Minha Kim remembers the moment she found out she landed the covetable role of Sunja in the AppleTV+ series Pachinko like it was yesterday. Technically, it was two years ago, but she got the call near her birthday after a long and laborious four months of interviews and chemistry reads. “Obviously, it was like my birthday gift,” she said as she smiled over a FaceTime call. But the funny part is that Kim was surprisingly cool and collected when she got the career-changing news. “Aren’t you happy?!” the casting agent asked.
Looking back, Kim admits she was slightly in shock over the whole thing. Yes, she was happy, but she had almost mentally prepared herself not to get the role. The actress was still a relative newcomer in Korea when she was approached by a local casting agent about auditioning for the series. It would be a huge opportunity and her first U.S. project. The series is an adaptation of Min Jin Lee’s best-selling 2017 novel Pachinko, a sweeping historical saga that is epic in scope—journeying through four generations of a 20th century family across Korea, Japan, and the U.S.—but intimate in its tone. It’s a beautiful story of love, loss, and triumph, centering on the trials and tribulations of the family matriarch, Sunja. After reading the initial script, Kim purchased the book and read it overnight.
The story immediately struck Kim. “There is so much love inside,” she told us. “Even though Sunja is experiencing a lot of difficulties and she’s facing obstacles at every second, she tried to figure out what to do and [would] solve the problems by love. … That blew me away.” Sunja’s resilience and fragility were touching points for Kim in finding her connection to the character. She mentioned having gone through a similar experience herself, but she didn’t elaborate further. She also spoke with her grandmother who lived during that time period. The actress laughed as she recalled her constant barrage of interview questions, but hearing about her grandmother’s own experience and ability to overcome the challenges of the era proved helpful in bringing Sunja to life on-screen.
In the series, Sunja is played by three different actors showcasing multiple time periods of her life. You-na Jeon plays an adolescent Sunja in the early 1900s, Kim plays a young adult Sunja in the 1920s, and Academy Award winner Youn Yuh-Jung plays elderly Sunja, now a grandmother, in the ’80s. Despite there being a distinct through line between each of their delicate portrayals, the actresses never had a chance to speak with each other before or during filming. It’s as if the character was innately inside all of them. “While I was filming it, I could feel there was a connection between the three of us, that we believed in each other and that we had the faith that we are all Sunja so we know what to do,” Kim said.
Kim’s performance in the eight-part series is nothing short of stunning. It’s at once innocent and powerful as she brings to life a young woman faced with first love, heartbreak, and motherhood during a tumultuous time in Korea and Japan. It’s surely a breakout moment for the up-and-comer, whose passion for the arts was born out of a love for singing and spending most of her childhood reciting her favorite films, such as Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, word for word. At last month’s premiere for the series, she wowed in a voluminous Simone Rocha top and floor-sweeping Erdem embroidered skirt. It was a Hollywood debut to remember, but Kim’s nerves nearly got the best of her. “Right before I got out of the car, I told my stylist, ‘Oh my god, I’m going to throw up!’” she laughed.
Kim hopes that people feel a lot of love watching the series and are reminded of family and sacrifice. “I really want whole generations to have an opportunity to talk and try to understand each other,” she said. “Pachinko is a great method to talk about each generation and try to figure out how we are actually feeling right now. And most importantly, I want them to feel that they are not alone in this whole world. … I want Pachinko to give audiences the energy and power to raise their own voice.” A week before the show is set to premiere, the actress is feeling proud of the work put in and excited for audiences to finally see it—even if that excitement is still a little restrained in true Minha Kim fashion.
Pachinko is now streaming on AppleTV+.
Photographer: Sanghee Woo
Stylist: Sejun Park
Hair: Gunwoong Na
Makeup: Myungsun Lee