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An Oscar winner, a Korean megastar, a Broadway performer and a young actress in her debut role — and that’s just to name a few of the ensemble cast of upcoming Korean drama Pachinko.
“Casting was a very tricky process,” executive producer Theresa Kang-Lowe told The Hollywood Reporter at the Apple TV+’s show premiere event on Wednesday. “It’s not just finding the best actors, which we did, we achieved that. It’s also [a story] about multiple generations of family; whereas some shows are linear, this show has multiple storylines, which is the complicated part.”
Led by showrunner Soo Hugh, studio Media Res’ Michael Ellenberg and Kang-Lowe, Pachinko is bringing Asian storytelling to the forefront of mainstream television. Based on the New York Times best-selling novel of the same name by Korean-American author Min Jin Lee, which Media Res optioned in 2018, the series follows the hopes and dreams of a Korean immigrant family across four generations, as they leave their homeland and embark upon a sweeping saga that takes place in Korea, Japan and America.
Kang-Lowe served nearly two decades at talent agency WME before deciding to start her own management company with a multiyear overall deal at Apple. “I’ve been to so many premieres, but this one feels different,” Kang-Lowe said. “When I was an agent, of course I was very involved, I was so happy for my clients, but [Pachinko is something] I’ve been so intimately involved with as a producer. And I really learned so much at the talent agency. I don’t think I could do what I do now, in the way that I do it, had I not been an agent.”
The show stars first-time actress Minha Kim as teenager Sunja — a role she shares with Academy Award winner Youn Yuh-jung, who plays her older counterpart.
At her first Hollywood premiere, Kim was fighting off nerves while on the carpet. “I’m trying to enjoy it,” she said. “But I guess this is all the great expectations for Pachinko. It’s amazing.” But the nerves didn’t come when she was filming the show. “I was in the zone on-set because I had to feel comfortable being Sunja, so I was chill and pretty relaxed,” the South Korean actress said.
As for Youn’s interest in Pachinko, she said she felt an immediate affinity with older Sunja because of their age. “When I read the script I found out Sunja’s age is 74, and I said, ‘Oh, I’m 74.’ I could do this role,'” the actress joked.
“It’s very nice to be recognized and have people appreciate my work,” Youn added of her next chapter following her 2020 best supporting actress Oscar win. “It’s not going to change me. I still have the same friends, live in the same house. It was a moment that made me very happy.”
With multiple languages at play — Korean, Japanese and English — there’s quite a bit of code-switching that takes place in the show. In particular, actor Jin Ha, known for his roles on Broadway’s Hamilton along with scene-stealing appearances in Love Life and Devs, speaks all three languages in his role as Solomon.
“I actually didn’t have time from when I was cast to when I started shooting to learn the fundamentals of Japanese, so I just had to start, and then never stop, memorizing my Japanese lines,” he said of the language swapping (which he notes to be harder than singing and dancing on Broadway). “It was really hard, but at the same time, incredibly fulfilling. I can’t believe that I’m a part of a project where they have decided to honor the language and the linguistic storytelling because of how important that is to the experience of the characters. As difficult as the Japanese learning was, never for a second did I want to do anything else. I wanted to tell the story in the most authentic and accurate way possible.”
And while Korean dramas have been making waves across the globe for several decades, Pachinko joins the recent swell of Asian-focused content in Hollywood — following the likes of Squid Game, Minari, Parasite and Crazy Rich Asians.
“It’s the story of Korea that really drew me in,” said Jimmi Simpson, who plays the American role of Tom Andrews in the show. “I wasn’t informed, I didn’t know about it. Ignorance is commonplace in the world. They certainly didn’t teach it in our schools. If you’re an American, you kind of have to read Pachinko to know what’s going on [in Korea]. And now, if you’re not a reader, just turn up the volume and watch some Apple TV+.”
Added showrunner Hugh, “I don’t think a show like this can be made if you don’t believe in it. It’s just too hard. I think Apple knew that, too. From day one, they believed in this show. I mean, look at this premiere — this is for a television show. So what we’re seeing, I think the proof is in the pudding.”
Among the other attendees at the premiere were Natalie Portman, Michelle Yeoh, Jimmy O. Yang and Alan Kim. Pachinko starts steaming March 25.
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