Lee Minho landed his first acting role nearly twenty years ago. Since then, he’s appeared in 12 K-dramas, five films, nabbed multiple awards and distinctions, and firmly solidified his place as one of the most well-known leading men and cultural icons of the genre in South Korea and abroad. Now, thanks to his turn in new Apple TV+ series Pachinko, the veteran gets to cover new acting terrain.
The show is a poignant and masterfully crafted period drama that centers on the experiences of one Korean immigrant family, spanning about 70 years and three countries. It’s a deeply moving, necessary watch about the enduring and insidious effects of generational trauma. Minho plays Hansu, a Zainichi Korean fishmonger. (Zainichi are Koreans who reside in Japan, which occupied Korea from 1910 to 1945.) Like many Koreans living under the brutal, oppressive rule of Japan during that period, Hansu is desperate to make a life for himself, an ambition that leads to him to the yakuza.
When he meets the show’s protagonist, Sunja (Minha Kim), down by a seaside market, he’s quickly smitten. But their love story takes a turn that completely derails Sunja’s life.
Lee sat down with The A.V. Club to discuss this complicated character and more.
The A.V. Club: You’ve said that the audition for Pachinko was your first in 10 years. How did you prepare?
Lee Minho: Yes, just as you said, it was my first audition in a long time, so I kind of forgot how I used to prepare. So I had to think back to the time when I did have to prepare for auditions, and I think the preparation process was pretty similar to any other auditions that I had in my life.
Ten years ago, I was really busy trying to really memorize the script so that I didn’t make any mistakes. I really wanted to do well. But this time, instead of trying to just memorize the whole script, I really wanted to analyze and go deep into my character. That’s what I focused on the most.
AVC: Your Pachinko co-star Jin Ha has explained that his process for memorizing the multi-language script involved a lot of Japanese/Korean/English transliterations. Did you have a similar approach in order to learn the Japanese parts of your dialogue?
LM: Yes. Similarly, I would also translate the Japanese lines into my mother tongue, which is Korean. I also tried to listen to the dialogue of a lot of Japanese actors to kind of pick up the accent—and I also liked to listen to Japanese men who have really nice voices [Laughs.] I tried to listen in order to catch how I should go about that.
AVC: Avid K-drama watchers are used to you seeing you play the male lead. We’re so used to rooting for you. But Hansu is such a different character. This time around, you’re kind of the villain. So, what drew you to this role?
LM: When I first read the script, I could really resonate with Hansu. Because I think there are certain ways of life and ideas that you have to stick to in order to survive during that harsh time and in those harsh conditions. And I could really relate to him, if I put myself in his shoes during those harsh times. That’s what drew me to pick this character.
AVC: He really is such a complex character. Though he is pretty cruel to Sunja, we still feel some empathy for him, especially during the earthquake episode. Since you know him better than anyone, what’s the most important thing you want viewers to understand about Hansu?
LM: So, I wouldn’t ask for the audience to just understand this character in and of itself, but I think there are bits and pieces of him that people can really relate to. And I think although he is in a much harsher condition than we are in right now, I think we also have to survive in this world.
We sometimes have to be cruel and sometimes we have to be strong in order to protect ourselves or our families. But Hansu is just more radical in that regard. I think people can understand that he has to become like this in response to the condition of time. As people watch the show, I think they will understand.
AVC: Playing Hansu means your viewers get to see a totally different side of your acting. What was the most surprising thing about playing that character?
LM: I wouldn’t say I was surprised by the character of Hansu. But I would say that I was quite surprised at the male characters of that time period in general, because it felt like they weren’t allowed to to have emotions. Or, they didn’t have any time to communicate their emotions or have emotional exchanges. They just had to, you know, earn money to survive and to feed their families. I think it was kind of a luxury for them to have emotions. That was what really surprised me.
AVC: For a lot of K-drama newbies, The Heirs and Boys Over Flowers are usually one of their first forays into the genre, myself included. As a pioneer of the genre, what is it like to watch the global rise of Korean pop culture, especially now that we’re in an atmosphere and a landscape that makes something like Pachinko available to so many global viewers?
LM: I think this is not just a thing that’s limited to Korean culture, per se, but we now have a lot of platforms. So Korean people will watch Spanish dramas, American and British dramas. I think now we have [these opportunities] that [the cultural exchange] could go back and forth, right? It goes both ways. I think creators and artists in this field, they’re always wanting something that’s new and they also they always want to create something new. So if we try harder, I think more people will enjoy the Korean content.