming up?

Justin H. Min: I do. I’m currently about to film a Netflix A24 show, but I don’t know how much I am allowed to reveal.

AFTER YANG is now available in select theaters and is now streaming on Showtime. To learn more about the film, check out Dolores’ review here! Want to learn more about the behind-the-scenes? Check out her interview with Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja and Jodie Turner-Smith.

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