Pachinko Is a TV Triumph. But Jin Ha Has Bigger Aims.

When Jin Ha first auditioned for the role of Solomon Baek in Apple TV+’s Pachinko, he thought that he’d never get the part. In this multilingual series, where the emotionally epic story of one immigrant family is told across four generations and three languages, Solomon, a man of Korean descent raised in Japan and educated in America, is the most linguistically demanding role. Ha, who speaks Korean and English, but not Japanese, feared that he didn’t have what it would take to bring Solomon to life, in all his multicultural complexity. “I was just thrilled that Pachinko was being made, and thought I’d throw my hat in the ring,” he tells Esquire. “I thought, ‘There’s got to be somebody else out there who speaks all these languages.”

But Ha, a polyglot who holds a degree in East Asian Languages and Cultures from Columbia University, may be selling himself short. When he landed the role, he immediately got to work with dialect coach Yu-Mi Kang, who put him through a rigorous linguistic regimen that he likens to a doctoral thesis course. Uncowed by the challenge, Ha was insistent on getting it right, because Pachinko, adapted from Min Jin Lee’s award-winning novel by the same name, captures a story and a community all-too infrequently represented on American television. Solomon and his family are Zainichi: Koreans (and their descendants) who came to Japan during its colonial rule of Korea. Each successive generation encounters brutal racism and class discrimination, all while fighting to carve out a life, an identity, and a home away home. Solomon’s startling realizations about his identity and history, masterfully realized by Ha, are deeply affecting. As Ha tells Esquire, “I felt an incredible responsibility to get it as right as possible.”

If you recognize Ha, it’s likely because you’ve seen him in television shows like Devs and Love Life, or perhaps you’ve been lucky enough to see him onstage in Hamilton as Aaron Burr. He’s a multi-talented performer, to be certain, but also a committed activist and a deep, scholarly thinker. His breakthrough as a leading man couldn’t have come in a more meaningful form than Pachinko, a project not unlike a homecoming. Speaking by phone from Santa Monica, he brought Esquire inside the experience.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

jin ha

Jin Ha as Solomon in Pachinko.

Robert Falconer

Esquire: When you first got the script for Pachinko, what about it called out to you?

Jin Ha: Everything about it called out to me, truly. I don’t think there was one reason why I felt such a strong conviction to be a part of this project. Once I read Min Jin Lee’s book, then heard that Apple had bought the rights to adapt it, I was just thrilled, as a viewer, to know that this story was going to be told in America. This is a story about the Zainichi community that I had never seen growing up in America. To be part of a story like that is the point of making art, in my opinion. These are the stories that I want to tell. These are the communities whose experiences I want honor.

ESQ: Solomon is such a rich and complex character. What attracted you to him?

J.H.: For me, one of my points of entry was my Asian-American experience, as an immigrant. Having come over from Korea and Hong Kong, I’ve had the same experiences of learning to assimilate, code switch, and try to fit in, all while somehow still holding onto my heritage. That was an experience that I felt resonated between the two of us. Obviously there are specifics of Solomon’s upbringing that I don’t have points of contact with, but as soon as the show goes into his memories of his father’s and his grandmother’s generations, that’s all completely adjacent with my own parents’ and grandparents’ experiences. Having lived through the colonial era in Korea, some of them were forced to speak Japanese for most of their lives. The story felt very close to my family’s history.

ESQ: I’d love to hear more about that. Were there ways you felt the long shadow of that colonial history as a child?

J.H.: What’s funny is that I only lived in Korea until I was three years old, but from there we moved to Hong Kong, which was, at that time, still a British colony. For me, it’s history; it’s something I studied growing up, as well as learned orally, from my own family’s history. My grandmother was born in 1911, so she lived through the entire occupation and the Korean War. That feels like history, yet even I was living in a British colony in Asia, so for me, it’s a reminder of how present this history still is.

Pachinko

Grand Central Publishing amazon.com

$17.99

$15.21 (15% off)

ESQ: Did your grandmother tell you stories about what it was like to live through that history?

J.H.: Unfortunately we weren’t very close. It was the distance; she lived in Boryeong. I would visit her growing up, but there was a language barrier. I’ve heard this from other Korean friends of mine, as well—that oftentimes, our grandparents don’t eagerly jump back into that traumatic past. I’m sure that if I’d had the wherewithal or the wisdom at that age to ask these questions, maybe she would’ve talked about it, but generally speaking, it wasn’t a time period that she would freely speak about unprompted. I feel like that generation carries a lot of repressed hurt and trauma.

ESQ: I think that’s one of the great tragedies of grandparents. When we have them, we don’t have the wisdom or the knowledge to ask these questions, then by the time we have that, they’re gone.

J.H.: That’s true. I imagine that it’s a timeless experience for those of us who are of any newer generation. I could only hope that our show can prompt people to ask a question, or feel the impulse to reach out. I understand how difficult that could be in day-to-day life, but I can only hope that this art will make people change.

ESQ: One of the most beautiful and revelatory things about Pachinko is how seamlessly it weaves together three different languages. We hear Solomon speaking all three of those languages, each with their own unique dialects. How did you even begin to get your arms around that challenge?

