“You can’t see me right now, but I’m tomato red,” says Justin H. Min. I’ve been on the phone with the breakout star of Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy for 30 minutes, talking about the journey leading up to his role as a ghostly superbeing named Ben Hargreeves with the power to summon interdimensional tentacles from his belly, when I reveal my discovery and the source of his embarrassment: his old Tumblr. It’s an intimate journal full of philosophical musings and soul-baring short stories—a record of everything from thoughts on past relationships to ramblings about college. I was struck by one entry in particular, where he admits that he doesn’t care for confidence and intellect. “The single trait I’ve come to admire most in others is humility,” the post reads.
The words of postgrad Tumblr user Min are tricky to connect to the man I’m speaking to. For someone who’s only 30 years old, he strikes me as someone whose accomplishments would seem to match his ambitions. Beginning his career as a journalist and photographer—two creative outlets he still keeps up with today—Min wrote for local magazines before tackling the audition grind and rising all the way up to one of the most watched shows on Netflix. Such a gamble can be attributed to his upbringing in Cerritos: a California safe haven for Asian Americans. Cerritos, he says, gave him the ability to pursue projects that reflected his Korean American identity.
Later this year, the plan is for Min to appear opposite Colin Farrell in A24’s sci-fi drama After Yang, in which he plays a family robot nearing its final days. “It feels like that didn’t happen,” Min says with an air of disbelief in his voice. “It was the most creatively soul-fulfilling thing that I’ve ever done. Umbrella is a machine. We have a million people on set at once, we have so many moving parts, and there’s a joy to that. But to be in a movie where there were 30 of us every day in this small house making this beautiful film—it was such a powerful experience.”
And though he might be a main player in one of Netflix’s biggest hits, Min doesn’t necessarily feel the shockwaves of rising fame yet. “What’s funny is that most of my friends and family think that just because you’re on a successful Netflix show that suddenly I’m making millions of dollars,” he says. “I do get an occasional free beverage or side dish at a restaurant if they know me. I can always do with another side of fries.”
GQ: I have to apologize now because I found your Tumblr.
Justin H. Min: Oh, gosh…
There was one post that stood out to me where you said that you’re not as impressed with a person’s confidence or ambition as you are by their humility. How did your upbringing in Southern California and then working in Los Angeles inform your perspective on others? Do you still hold that opinion?
It’s very embarrassing that you went down that Tumblr rabbit hole. [laughs] I used to love Tumblr. That holds truer every day, particularly as I work in this industry. There are so many people that I encounter—and I’m not saying I’m immune to this myself, I feel like I struggle with this as well—where you’re creating smoke and mirrors about who you are and how important you are, your accolades and achievements, what shows or movies you’re working on.
It’s sometimes heartbreaking when I’m thrust into a conversation with people, and the only thing they’re talking about are these lists of accomplishments they have and everyone’s just trying to one-up each other. Growing up in a small suburban neighborhood where I didn’t have access to anything Hollywood-related, it keeps me grounded and I’m very thankful for that. Even now, I would say the vast majority of my friends and family who are not in the entertainment industry have no idea of what I do, except they see my face on a couple of billboards. Every time I travel outside of Los Angeles, I’m reminded that it’s such a bubble.
Reading through your Tumblr posts, I got the sense that you were wrestling with becoming the person you thought you should be versus the person you wanted to be.
Lydia Davis is one of my favorite writers of all time. If my memory serves me right, I’m pretty sure I reblogged or wrote out one of her short stories. And she has this beautiful passage about that balancing act of being perceived [as something] and feeling like you’re not that. It’s something that I think about all the time. I think particularly as [The Umbrella Academy] gets more popular and as I get more popular, there are a certain set of expectations people have of me, and that’s never really been who I am. I don’t think I necessarily fit the Hollywood mold of these celebrities who are so good at talking to people and are articulate and social and know how to turn on. I’m not one of those people.
I’m curious about what your relationship with social media is like. Especially with your Tumblr, you seem to be very forthcoming when celebrities tend to be more reserved and calculated with what they share online.
It’s very complicated and something that I think about all the time. I don’t think we need to get into why social media is unhealthy in some contexts. [But] it seems like social media has allowed people of color to find an audience or a group of people who can support and advocate for them. And these are not avenues that we have had in the past. When it was Hollywood execs and producers who were making all the shots and picking and choosing who becomes stars, we never had access to those things. So I really have to attribute social media—especially for me personally—as an inflection point, because I don’t think Ben would’ve received this more substantial storyline had it not been for the fan response to the character.
In The Umbrella Academy, Ben is a lot more fleshed out in the show compared to the comics. Did the character go through changes to accommodate you specifically?
In the beginning, it was really about building this character from the ground up, and there were a lot of conversations with Steve [Blackman], our showrunner. But the character continued to evolve and change even as the season went along. There were technical things of: Is Ben allowed to touch the physical space he’s in? Is he able to open doors? We had an hour-long discussion about whether Ben’s hair should move when there’s wind. We finally decided that it shouldn’t—there were a few times where we had to reshoot scenes because the hair would move when it wasn’t supposed to.
