“The Umbrella Academy” Justin H. Min is redefining representation

PHOTOSRaul Romo
TALENTJustin H. Min
STYLING: Evan Simonitsch
GROOMING: Sonia Lee for Exclusive Artists using Oribe Haircare
PRODUCER: Jasmine Perrier
WORDS: Emily Pitcher

This feature is taken from Grumpy Magazine’s ISSUE NO.16, available now in digital and print worldwide

Actor Justin H. Min is paving the way for authentic POC representation with his commitment to playing three-dimensional characters whose identities aren’t defined by their Asianness. Getting his start in Wong Fu Productions, a YouTube channel about Asian American storytelling, Justin has since propelled himself into the world of Netflix by playing Ben in The Umbrella Academy, an action show based on the award-winning comic series by Gerard Way. we sat down with Justin to talk about the simplistic, geometric style of his photography, his involvement with Netflix, and his identity as a Korean American.

Described as an “incubator” for Asian American filmmakers, Wong Fu Productions was how Justin first learned how to experiment and take risks as an actor. He starred in the short How I Became An Adult, a light comedy about the everyday difficulties of growing up. “It was such a powerful experience because there is something so moving about being on a set with all or primarily Asians. There is an unspoken language that we share with people of the same heritage and background. As an actor, when you’re in that sort of environment, it’s freeing and liberating. I remember being on Wong Fu sets and feeling like I could try new things because I felt empowered in this environment.” Justin cites his experience as a training ground for the magnitude of traditional Hollywood. “The transition into something like the insane machine that is Netflix — I’m grateful for the platform, but it’s a very different experience. The crew and the production [are] a million times bigger. At times, it can be overwhelming. As an artist, what more can we do but hope that people are being entertained, moved, and inspired by the things we do? Wong Fu has pioneered the way for so many of us. We practice in this slightly smaller scale so that when the opportunity comes, we’re ready for it. They’ve done that for me.” One aspect of Justin’s work at Wong Fu and Netflix has remained consistent — he is playing roles that aren’t centered around Asianness, but simply happen to be Asian. When asked about this more profound form of representation, Justin answers, “I gravitate towards characters where their Asianness is not the one personality trait that they have. When their heritage is not the end-all-be-all for a character, you often find roles that are more three-dimensional and well-rounded. As an actor, those are the characters we are drawn to. We are all searching for characters who have a lot of history, baggage, and flaws, and these are the characters that I hope Hollywood will continue to write.”

When I started out in this industry, I made it a conscious decision to include my middle initial because it’s the Korean name my grandparents gave me — that’s a big part of my identity and who I am

As for successful films that he admires for its portrayal of POC, he describes, “The reason that movies like Always Be My Maybe and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before are so powerful is you could’ve had anyone play those roles. They didn’t have to be Asian. Of course, their Asianness is imbued in small, subtle things, but it’s not, ‘Hey, let’s always talk about the fact that we’re Asian.’ That’s not what those stories are about.” Justin is clear to differentiate himself as a Korean American actor, which is why he includes the middle initial “H” whenever writing his name. As for why he made this choice, he discusses that the “H” reminds him of his family. “It’s a disservice to people of color sometimes to have to change their name because people have a tough time pronouncing it. When I started out in this industry, I made it a conscious decision to include my middle initial because it’s the Korean name my grandparents gave me — that’s a big part of my identity and who I am. On a personal level, it’s grounding because every time I hear my name and the middle initial, it reminds me of where I come from and the community I represent. I’m very glad that it’s going to be [officially] a part of me and my career moving forward.”

As mentioned earlier, Justin stars in The Umbrella Academy, about a dysfunctional family of superheroes, in which his character Ben is dead and lives through his brother Klaus [Robert Sheehan]. “It’s my first time getting to play this character that has passed away and also is not featured in the comic books. I really had the opportunity to build this character from the ground up,” he says. “Memory was always a constant conversation with my character and Klaus. We had a conversation of, ‘Look, I’m not in these scenes but there needs to be a sense that we had a relationship growing up.’ Ben’s character affected all of the other siblings in some shape or form.” One interesting part of Ben’s story is when he falls in love with Jill, a member of Klaus’ cult, and struggles with having no way to express his affection. “On a very superficial level, I want to point out how powerful it is to see an Asian American man and a black woman in a scene together in a love story,” Justin says, before mentioning we have to see Ben in terms of the three years he spent with Klaus, which are not seen on the show. “In season one, you see them so close and there is a level of love and respect — a lot of that breaks down in these three years because they think their other siblings have passed away. Ben cannot stand Klaus continuing to make the same mistakes over and over again.” In the midst of this, Ben sees Jill and falls in love with her. “When he learns that he can possess Klaus, he wants to jump on that opportunity to communicate to this girl that he’s in love with. The main thing we were trying to get across is that someone who is left with no agency finally has some agency, and he wants to do whatever he can to express his love for this person.”

Outside of acting, Justin is a photographer and writer who frequently collaborates with Cereal Magazine, a travel and style publication based in the United Kingdom. Taking a quick glance at the magazine, Justin’s involvement makes perfect sense with his clean, geometric visual style. As for how he became acquainted with photography, Justin describes that his dad was the reason he became familiar with the medium. “I was working with an international nonprofit group in Venezuela in college. Right before I left for this trip, my dad handed me his old Nikon camera to take photos throughout my trip.” But as for what gave him the momentum to pursue photography more seriously, he answers, “After I started to look through my pictures and post them, I got really positive responses. The head of the organization asked if they could use the photos for the website. Even one person telling me I had some potential of talent really moved me in that direction.” As for what is next for Justin, he is the title character for A24’s After Yang, in which his character is meant to teach a child about their cultural heritage. Coming out soon, the film centers on the hypocrisy that something as human as culture has now been turned into a robotic and emotionless process. “The basic premise is that this is a futuristic world where when parents adopt children from foreign countries, they can purchase cultural technos, a fancy word for cultural robots, that can help assimilate that child to American culture as well as still keep them tied to their ethnic background. The parents in this film have adopted this Chinese daughter so they purchase Yang to be that liaison. It’s a beautiful story about what is identity and culture — what does it mean to be Asian — but it’s not a story that is just about that. The story is also about what it means to be a family. The Asianness is a part of that but it’s not what it’s about.”

WATCH THE UMBRELLA ACADEMY STREAMING NOW ON NETFLIX
Full story appears in Grumpy Magazine’s ISSUE NO.16. Purchase your digital or print copy!

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