Courtesy of Netflix

November 9, 2020

Storytelling and Representation: An Evening with Cornell Alum Justin H. Min ’11

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Many Cornellians boast of our RBG, Toni Morrison, Bill Nye and even fictive Andy Bernard clout, but someone well-deserving of our alum bragging rights is Justin H. Min ’11, best known for his role as Ben Hargreeves on Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy.  Since it first came out in February 2019, the show’s off-kilter take on superheroism has been a hit, complete with a highly dysfunctional family, time travel and extremely catchy dance sequences. 

On Friday Oct. 30, Cornellians got a chance to hear from Min himself at a virtual event hosted by the Cornell Asian Pacific Student Union, where we learned about Min’s experiences working on The Umbrella Academy, his time on Wong Fu Production’s series Dating After College, his studies at Cornell and his thoughts on Asian American representation. The hosts, students and alumni also asked Min about everything from combatting imposter syndrome to his favorite boba order — which is, incidentally, classic milk tea with oat milk.

Min first spoke to his time at Cornell, comparing the difficulty of having confidence in himself while surrounded by extremely talented peers to the competitive spirit of Hollywood. Min admitted that at first he questioned whether he belonged at all, but he realized he wasn’t alone, and that everyone has their own strengths. 

“[Imposter syndrome] feels like a very unique and isolating experience,” Min said, “but you have an honest conversation with anyone, and the vast majority of people have felt the same.” 

Recognizing the potential drawbacks of an Ivy League education, including debt and a casual arrogance that the well-educated sometimes end up with, Min still expressed his gratitude for going to Cornell, and most importantly for his relationships outside of the classroom. He also navigated — as a great many of us do — uncertainty about what career he wanted to pursue, interning at law firms, working abroad, trying to integrate learning with substantively helping communities. After realizing government and journalism weren’t for him, what Min took with him was a sense of the power of storytelling.

“I couldn’t be more grateful to have a platform like Netflix and our show to be on to do what I love doing,” Min said, “which is to share stories that make people laugh and entertain people, and provide a means of escape, especially during times like these.” 

It’s not always a laughing matter, however — Min shared with us how his identity as an Asian American means navigating an industry fraught with racial stereotypes and preconceptions. Min argued that there’s nothing inherently wrong with certain stereotypes, like the martial artist or the shy IT guy, because there really are Asian and Asian American people that identify with those. The problem lies in how few of these characters are three-dimensional people, with nuances and backstories of their own. There is also a recent stereotyping shift in another direction, according to Min. 

“Because there has been such a backlash in terms of stereotypical roles, every Asian American character is this bonafide sex fiend,” Min said, with a wide grin. He expressed that while he appreciates this distinct change in representation, as a self-proclaimed nerd, “that’s also not me. I would genuinely just love a normal Asian character, with flaws.” 

Min is excited to have reached a point in his career where he feels he will be able to be choosier in how he represents himself and other Asian Americans. Every actor has to find a balance between financial practicality and staying true to themselves, but the more successful they are, the more control they generally have over their own image. In general, Min is proud of how far good representation on screen has come, and expressed his hopes for more Asian and Asian American writers, producers and directors, who he said are the key to protecting and valuing their cultures. When asked what advice he has for aspiring young Asian American creators, Min suggested finding a unique voice and drawing inspiration from relationships, where you live and daily life in general. 

As for The Umbrella Academy, Min said he did not expect to get the role of Ben Hargreeves, but gave it a shot anyway. “I am also proud to represent the ghost community,” Min joked, of his spectral character, and admitted that while they share a certain loyalty to family and a love of reading, Ben has way more patience. No way would Min ever put up with a real-life Klaus! 

Fittingly in these times of exhaustion and uncertainty, Min closed with an emphasis on finding a ‘why’ that can carry an actor through tough times, a message that I think any Cornell student can also benefit from. Whenever Min feels discouraged, something, like a stage reading or a small theater production, will bring him face to face with people who tell him his portrayal of a character helped them process grief or understand events in their own life. That’s his why, what keeps him going — a compelling empathy that connects people. 

“I would come out of those experiences,” Min said, “realizing the power of story again.”

 

Charlotte Mandy is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at crm299@cornell.edu.