I wasn’t contracted as a series regular in season one—I was seen as a recurring character—and I had no idea what would happen in season two, whether or not I would be asked back. But I think the fan response to the show, and Ben particularly, really inspired Steve as well as the writers room to continue to write for this character. And so to be asked back as a regular cast member in season two was such an honour. I can’t thank the fans enough for that.
I think Ben’s arc is really interesting because in the first season, you see these flashbacks of him as a child and you get the sense that he doesn’t want to be seen. There’s that bank robbery scene where he uses his powers behind closed doors as if he’s embarrassed. But now that he’s a ghost, it seems like he wants nothing more than to be seen and heard.
That’s exactly what it is. It’s so interesting because I think maybe unconsciously, maybe consciously, art is amazing and magical in that way. Each of the abilities that each of the siblings have relate to some deeper inner turmoil that they’re battling, and I think one of the things that has always been a struggle for Ben as a child is grappling with his identity and not wanting to be in the spotlight—in a lot of ways, wanting to become as invisible as he could be. But so, ironically, with his death, and him becoming a ghost, he’s tackling that inner demon head on, because now for the first time when he is actually invisible he’s fighting for visibility. He’s fighting for agency and independence, and he wants nothing more than to be able to take a proactive role in helping not only Klaus, but his family, and ultimately the world in preventing this apocalypse.
In the second season, he does get some more agency and independence but his development is still intrinsically tied to Klaus. He has the potential to be the most powerful member of the family but that can never be fully realized because he’s essentially trapped.
I could sit here and talk about a million different scenarios where if Ben was alive, what would he do? How would he interact with different siblings? How would he react to different circumstances? I think it would be so interesting to explore what life would be like for an Asian male in the 1960s, if [Ben] was actually visible. But the story is what it is. And I think there is beauty to this inextricable bond that he and Klaus have. In a lot of ways, he serves as a moral compass for his brother. So I’m glad that they continue to explore that this season. I think it would have been a slight cop out just to suddenly make him fully visible and alive.
In your bio, it says you took speed reading classes as a child and I was wondering how anyone gets into that.
I don’t know! I would like to know the answer myself! I think my mom got a random flyer for it. It was a summer break in elementary school and my mom was like, “I’m sick and tired of you being at home, you should take this speed reading class.” So she signed me up—and I instantly fell in love, not only because I enjoy reading and I like the idea of being able to read faster, but it was also very competitive in those classes. There were 20 of us and there was a ranking and depending on how many words you read a minute. I obviously wanted to be at the top so I worked really hard. But it’s a lot about pupil movement, so one of the main exercises that we would do is they would give us these huge sheets of paper just with dots and lines on them. And you would have to quickly move your eyes from left to right, and we would have competitions to see how many of those lines and dots you could read in a minute. It was all very competitive and crazy. Looking back I’m back, “why were people paying for this?” But here we are now. I don’t think I read as fast as I used to because I haven’t done my pupil exercises in a while—but relatively speaking with other people, I read a bit faster so… thanks mom.
I feel like if she’s trying to get you out of the house, being able to read really fast would have an adverse effect. You could just sit at home and read more.
Exactly! It all backfired on her because from that day, I never left the house again.
Although you’re still writing now, you were working in journalism before you made the transition to acting. What motivated the career change?
I don’t think that there was any specific catalyst for when I transitioned to acting. Towards the end of my college career, I was getting really interested in journalism and storytelling. And I actually worked for a couple of magazines right after college. They were great, but I was writing about the lobster festival in town, which is not necessarily the type of piece that I was most interested in writing. And after speaking to a number of mentors of mine and fellow writing colleagues, I began to understand that you have to put in 5-8 years in the industry before you’re at a position where you can pitch your own stories. And I’m an extremely impatient person so I wasn’t sure if I could write about eight more lobster festivals before I was able to pitch something that I wanted to write about, so that was when I came back to LA after living in New York for five years, and I thought to myself, “Okay, if it’s not writing and journalism, what else can I do?” And through a long series of existential crises and making pro/con lists, I sort of stumbled into acting.
I’m surprised that you said you’re impatient because it must take a number of years before you make it as an actor.
Absolutely, and it was something that I learned very quickly: how difficult it was. To be honest, I think acting was one of the first times in my life where I really experienced true failure in its rawest, most visceral form. Prior to that, if I ever really wanted something, I felt like all I needed to do was put in the effort and I would get the result that I would want. That sounds very arrogant, but for things like grades, I felt like if I put in the hours, I could get the grade that I wanted. And anytime I didn’t get the grade I wanted I could always attribute it to a lack of effort. Whereas, acting for the first time, it felt like I was going 110 percent. I wanted it with every iota in my body, and yet I was still being met with a lot of rejection, a lot of closed doors, a lot of failure.
You made a video with Arden Cho a few years ago where you talked about your career, and you mentioned that you felt like you had to become a celebrity to feel successful, until you realized that’s not necessarily the case. Now that you have achieved some level of notoriety, how would you describe your relationship with fame and your barometer for success?
