Pachinko Star Minha Kim Leads With Quiet Strength

The breakout South Korean actress is ready for season 2.

Photographs by Julien Sage

Minha Kim as Lexie Grey from ‘Grey’s Anatomy.’
Minha Kim as Lexie Grey from ‘Grey’s Anatomy.’

For W’s third annual TV Portfolio, we asked 21 sought-after names in television to pay homage to their favorite small screen characters by stepping into their shoes.

There’s a tranquil yet mighty energy to Minha Kim. You can sense it, even through the phone. She chooses her words carefully, the emotion clear in every statement. Coincidentally, it’s akin to the demeanor of Sunja, the character Kim portrays on the Apple TV+ epic Pachinko, based on Min Jin Lee’s novel of the same name. That probably speaks to the series’ casting, its success in finding an actor who embodies Sunja’s manner so brilliantly. Kim, now 26, was plucked out of relative obscurity for the role, having only a few short films and small roles to her name at the time, with no agent to push her for the part. She got it on her own, after three months of line readings, interviews, and chemistry tests with the show’s antagonist, Hansu, portrayed by Korean superstar Lee Minho. But in a series filled with overwhelming emotion, world-building cinematography, and a cast that includes Oscar winner Yuh-jung Youn, Kim still stands out as the breakout star. And now, with a second season greenlighted, she will have another chance to win over audiences with her understated performance. Here, the Seoul native discusses getting into the emotional mindset of Sunja, speaking with her grandmother to prepare for the role, and the impact Grey’s Anatomy has had on her personally and professionally.

You chose to portray Lexie Grey from Grey’s Anatomy. Tell me about your history with the show.

I started watching when I was 15 years old. It was kind of shocking for me, because I’d never seen that kind of show before. I fell in love with Sandra Oh, and I loved the voiceovers. One of my friends who introduced me to Grey’s Anatomy was inspired to become a nurse thanks to the show, and now she is one. We still talk about Grey’s when we see each other.

What made you choose Lexie Grey specifically?

Lexie doesn’t appear until season 3, but I still remember when I first saw her, she was so beautiful. And then she smiled. Her smile just makes me freeze. Oh my gosh, she’s so beautiful, and she’s smart, she’s funny. She’s fragile at some points, but she’s strong. She is a warmhearted girl, and she’s lovely. When she died in season 8, I cried a lot. I couldn’t believe it.

Did the show influence you to become an actor?

Yeah. The way Ellen Pompeo does her voiceovers influenced me a lot. It’s just so powerful. Grey’s Anatomy itself is so powerful. Whenever a new season comes out, I get so excited. I’ve learned so many things from the show, not only about acting and from the performances. It’s attached to a lot of my personal life, too, and it has influenced me in many ways.

What was the audition process like for Pachinko?

I didn’t have an agency or management at the time. The casting director called and asked me to audition, so I said, “Of course, why not?” Then I saw the script, which was made up of three scenes, and it was so beautiful. I didn’t know it was Pachinko then, because they were using another title, but I read it and fell in love. I thought, I have to do this. When I got the second callback, I figured out it was Pachinko, so I read the book right away. Then, when I heard that I got the role, it was around my birthday. It was literally my birthday present to me.

Kim with Lee Minho in ‘Pachinko.’ Courtesy Apple TV+

Are there any similarities between you and Sunja?

Yes. I think we both look really fragile at first sight; we look naive, vulnerable. When people see me for the first time, they think I’m very shy, and an inconspicuous and timid girl. But Sunja and I both have a sturdy faith in ourselves. If we have to choose something, if we have to go somewhere or make a decision, we believe in ourselves. Sunja is like another part of me. I learned a lot from her, including things about myself. I learned a lot about love and how to take on responsibilities.

I read you spoke with your grandmother a lot while preparing for the role. What conversations did you have with her?

My grandmother is 94 years old, so she’s kind of like a friend to Sunja. I asked her about a lot of things, like, how did she suffer during this period, and what was that like for her. There were details, specific things I really wanted to know—for example, if it was normal for a girl to get pregnant at 16 like Sunja did. I asked her about the culture of the time, and I was kind of surprised that she remembered and was able to answer my questions specifically.

She’s also a really fun storyteller. So every time she told me a story, it was so fun that I would forget I had a question for her. Still, a lot of emotions came up in the conversation, too. I wanted to know how she felt at the time. She said she was so proud of me for getting the role, but she was also sad that I had to do this, even if it was just a performance.

What was her reaction when she finally watched the show?

She cried a lot. Whenever she saw my face, she cried. She said it reminded her of her childhood. And then she turned to me and said, “Minha, I just want to tell you that I love you. I’m the one who loves you the most. I just want you to know that I love you the most.” And that’s when I started to cry.

Minha Kim as Lexie Grey from ‘Grey’s Anatomy.’

There’s a lot of talk about the importance of telling this story, especially since the history of Japan’s occupation of Korea isn’t well known to much of the U.S. audience. Have you felt that weight—of finally bringing this narrative to the screen?

Of course. First of all, our show is not the first on the historical event itself, but I think it’s more focused on humanity, and that’s what we are trying to tell the audience. It’s not only about Korean history, but the histories of others, too. There are so many unknown histories that we should know that have not been explored yet. Pachinko is a step, and we should keep going further so audiences can learn. I’m so proud that our show could do that.

Some of the scenes are very emotional. What was the hardest one to film?

Most of Sunja’s scenes are very emotional, but I remember when Sunja says goodbye to [her mother], Yangjin, she goes to Osaka. That was the most emotional scene I had while shooting. It was a long day. Whenever I had a scene with Inji [Jeong], who plays Yangjin, I got so much energy from her. Even though she’s not my real mother, it felt like she was. She would make me think about my mom and my grandmothers. At one point, I was in tears and they wouldn’t stop. I couldn’t even read my lines.

Pachinko has been renewed for season 2. Are you excited to revisit the character?

I’m so excited for Sunja’s next journey. And it’s not only about Sunja, it’s about all of the characters. I can’t wait to hear their stories, hear their histories. I’m so happy to go back.

Hair by Ericka Verrett and Makeup by Robert Rumsey.