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‘Pachinko’ actress knows her character’s troubles because her grandmother lived them

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No, she doesn’t mind moving to another room. The shots they got with her sitting on the bathroom counter were probably gold, but the photographer has other ideas for this swanky suite at L’Ermitage Beverly Hills. The shooter directs the actress to sprawl on the bed, click click click. The subject does so with ease, her face never betraying discomfort, her body never tense. In the front room, she contorts slightly so the lens might catch her reflection in a table mirror, cool confidence never waning. Click click click.

Minha Kim, the 26-year-old Korean actress with a few previous TV credits in her homeland, plays Sunja in the buzzy Apple TV+ series “Pachinko.” In a cast that includes Oscar winner Yuh-Jung Youn and Korean heartthrob Lee Minho, she’s the lead, and she is ready for her close-up.

“When I was a little girl, I was very timid, inconspicuous,” she says later, accepting extra pillows to make herself comfortable on the couch. “I was shy, really, really shy. Whenever I had to speak in front of a lot of people, I’d sweat a lot. I was shivering like this. So nervous.

“All that time I wanted to be a voice-over actor. It’s good 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 wanna be the princess, I wanna be the Nemo.”

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

(Apple TV+)

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

“Most of the time when I’m singing I feel different; I feel like I’m dreaming and I’m in the middle of dreams.”
The Seoul native has overcome her shyness just in time for her first bouts of being recognized on the street (in New York City the day before this interview, for instance), thanks to “Pachinko’s” popularity.

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

Kim’s mother was so keen on her learning English that, apart from having her attend an English kindergarten in Seoul, she sent her first to Germany, then to America (Palm Springs) to study the language. Kim then tilted her accent away from the European by consuming American TV shows such as “Grey’s Anatomy,” eventually graduating from Hanyang University with a degree in theater. She’s a quick reader, too, though the 10 hours in which she devoured Min Jin Lee’s bestselling novel was fast even for her.

“While I was reading ‘Pachinko,’ I felt like somebody was telling me the story,” she says. “Every chapter was so shocking. ‘Oh, my God. I wanna see what’s next, next, next.’ I felt like it was this new story from my grandmother.”

Kim’s grandmother lived through the period in which the actress plays Sunja, during the Japanese occupation of Korea (about 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 atop a bathroom vanity.

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

(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

“She told 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 that too early?’ She said, ‘No. I got married at 20, and everybody was telling me that was so late.’

“I told her, ‘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 laughs fondly.

The laughter fades, though, as she recalls her grandmother’s tales of deprivation.

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

One of the key sequences in Season 1 involves the difficulty Sunja’s mother has in simply finding some rice for Sunja and her groom to eat on their wedding day (the Japanese had prohibited the staple from being sold to Koreans).

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

Kim found it easy to love Sunja too, citing her honesty and the toughness she finds within herself after initially being overwhelmed by problems. So what didn’t she love about the character?

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

“I feel bad about that. I mean, he’s the love of her life, but still, I just want her to forget him. ‘No, he’s a bastard, no!’” She laughs. “He’s McDreamy, how can she forget him? Even though she hates him, I think it’s another [kind] of love. So, so powerful that she gets an energy from him whether she hates or loves him. He keeps appearing in the middle of her life; it’s so annoying because she cares about him so hard.”

Was there a moment that brought their relationship into focus for her?

“When Isak [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 that on set, I couldn’t answer. I couldn’t spit out my lines. Tears just came out and I felt that, ‘This is how much she loves [Hansu].’ It was really weird and I couldn’t speak out loud that line: ‘I would love to.’ [Instead] it made me collapse in front of Isak in the restaurant, so I had to bear the tears. And that’s when I found out that her love towards Hansu is 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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