Minha Kim plays the younger version of Sunja, our central heroine, in Pachinko, an epic family saga that spans multiple countries and generations.
Here, Kim explains how she won the role of Sunja and prepared for her emotionaly-challenging role as a young mother in impossible circumstances.
Read our complete interview with Minha Kim here.
Awards Daily: I’ve read that you had a very long audition process for Pachinko. How did those multiple auditions help you understand the character better and inform your performance?
Minha Kim: Well, the audition process lasted more than three months. So, at first, I didn’t know the audition was being held, but the Korean casting director just called me and asked if I wanted to participate. So, I said ‘Why not? I would love to participate in this audition.’ And then I read the audition script and it was beautiful. It was only the audition script, but beautiful. I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is something that I should do right away.’ And then, when I got the second callback, I figured out it was Pachinko. Because before then, they used other terms [to be confidential], so I didn’t know it was Pachinko. But when I got the second callback, I knew that it was. Starting from then until the chemistry audition it was more than three months, and of course that really helped me figure out the characters. I found a lot of connections between me and Sunja, my character. During those three months, I learned so many things about her; and through her I learned a lot of things about myself, too. So, it helped me a lot to create this character and to understand the storyline better.
AD: In having a younger Sunja and an older Sunja, did you discuss your work with Yuh-Jung Youn? Did you study her? How did that aspect of the performance work?
MK: To be honest, with Y. J., there was no interaction while we were shooting because we had all different schedules and we were all the same character. So, there was no opportunity for us to meet. But I just had faith in both of the Sunjas. I just trusted them so much. It’s a process, because there is a different situation that each Sunja is confronting. So, I was just engrossed in my scenes, and focused on the particular situation that Sunja was encountering. I just focused on that. As far as the other actors, I knew that they were going to nail it. I knew that there would be connections between us; and that the showrunners, the producers, the directors chose us because we had that connection. So I just trusted everybody, and that [allowed] me to relax a lot and concentrate on my era.
AD: So, what was it like on set of this big, epic production?
MK: Well, first of all, I miss all these things back on the set. I just can’t wait to go back on set for season two. Every time I was on the set, there were new things for me, like a whole new experience for me. I learned so many things. I learned mostly to listen to others. For example, Sunja is the one who [is] constantly listening to the other characters and that’s how she solves the problems. And that’s how she embraces them, and that’s how she expresses her love and affection. While I was on the Pachinko set, I kind of learned for myself to listen to others carefully, and with my heart.
And on set, it was so free; I could do whatever I wanted. A lot of people helped me to just be in the moment and be present, and prepare for my scenes. So, it was beautiful, working with all the casting members and all the crew. After I wrapped shooting Pachinko, I made really, really good friends and a family. It was wonderful.
AD: Your character— she’s in these really difficult situations. She is so young, but because of everything that happens to her, she’s forced to grow up quickly, and she has this wisdom and this maturity that is far beyond her years. How did you approach that? Sunja is quiet and well-mannered at first, how did you bring in all of these different layers in your performance?
MK: Well, I first tried to figure out what kind of person Sunja is, and then focus on the scenes themselves. So, I tried to make sure I matched her characteristics, and then respond in the right way to the situation that Sunja was dealing with. All these mannerisms and all these qualities just came out naturally. As time goes by in the story, I had to imagine lots of things, but my imagination helped a lot, for me to just be in that moment and make it real. Our props and our sets and all the cast members helped me to be in that moment and to show the different mannerisms of Sunja. I think the first thing I thought about was just being Sunja and being in the moment, and that helped me the most.
AD: What aspect of all of this did you find the most difficult? You are our introduction to her, your piece has to work for everything else to fall into place. Was that daunting or scary for you?
MK: First of all, I remember that I was so worried about being a mother, being a parent, because I’ve never been a mother before. And in the series, seven years have passed, so I have to be very different. So that was the thing that was really challenging for me. But as soon as I saw Noa, I got it. I just felt like I had to protect him, and I just felt that motherhood at that moment. And the second thing which was really difficult for me, was the laboring scene, because I’ve never had a baby before; I had to watch a lot of documentaries and I had to ask my grandmothers, my mother for advice. But still, it was hard to get a sense of how painful it is. So, I tried to imagine that too, but it was still hard to get a sense of it. But as soon as Justin, our director, gave me notes to ‘just scream out loud,’ as soon as I screamed out loud, I just felt like, ‘Oh my God, that was painful.’ I don’t know why; it was not painful in my body, but I could feel that emotion of ‘Oh my God, this is so hard and exhausting.’ So, like I said before, a lot of people around me helped me to just be in that moment.
AD: You mentioned talking to your mother and your grandmothers. One comment that a lot of people have had about Pachinko is that it makes them want to call their grandmothers and thank them for all of their sacrifices. Has that been the case for you? Do you find yourself maybe appreciating small things about the elders in your life that you didn’t know before, or anything of that nature?
MK: Of course. While I was doing the research, I asked my mom and grandmother a lot of things – especially my grandmother. And while I was listening to her stories, her stories were unbelievably sad. And I just had to thank her so much for surviving for us; and my mom, too.
While I was doing the performance, I kept being reminded of my mom and grandmother. So, every time I call my mom or my grandmother, I say ‘Hey, thank you so much. Thank you so much for all of this.’ Like, even though I’m doing the performance, even though I’m just acting, I can feel that—how hard it is to suffer and just overcome all these obstacles. I just feel all the gratitude.
AD: I wanted to ask you, what does it feel like to be in this moment and to receive this praise, and to really be the face of Pachinko at such a young age?
MK: Well, to be honest, I’m not really aware of it, because I do not search myself a lot on the internet. But when I go to L.A., and everybody was talking about Pachinko, they gave a lot of compliments to me, I just thought ‘Oh my God, this is real!’ I mean, this just happened all of a sudden, right? So, it was kind of surprising.
But also, I just kept feeling that I have a lot of responsibilities that come with [such a big show]. So, I do not want to ruin our Pachinko. So, you know all these things mean a lot. It means a lot that they care about my performances. They’re talking about it in a good way. This is all good. I mean, this is all fascinating, but I just want to be humble and I just try not to lose myself and just expand the spectrum of my acting. I want to climb the stairs slowly, at my own pace.
AD: And you mentioned season two. Have you read any scripts? Can you tell me anything about season two?
MK: I don’t know anything specific about season two. But it’s still going be me— because originally, they were planning to change the actors, because Sunja is getting older, but it’s going to be [me the] whole time. I can tell you that.
Pachinko is streaming now on Apple TV+.