TV & Movies

Justin H. Min, Reluctant Hollywood Heartthrob

In The Greatest Hits, he plays a classic romantic lead for the first time. He has some thoughts about that.

by Phoebe Reilly
Ahead of The Umbrella Academy Season 4, Justin H. Min talks to Bustle about 'The Greatest Hits.'

Sometimes a role comes along at exactly the right time in an actor’s life. It might find them just as they were about to quit the business, or reflect a real-life experience with almost uncanny precision. Justin H. Min can tell us about both.

The actor, 35, is best known for playing a ghost-turned-mortal on Netflix’s hit superhero series The Umbrella Academy — that’s the role that kept him from giving up on acting. But on this drizzly day in early April, he’s focused on his latest film, The Greatest Hits, now streaming on Hulu. It’s the job that came along exactly when he needed it.

Min plays David, a sweet, soulful guy who falls for an enigmatic woman named Harriet (Lucy Boynton) in his grief support group. The two hit it off until David discovers that whenever Harriet hears a song from her relationship with her late ex, she’s pulled back in time and, as a result, has become obsessed with changing the past. “It’s a literal representation of what a lot of us experience, which is you listen to a song and it takes you right back to that pivotal moment when you heard it,” says Min, swirling his coconut chia pudding with a spoon.

At this very moment, a song from Daisy Jones & the Six is blasting at Playa Provisions, a beachside restaurant on the edge of LA, making it a little hard to hear over the din. Min is disarming and boyishly handsome in a vintage yellow-and-gold racing jacket. He wears a beaded bracelet that his niece made, occasionally fiddling with a silver ring that he made, the result of a new metalwork hobby. A pile of dark curls (which he’s never sported on screen) falls loosely over his forehead. He gestures to the tape recorder with the experience of someone who’s been on the other side of it, during his stint as a travel journalist. “You’re always looking for a way in,” he says, grinning.

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“The way in” with Min is relatively easy. He is forthcoming and curious, occasionally turning questions around without deflecting them, although he admits it took him a while to stop scrutinizing the process: “When I first started doing interviews, I was so neurotic about, like, how is this person framing me?” These days he’s at that delicate phase of stardom where going to his neighborhood coffee shop doesn’t feel quite as anonymous as it used to, and social media doesn’t feel quite as intimate. “It has lost what it was for me at the beginning, which was a true ability to connect with fans,” says Min, who has nearly 2 million Instagram followers.

But he’s not complaining, because these are the signs that his career has finally taken off. It was only six years ago that Min was losing part after part on various TV series to The Other Guy. He came close to quitting acting altogether in 2018 as yet another role — this time, a punk hacker — slipped through his fingers. Then The Umbrella Academy came along, which became an instant hit and even briefly dethroned Stranger Things as the most-streamed Netflix show during the week its most recent season debuted. Min estimates he was only in about six major scenes in 2019’s first season, but it was enough to keep him in the game. His role on the show, the fourth and final season of which arrives in August, has been steadily expanding in response to fans’ demand.

Throughout its run, he also starred opposite Colin Farrell in Kogonada’s beautiful dystopian drama After Yang (2021), playing a robot sibling-caretaker to Farrell’s adopted Chinese daughter. Two years later, he led Randall Park’s adaptation of Adrian Tomine’s graphic novel Shortcomings as Ben, an insecure malcontent with a wandering eye.

After YangA24
The Umbrella AcademyNetflix
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And then there’s what he calls his “crazy Hollywood story.” Back in 2012, Min was at his brother Jason’s bachelor party in Las Vegas when he found himself in conversation with Jason’s college friend Sonny, who used to sing with Jason in a Christian a cappella group. Sonny was enjoying some success as a TV writer, but he was still struggling. Min, after abandoning half-hearted plans for law school and that travel writing career, was thinking about giving acting a try. “‘We’re gonna work together someday, this is gonna happen!’” Min recalls Sonny saying, and you can picture the scene — two young guys drunk on dreams, but also alcohol. “Then we went our separate ways.”

They fell out of touch until around 2021, when his agents told him about an “amazing pilot” that would need a lot of Korean American actors. That pilot was Beef, starring Steven Yeun and Ali Wong and created by Lee Sung Jin — aka Sonny. A few weeks later his agents came back to say that, actually, Sonny had written a role for Min that was loosely inspired by Jason, who by then was a popular pastor in a Christian church and co-host of the podcast Off the Pulpit. “I was so humbled and moved and excited,” says Min, still in awe of the serendipity. The character, Edwin, a twerpy and jealous church leader who is instantly threatened by Yeun’s Danny, was a low-key comedic gift. Min played him with a frozen smile and thinly veiled rage. “The only thing I said to Sonny was, I want to do this, I’m doing it, but I want to make sure that this representation of the Korean church doesn’t become a joke,” adds Min. “I want people to laugh because it feels so familiar. And Sonny completely agreed and said, ‘It’s gonna be as authentic and as truthful as all of our experiences were growing up.’”

