Having seen Jin Ha play the role of Song Lilong in M. Butterfly or Aaron Burr in Hamilton, it’s hard to imagine the actor would not land every role he auditioned for. Yet he wasn’t sure he would get the role of Solomon Baek in the Apple TV production of Pachinko. The audition process was not unusually difficult, but the pool of actors being considered was wider than most.
“It was incredibly challenging, because the production was searching all over the world,” said Ha. “I think because the show was international it opened up the pool to actors from all over the world who may have fit the requirements just technically, even linguistically, because those are the elements that these actors need to be able to fulfill these roles.”
Pachinko’s characters speak English, Korean and Japanese. In order to play Solomon Baek, born in Japan and of Korean descent, Ha needed to speak Japanese, a language he had not mastered.
“Watching my first tape in Japanese was pretty rough,” said Ha. “My dad speaks Japanese, so I asked him to help me. He gave me a recording of him reading the lines in Japanese and then I wrote that out in English letters and I just tried to make that sound as fluent as possible. It was pretty rough, but that was the first round, and then with each round, I think the idea was, let’s hear some notes. Keep working on your Japanese and we’ll see from there. And then we had the chemistry tests and more. It was long, but frankly the actual shoot was more arduous than the audition process, because that was when I actually had to learn and memorize all the Japanese lines.”
With the help of a language coach, Ha learned enough Japanese to portray the multilingual character, a character who moves comfortably between the high stakes boardrooms of New York and Tokyo. With his international background, Solomon is convinced he’s escaped the prejudice associated with being zainichi, the name given to the Koreans who moved to Japan during the Japanese occupation of Korea. Yet the character’s efforts to assimilate may have cost him a deeper understanding of his heritage.
Ha picked up Min Jin Lee’s bestselling novel Pachinko when he heard that Apple bought the rights to produce a series helmed by Soo Hugh, the producer of The Terror and The Whispers, and he could not put the book down. Having lived in Korea until he was three, then lived in Hong Kong for a five more years before moving to the US, he knew what it was like to be a stranger in a strange land.
“For me it’s just this amazing project, deeply personal, that’s deeply rooted in a history that I care about and that resonates with me and my family,” said Ha. “Soo is an incredible show runner and creator. I have been an admirer of her work for years. I just wanted to be a part of the project, no matter what. It wasn’t a question of whether I was interested. It was more of I don’t think I’m going to get it, but let me throw my hat into the ring anyway. Just to see.”
While Ha’s own immigration experience differed from his character’s, the story resonated with him “1,000 percent.”
“Even though the specifics of my life and my immigration and Solomon’s are different, despite those differences so much of our experiences share the same thread,” said Ha. “So those elements were incredibly easy for me to access or relate to. I was experiencing that as I was reading the book as well, a sense of ‘I recognize this person,’ I recognize their experiences as my own in a lot of ways. I think in the book Solomon goes to Columbia University and I had gone to Columbia as well and I thought, oh, this is some kismet coincidence. That’s a tiny specific example, but in larger almost existential ways his character and his experience resonated with mine in a lot of different ways.”
Immigrant children must often bear the weight of expectations, having to justify their parents’ sacrifices with their own success.
“That weight is one of the biggest pieces that I felt connected to with Solomon. Even though he’s second generation and I’m sort of half first generation, because I moved myself, the code switching, the mask wearing, the assimilating, the fitting in were all different things I felt super close to and very familiar with.”
In Pachinko, Solomon’s family wants him to escape their limitations, so they send him away, distancing him from their past and their cultural identity. It’s a Korean story, but given the mobility of the human race, also a relatable one.
“I’m hoping that the specificity of our show will provide audiences with a lot to connect to, even if they are not Korean, even if they are not zainichi, and, yeah, my experience as an immigrant certainly colored a lot of how I prepared for and understood Solomon.”
For Ha there’s one scene that subtly captures the character’s yearning for a sense of identity.
“When we first see Solomon coming back home to Osaka, coming back to the house he grew up in, there’s just a brief moment before Sunja comes in. But Solomon is left alone to walk through the apartment, the living room, to look at some old photos, some books. That quiet moment to me was very significant and important and delicate in a way. It’s so simple and subtle, but there’s so much life happening within him in relationship to these things, these inanimate objects he grew up around.”
Each of us might have a similar place, one that feels familiar and helps us feel rooted.
“I hope people see themselves in it,” said Ha. “I think they will, but I hope so.”
The series, which also stars Lee Min-ho, Youn Yuh-jung and Kim Min-ha, airs on Apple TV.
This story was originally published on forbes.com.