Justin H. Min has garnered a lot of attention for playing characters that aren’t quite human.
The actor stars in the A24 sci-fi film “After Yang,” written and directed by Kogonada. Despite its quiet nature, the film, which costars Colin Farrell, has generated a fair amount of buzz since its premiere at Cannes last summer. Earlier this year, the film won the Alfred P. Sloan Prize at Sundance.
Min was unable to attend either of the festival premieres for “After Yang” in person — he was in the middle of shooting the third season of Netflix’s popular superhero series “Umbrella Academy” last summer during Cannes, and the digital pivot of Sundance meant he was 0-2. The actor only recently had an opportunity to watch the film in a theater with an audience, an experience he describes as “surreal.”
“It’s almost like a time capsule watching this movie because I feel like I was a different person; a different actor then,” the actor says from the second floor at The Freehand. Later that night, post-screening, he’d return to the hotel’s bar to properly celebrate the film with the rest of his cast.
“After Yang” was filmed in Brooklyn and the Hudson Valley during summer 2019, and the New York premiere marked Min’s first time back in the city since wrapping production. The world looked a lot different back then — it was pre-COVID-19 — as did Min’s career. He had a recurring role on “Umbrella Academy,” and was later promoted to the show’s main cast for the second season, which aired the following summer in 2020. (Season three will drop later this year.) Min’s breakout moment was the culmination of many years honing his craft and learning the business. Next, the 31-year-old actor will star in “Beef,” led by Steven Yeun and Ali Wong. The series will be the first joint A24-Netflix production.
The meditative sci-fi film — which carries a PG rating, unusual for an A24 film — is difficult to pin down. Min plays a “technosapien,” a robot purchased by a family to babysit and teach their adopted Chinese daughter “fun facts” about China. But the family purchased Min as a refurbished model, and when he refuses to boot up one morning, the father is resolved to get him fixed. In the process, the father discovers that Yang has been recording memories, snapshots from his day-to-day experience. But it’s not a nefarious discovery (nor is anything in the film); Yang hasn’t been spying on them with some evil vendetta. He’s been storing the mundane moments that make up a life: trees gently moving against a blue sky, the smile of a friend, fruit peels on a plate. It’s narrative and visual ASMR.
“When you can sit down and really see [those moments] for what they are, they’re beautiful,” says Min.
For much of the film, playing Yang required Min to lay still — draped over Farrell’s shoulder or set upon a table for examination. Yang’s humanity came through flashbacks and other character’s memories of him.
“My first question after I got the job was, how artificial do we want this robot? How human do we want him?” Min says. Kogonada never offered a clear answer. “He never wants the audience to know. He never wanted me as the actor to know. He didn’t even want to know how human or artificial this robot was,” Min adds.
Min has found that different viewers resonate with different aspects of the film: parents who recognize the mystery of their own kids, adoptees and Asian Americans with the questions around identity. “That’s the beauty of Kogonada’s writing and the work. It never tells you exactly what to think or feel,” he says.
“The first thing that resonated most with me was this robot who was so content being a robot,” Min says. “And that was very strange to me because every artificial intelligence movie or TV show I’ve seen is oftentimes about the robot wanting to be human. And here was this robot who was just so content being this babysitter slash cultural techno slash cultural liaison slash teacher slash family member. And he was just so happy in that role.”
Yang also reminded Min of his mother; his parents immigrated to America from South Korea “and had to give up a lot of their ambitions and their dreams to create this new life for my brother and me here,” he says. “But I never grew up seeing my mom be unhappy or embittered by her experience,” he adds. “She was just always so fulfilled and satisfied doing what she did for us [her family]. And that has always moved me.”
Min notes another moment, late in the film, between Yang’s father-owner and Ada, the mysterious female friend discovered through mining Yang’s memories, while they’re in a car en route to say a final goodbye to Yang.
“Ada says, ‘I don’t think Yang was so concerned about being human. He was more concerned about what it means to be Asian.’ And as someone who is Asian American and who grapples with what does my Asian-ness mean to me, being born and raised in California and living in New York, it was interesting to start exploring that for myself through the eyes of this character.”
Min set out to become an actor in his early 20s without any friends in the industry or family connections. He also didn’t grow up dreaming about seeing himself onscreen — he imagined himself standing in the courtroom. As a teenager in Los Angeles, Min and his brother were steeped in speech competitions. And while public speaking is at the top of most people’s most-feared list, Min thrived. “I remember watching television and movies as a kid and seeing lawyers and they were doing these impassioned speeches in front of the courtroom. And I was, like, ‘Great, I’ll just do that job.’” He majored in government and english at Cornell University, where he took his first acting class, only to satisfy a general requirement. “It was one of the first times where I felt like I had a natural knack for something,” he says.
After graduating, he realized that a law career wasn’t what he’d hoped — the speeches were only a fraction of the job. Facing an existential crisis of what he wanted to do with his life, Min returned to the memory of that college acting class. “I kept thinking about public speaking,” he says. “I was thinking about writing and storytelling, which I love doing. And then through that, I was, like, ‘Oh, you know, that kind of sounds like acting.’”
A friend of a friend invited him to audition for a commercial, and he got the job. “This is the part of the story where I like to say the rest is history, but it’s absolutely not history,” he says. “It was this insane roller coaster of ups and downs and quitting and coming back, and not knowing if this was the right industry for me. And having so many close calls to a number of parts that could have been quote unquote life-changing.”
Almost four years ago, Min was at another breaking point and considering a career pivot — he’d given acting a solid try — when the audition for “Umbrella Academy” came through. Two weeks later, he was in Toronto shooting the first season. “And then my life changed that moment, because the show sort of blew up and it has opened so many doors ever since.”