Min grew up in a Korean immigrant household in the predominantly Asian community of Cerritos, California, which he thinks might have given him “a sense of confidence/naivete” when it came to breaking into acting. In high school, he was elected president of the student council for four years straight. “Win With Min — how could you not vote for me with that amazing slogan, right?” he says, facetiously, before admitting that he ran unopposed in his junior and senior years. On Sundays, he attended services like the ones in Beef; while he still maintains his faith, he’s troubled by other aspects of the experience. (“The church I grew up in had such a vendetta against Pokémon,” he says, shaking his head. “I think they thought it was satanic. They would make us put all of our Pokémon paraphernalia, even our Game Boy games, in the bin and then set it on fire in front of us.”)

It was a trip to re-create those scenes (minus the fire) in a real Korean church, he says. “The extras were real Korean church members,” he says. “A lot of us had like one degree of separation from all of them because the Korean church community is super small. Steven and I were saying this is the most self-conscious that we’ve ever felt on a set because it felt so vulnerable to be seen by our community in this way. Usually, I’m surrounded by non-Asians.”

ShortcomingsSony Pictures
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The topic of Asian representation prompts a contemplative, ongoing dialogue within Min. On one hand, he’s thrilled that his roles have allowed him to work with Asian filmmakers to explore and subvert identity. The title character of Yang is deliberately mispronounced — it should rhyme with sung, not sang — to illustrate the oft-sidelined heritage of adopted Chinese children. And in Shortcomings, Min played against stereotypes as a failure and a f*ckboi. “I am just as broken, just as flawed, and dealing with my own set of insecurities and things, and getting to tap into those sides of myself for that character was a joy,” he says.

The Greatest Hits, meanwhile, excites Min because David’s race is not essential to the film. “I’ve loved those stories. Those stories are important,” he says, “yet I also want to play characters where that doesn’t have to be the main thing.” The script came Min’s way at a meaningful juncture in 2022, shortly after the sudden death of his childhood best friend. The pair had once been inseparable, but they drifted, as friends often do, and Min says he found himself “reckoning with grief as that at once intimate and yet distant thing.” The rawness of his emotions helped him connect with writer-director Ned Benson on a Zoom call about the project. Within minutes, he says, he and Benson were discussing “our mothers and childhood trauma.”

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This is also Min’s first time as a classic romantic lead. In the confines of the film, this means he gently woos Harriet away from her late boyfriend, Max (David Corenswet). In the larger Hollywood landscape, it means he’s a worthy rival to Superman. (Corenswet is set to play the Man of Steel.) Min studies his pudding a little more carefully when I use the word heartthrob. “If I had that on my mind during filming, it would’ve put this kind of pressure on me to perform in a certain way,” he says slowly. “It was nice to finally lean into the slightly more empathetic parts of myself. I’ve loved playing assholes and people who have more checkered character traits, but it was nice to dive into someone who’s full of warmth and compassion.”

His Hits co-star Lucy Boynton bonded with Min during Saturday night dinner parties at Benson’s home in Venice where karaoke was mandatory. Her go-to song was Tom Petty’s “American Girl,” and his was Green Day’s “Boulevard of Broken Dreams.” She appreciated the sensitivity he brought to both the gatherings and the character. “Previously there’s been such a currency on this, like, macho idea of masculinity, [which] I think we’re going to look back and really question,” says Boynton, via phone. “Emotional intelligence is such a step up and a step forward. Justin is a kind and generous person and that translated so much into David. These are attributes that we’re hopefully seeing more of in leading men.”

His colleagues agree that Min’s emotional intelligence is one of his most compelling qualities. Park felt Min’s vulnerability was “imperative” to humanize the character of Ben, who was otherwise “potentially loathsome,” he tells Bustle via email. Likewise, Benson said that whoever played David needed to radiate acceptance. “I was really looking for someone who had a beautiful heart,” he says.

Staying grounded has been a priority to Min, too, in terms of his approach to his work. “I just gotta continue to do my thing and keep my head down,” he says. “I feel like where I’m at right now is kind of this, like, really OK place. Maybe more than this, it would start to feel kind of overwhelming. In regards to the heartthrob of it all, if it happens, wonderful, but I’ve become enough removed from those things that I don’t think it will fully affect me.”

He says he and his brother occasionally bond over the experience of being public-facing, Jason in front of his congregation and Justin in front of his audience: “We have this joke where I say to him, don’t get me canceled, and he says to me, don’t get me canceled.”

It also helps that he’s still close with his Cerritos crew. They join him for premieres and film festivals when they can, and he happily facilitates their photo ops with Colin Farrell or whomever. “We’re all kind of experiencing the novelty together,” he says.

Min’s still not convinced this will be his job forever, and in particular he worries that there’s a contraction happening, where studios are willing to take fewer risks on fewer and fewer projects. “Fortunately,” he says, “Umbrella Academy has afforded the financial stability that I don’t feel pressured to jump into something that I’m not fully on board with just because there aren’t that many things out there right now.” (That said, as a voracious reader, he is putting it into the universe that he would love to play the beloved character of Marx in any adaptation of Gabrielle Zevin’s popular novel Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow.) In the meantime, life is pretty good: He’s working on an original screenplay, he’s dating someone, and he finally lives near the beach — the vastness of the ocean gives him perspective. “Especially in this industry, you think [you] are so much bigger than you really are,” he says. “And then you stand in front of the ocean and you’re like, I’ll be OK.”

Photographs by Meg Myfanwy Young

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