J.H.: It was by far the most challenging aspect of this role, and at the same time, deeply fulfilling, because I was so excited to hear that Soo [Hugh, Pachinko’s show-runner] had chosen to tell this story in all the authentic languages of the characters. If you asked Soo, I’m sure she would say it was never a question, because the languages are such an integral part of this family’s story.

I worked constantly with my dialect coach, Yu-Mi Kang, who also happens to be a Zainichi woman and an actor. We had many layers of breaking down texts and constructing the performance together. It truly felt like I was in an eight-month doctoral thesis course. Because she only speaks Korean and Japanese, we would have our lessons in Korean, and she would transliterate the Japanese lines into the Korean alphabet. Then I would transliterate that into English, so that I could read them more easily. We created this shorthand vocabulary of symbols denoting what the music of the sentences would sound like—what’s the intonation or the inflection? We would then craft the performance, and I would memorize the lines with the music of the sentences. Then on the days we filmed, I jumped off the cliff and hoped that all the work I’d done would pay off.

On the days we filmed, I jumped off the cliff and hoped that all the work I’d done would pay off.

ESQ: What new things did you learn about your history or yourself from taking part in this series?

J.H. I think it’s changed me in ways that I’m not yet aware of, because it feels so deeply a part of me already. Because we shot this during the pandemic, it felt like such an isolated period. I feel deeply close to the people I worked with, as if they’ve been a part of my family for longer than I’ve truly known them. I think it’s because A, we share a passion for this this story, and B, most of us were Korean—some Korean-American, some Korean. For me, even when we were shooting in Korea, to be surrounded by a mostly Korean crew was astounding. I had never experienced anything like that on a day of work—to be a part of many rather than just one. Often my experience is being the one Asian person or the one person of color on a set. I think all of those factors created this deep and fast bond among us. For me personally, it also created a connection to Korea that I hadn’t had in quite a while, because I haven’t lived there for most of my life.

ESQ: You once said, “I identify as an activist first, an artist second.” What are your interests as an activist?

J.H.: I’m interested in expanding our general understanding of people’s humanity. Generally speaking, there’s always so much to be upset about. I think we’re going through this larger collective experience of figuring out how we learn to care about things in our lives, and have it not be performative, and have it be meaningful, but also not feel diluted. I care about a lot of things deeply—there’s a lot of shit fucked up in our country, and in the world, that feels incredibly large and unshakeable. Those things, for me, are always more important than the work I’m doing. I care about my work. I love working; I love performing; I love making art. I’m so grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to make a living as an artist. Truly, everything is bonus after that, but it’s never lost on me that there are lived experiences, in my own life and beyond it, that should always be prioritized.

My inspiration for that reprioritizing was Harry Belafonte and his career—both as an artist and as an activist. He came to speak at Columbia when I was an undergrad there back in 2011, while he was promoting the doc Sing Your Song—there was a screening and Q&A afterwards. This was before I had decided to apply to grad schools for acting and before I had decided that I would pursue acting professionally. Harry Belafonte’s incredible legacy… he was touring for the movie back then, but he was still promoting the community work he was doing at the same time with incarcerated men and women.

Getting to witness Harry Belafonte reconfigured, in my mind, what was actually possible. Not that I deign to aim for what he’s been able to accomplish in his own extraordinary lifetime—and he’s still at it!—but to know that there’s a lighthouse like him in our industry, one of many, gave me the encouragement to seriously pursue a career in the joy that is play-acting while continuing to prioritize the importance of activism in my day-to day-life—staying educated, open, and generally giving a shit about communities and people who have lived experiences beyond my own.

red carpet event for the global premiere of apple's "pachinko" arrivals

Ha at the premiere of Pachinko.

Kevin WinterGetty Images

ESQ: Are there ways in which you bridge the two, and bring a spirit of activism to your art?

J.H.: Definitely. I think a lot of it is being very selective with the projects I say yes to. It’s hard being a freelance gig worker—which essentially all actors are—to have the power of choice. A lot of it is like, “Can I pay the bills? I just need to get a job so that I can make a living.” But I’ve been really lucky with my projects so far. I’ve been afforded the opportunity to say no. Even during the times when I felt trapped, and I needed a job, I would always try to look at the potential project through the lens of, “Is this helping? Does this help my community? Does this help storytelling about faces and bodies that look like mine?”

ESQ: At the Los Angeles premiere of Pachinko, you wore a gorgeous hanbok. How did you choose that garment?

J.H.: I’ve been wanting to find an appropriate event to wear a hanbok for a couple of years now. I grew up very familiar with hanboks; we would wear them often for family events or traditional gatherings in Korea. I always loved the women’s hanbok. The colors, the design, the patterns—everything about it was so enthralling. I felt like this was the perfect event for me to finally wear a hanbok. It felt entirely relevant to the story that we were telling, and to the women we were honoring in Pachinko. On top of that, I just wanted to look beautiful. I wanted to feel beautiful that night, and I was able to find this hanbok in a hanbok store in Flushing, Queens. It was perfect.

This content is created and maintained by a third party, and imported onto this page to help users provide their email addresses. You may be able to find more information about this and similar content at piano.io