Five years after Justin H. Min began pursuing acting by Googling “how to pursue acting,” he thought he was getting the hang of it. He had made a viral commercial, and he was in contention for three major roles.
He landed none of them.
“I was not nervous and I did everything I wanted to,” Min recalled of the auditions. “And that’s the most devastating because you’re like, ‘I guess I just don’t have it.’”
It was in this less-than-healthy head space that Min decided to pivot to a different unstable profession: travel writing. He had caught on with a British magazine and it seemed he might cobble together full-time work as a freelance writer if he got on a plane to London.
So Min told his manager he was moving. But rather than beg him to stay (as Min had secretly hoped), the manager gave his full blessing. Before Min could head for the airport, though, a fellow actor urged him to reconsider — timely encouragement that set Min, now 34, on the path to “a star-making performance,” as a critic for The Times put it, in the new comedy “Shortcomings,” as well as fan-favorite turns in the Netflix series “Beef” and “The Umbrella Academy.”
“This sounds absurd, but I don’t think I’ve really ever struggled with failure until I started to pursue acting,” Min said in a prestrike interview. “So I will absolutely savor this.”
INDEED, EVERYTHING IN the first 20-ish years of Min’s life had come to him with relative ease. He concedes this only very sheepishly and with many disclaimers about how fortunate he feels.
In Cerritos, Calif., the predominantly Asian suburb where he grew up, Min felt little sense of difference. He found that most success was attainable through application. Min was class president all four years of high school and elected king of the winter formal. He was so good in speech and debate competitions that he won thousands of dollars in prize money that helped pay for a Cornell education. Given his gifts, he thought he might become a lawyer — or maybe a politician.
But on the day Min was to graduate from college, he woke up to nine missed calls. His grandfather, who had flown in for the occasion, had died that morning. And so Min’s commencement walk ended in a teary embrace with his family.
The death of Min’s grandfather pushed him to reflect during a solo, cross-country road trip back home to Cerritos.
“What do I really want to do?” Min recalled asking himself. Life was fleeting, he now understood. Becoming a lawyer or a politician just didn’t feel right anymore. He liked public speaking, writing and storytelling. And back under his parents’ roof, he was near Los Angeles anyway. He decided to give acting a shot.
He soon discovered, however, how hard the business of acting really was and that applying himself would not be enough.
When he ran into college friends and they asked about his acting career, “I remember feeling so shattered and so lost in terms of what to say or how to present myself because I no longer could stand on accomplishments,” he said. “I didn’t have that anymore.”
IT WAS SLOW going at first. Min dove into Reddit threads, took classes, searched for agents and discovered Wong Fu Productions, a content company run by young Asian Americans that would become a popular part of Asian American media as YouTube blossomed in the 2010s. The guys running it asked Min to audition for what he said they called a “narrative thing, but like branded content.”
The “narrative thing” was essentially an eight-minute advertisement for a Simplehuman trash can. But it was built around an exploration of adulting, and the video received tens of millions of views.
That work didn’t pay much, and Min began to dabble in journalism as a side hustle. He was a good writer and his photography, like most things in his life, had drawn praise.
He traveled to Mexico City to interview the chef Enrique Olvera at Pujol; and to Chicago to pick the brain of Grant Achatz at Alinea. What was not to like about work trips to two of the world’s most acclaimed restaurants?
Which helps explain why Min was willing to give writing a full go when he got those back-to-back-to-back acting rejections. But as he pondered his next move, Min had dinner with a friend, the actress Amy Okuda. She tapped the brakes on his travel plans.
“I think everybody saw something in Justin and I did, too,” Okuda said in a prestrike interview. So she sent a note about Min to her own manager, Joshua Pasch, who got in touch with him almost immediately; Pasch even had Min submit an audition tape for “The Umbrella Academy” before the pair met.
“The rest is history,” Pasch said. “He was on the show a month later.”
MIN HAD LANDED THE ROLE of Ben Hargreeves on what would become a hit for Netflix. His part was modest at first — a dead brother in a superhuman sibling squad who occasionally shows up as a ghostlike figure that only the drug-addled sibling, Klaus, can see. The character had very little screen time, and Min was not a series regular initially.
But Ben became surprisingly popular in Min’s hands. Steve Blackman, the showrunner, came up with a way to expand the role and even bring Ben back to life as a different, meaner version of himself in later seasons.
“The character of Ben doesn’t really exist that much in the graphic novel” on which “Umbrella Academy” is based, Blackman said. “I wrote Ben in to be someone that Klaus could talk to and only Klaus could see.”
But, he added, “the minute Justin embodied the character, I’m like, ‘Oh, we’ve got to do so much more.’”
“The Umbrella Academy,” which premiered in 2019, was an “I made it” moment for Min. But he would also earn acclaim two years later for his thoughtful, sincere portrayal of the titular robot in “After Yang,” a quiet sci-fi drama starring Colin Farrell.
“He had such a rich life before he became an actor,” Kogonada, who directed “After Yang,” said of Min. “Like all the great actors, he is consumed with his craft. But I feel like I’m getting to know him better through the different roles that he plays.”
Then came “Beef,” and the part of Edwin, an irritatingly perfect leader of a Korean church.
Lee Sung Jin, the director of “Beef,” was best friends with Min’s brother, Jason, in college. Lee said in an interview that he had called Jason Min, an admired praise leader, into the writers’ room to help craft the character of Edwin. It was a role Lee said he had always intended for Justin to fill.
Both Min and Lee recalled being in Las Vegas years earlier for Jason’s bachelor party and promising each other that they were going to make it in Hollywood, and that they would work together when they did.
“Drunk confidence,” Lee said.
NOW MIN IS PLAYING another Ben. This one, the main character in “Shortcomings,” is not a ghost but a very flawed would-be filmmaker who, in the words of a girlfriend, is brimming with “anger, depression, your weird self-hatred issues and just the relentless negativity.”
Min “is probably the only person who could have played him in the way that he did, with such nuance,” Ally Maki, who plays the girlfriend, Miko, said in a prestrike interview.
Min recalled reading the script and saying to himself: “I understand this guy because I was this guy” and “parts of me are still this guy.”
When he initially read the first scene — in which Ben complains about a “Crazy Rich Asians”-style movie that everyone else liked — Min said the words felt natural tumbling out of his mouth.
Ben is dealing with the gap between his elevated tastes and his lack of career success, he said, “and that disparity is crippling. I remember when I started off in this business, I felt the same disparity. I felt such a chasm between the projects I was doing and the projects that I wanted to do.”
“It results in a lot of dissatisfaction. It results in a lot of cynicism,” he continued, recalling how, at one point, “I sort of prided myself in being sort of this funny, cynical, dry kind of guy the way that Ben is. And then through many years of therapy, I realized that that was simply a defense mechanism for me to hide and shield myself from the actual pain of feeling like I had failed at this industry that I so wanted to succeed in.”
Min holds onto one particular memory from the movie. Ben is sprinting through the West Village — that classic movie moment when the hero tries to salvage the relationship before it’s gone forever. In the midst of the scene, he thought, “This is crazy that I am in New York in the middle of this busy West Village street, running as the lead of this movie,” he said. And he remembered how some of his favorite movies had iconic running shots. “I never thought that I was going to be the guy who was running.”