I think what I said in that video still resonates with me today. All I’ve ever wanted with acting is to have a career where I can sustain myself financially, pay the bills, put food on the table, have enough for rent. And if I could do acting full-time, that would truly just be a dream come true, I don’t really need anything outside of that. I’ve worked the last eight years to achieve that and I’m so grateful for that. So if my career doesn’t go any further than this, I think I will still be absolutely satisfied because I’m still in the .0001 percent of actors who’ve been able to make a full-time living just from acting alone.
What did you learn from those years when you were struggling?
One of the biggest things I learned was not to take things personally. I think what makes acting different from other professions is that when you’re rejected as an actor, it feels very personal. When I was applying for business-related jobs and consulting jobs, if I was rejected from a certain position, they could always attribute it to the fact that I didn’t have enough experience or that they were looking for a specific skill set and so it made a lot of sense to me. I knew that if I worked hard, I’ll be able to get that job in the future. But with acting it’s almost never necessarily related to just your experience or your skill as an actor. It’s just sometimes you’re the right fit and sometimes you’re not. In essence, it can sometimes feel like they’re rejecting you as a person which is very hard to swallow at the beginning. But I think after the many years of experiencing that again and again, I began to learn that I can’t take this personally. People just have a gut feeling of who they feel is right for this particular role, and I have to ultimately let the roles that are meant for me come to me.
Actually, that’s how I felt about Umbrella Academy and After Yang as well. I just felt like no one else could play this except me. And I don’t mean that in like, no one is more talented than me, but I just felt like these are characters that I can play on a very visceral level.
You spent a lot of your early life and career moving through Asian-majority spaces like Cerritos in California and your work with Wong Fu. How have those experiences influenced your work now?
I speak to so many Asian-Americans these days who unfortunately grew up in communities and environments where their Asianness was ridiculed and they had to shy away from that part of their identity. I’m so grateful that I didn’t grow up in that kind of environment. I grew up in Cerritos—the majority of my high school was Asian—so to grow up in a space where you feel empowered as an Asian, where you’re actually in the majority, I know that experience was formative to who I am today, and why I am so proud of my Asian and Korean-American identity. You would hear people speaking Mandarin, Korean, Hindi—it was all part of my experience growing up. We would have our friends bring in kimchi fried rice and dumplings, and it was not the thing where people were made fun of. They were the cool kids for bringing those foods because everyone wanted to eat that and partake in that.
So that was a huge part of my experience growing up and because of that I think I’ve always gravitated towards Asian-American spaces because it was always inextricably tied to my identity. I’ve always seen it as really vital in terms of taking ownership of our stories, and sharing personal accounts of who we are and the way that we see the world. And I’ve also considered those spaces very safe, because when you’re working with a group of Asians, there’s just a level of understanding and an intimacy that I think is a bit harder to attain when you’re not necessarily in those spaces.
That sounds like such a dream. I’m half-Filipino and when I was growing up in Scotland, I’d get picked on just for eating rice at school.
It’s such a universal experience that a lot of people have had and I was shielded from that. I think for a long time I almost resented that. And I say that only because when I went to college, I understood what it meant to be a minority for the first time. I wished maybe I had not grown up in this predominantly Asian community because I would’ve been used to this—I would’ve been more comfortable interacting with people of different races. And yet, when I really look back now, I wouldn’t have traded the community that I was raised in for anything. This is a stark generalization but some of my Asian-American friends I’ve talked to who’ve grown up in communities like that, they always struggled with speaking up because they were silenced in those predominantly white communities growing up, and they’ve always struggled with a sense of confidence because of the racism that they experienced. But again, I never dealt with those things, so even coming into majority white spaces or non-Asian spaces, I still feel empowered to speak up and say my opinion. And I’ve always had this level of confidence with me because of the way that I was raised.
Since you feel that you’re able to speak up in a way that other Asian-Americans can’t, do you ever feel the responsibility of representation?
Every minute of every day. I got thousands and thousands of messages after that first season came out. I didn’t even have that large of a role but to have thousands of Asian-Americans messaging me, telling me how important visibility was for them and telling me how I’m the first Asian superhero that they’ve seen. That stuff brought me to tears and really moved me. I’m getting emotional even talking about it now, because I understand what it feels like to grow up and not see depictions of you or not feel like you’re seen or heard in mainstream media.
I can talk about Asian-American representation for hours but I think it’s really interesting because I’ve seen a shift, especially in the year of Crazy Rich Asians. When I was first starting out, I saw these very stereotypical characters which we’ve all heard: the IT guy, the martial artist or the sidekick character. But what’s really interesting is that in the past couple of years, you almost see an overcompensation of that. And so now instead of being the nerdy, emasculated Asian male, he’s now this hyper-sexual macho guy with a six pack. And that’s amazing, I’m glad that we’re represented in that way, but it almost…
You have this different standard you’re being compared to.
Yeah. It almost feels like a reverse stereotype, which further solidifies the existing stereotype. It’s almost as if they want audiences to feel like it’s jarring and weird to see this sort of hyper-sexual, womanizing Asian male. I’ve actually passed on a few of those as well because I feel in a way they’re sort of making a joke and overcompensating. I’m just really looking forward to the day where we just have normal three-dimensional Asian-American characters who have flaws.
Originally Appeared on GQ