This story contains major spoilers for The Umbrella Academy season two.
Who knew life could get so much better after death?
That's been the case for Justin H. Min, star of The Umbrella Academy. He plays Ben Hargreeves, the brother who was dead when the series started, was resurrected as a ghost by the end of season one, and was fully alive again by the end of season two.
Min's role in season one was minimal, and in season two, he mostly only got to interact with Robert Sheehan, whose character Klaus can communicate with the dead. Then, the Hargreeves siblings screwed things up so much during their accidental trip to the 1960s that their adopted father decided not to adopt them after all. When they returned to what they thought was their home in 2019, the Umbrella Academy had become the Sparrow Academy, with a living, breathing Ben as its leader.
As Min explains to E! News, he thought his character was done, right up until creator Steve Blackman sent along the final few pages of the finale at the last minute.
"I actually had no idea that was going to happen," he says. "They kept all of us in the dark with the last scene of our season, until the very end. So we had actually gotten a rough draft of episode 10 but that last scene had been omitted. So what's crazy is that when I shot that scene with Vanya [Ellen Page] in episode nine, I actually thought that was going to be the end of Ben and the end of this character."
Min treated that as if it were his goodbye scene.
"So it was really emotional that day not just because Ben was saying goodbye to Vanya and to his family but Justin Min as the actor, I felt like I was saying goodbye to the show and to the experience," he says. "And then a couple weeks after we shot that scene, I was legitimately starting to pack my things, get ready to leave Toronto, I get this top secret email from Steve Blackman, our showrunner, who just sent out the last three pages of the script just to the cast members, just to the seven family members. Of course I opened it and I read it, I was sort of just screaming and crying in the middle of my Toronto apartment alone."
Min went on to open up about not only Ben's new look, but his expanding role. Check out the rest of our interview with him below!
E! News: You have a much bigger part in season two and that cliffhanger seems like it's going to be huge for you. What does it mean to you that your role only gets bigger and bigger, especially since Asian American representation in media is so important?
Justin H. Min: Well last season, I was a recurring character. You have your series regular characters who are contracted to the show, you have your recurring characters, your guest star characters and your co-star characters. Last season, I was a recurring character and that means that I'm not contracted to come back to the show if the show continues on for a second season. Even at the end of season one, I wasn't sure whether or not I would be asked to come back for season two. And even if I were to be asked back for season two, I wouldn't know how large my role would be and to what extent it would be.
Now, when the show came back, it was crazy because I had a feeling the show would be popular but I had no idea where Ben would play into that narrative, primarily because he is such a supporting character in season one. I wasn't sure if he would even get any sort of response from the people who watch the show. Lo and behold, it was such a huge, massive response.
It was overwhelming to like wake up everyday two to three weeks after the show came out, to see my social media numbers rising exponentially by the thousands everyday for this character who had such few lines in that first season. It seemed like a resounding theme from a lot of fans was "We want more Ben! We want justice for this character that we've grown to love." I think that really struck a chord with our writers and our showrunner Steve Blackman.
My showrunner called me like a few weeks after season one debuted and we had an amazing conversation about how he was so excited that the fans were so excited for the character, and he was excited to write for the character more in season two, and that hopefully I would be able to come back. Within a couple of days of that conversation, the business people got together and pretty much offered me a series regular contract, so that's sort of how it all happened. So coming to season two, I couldn't be more thankful—not only just for a job right? Every actor wants a job but as you said, it's important for me and has always been important for me as an Asian American to really fight for a seat at the table for my community and I'm so honored that I could do that in this relatively small way through the show and through this role.
E!: If the fans went crazy over Ben in season one, they must have really lost it over season two. The relationship with Klaus was really great. Did you guys bond a lot? It really felt like watching two brothers fighting.
JM: Yeah what you see onscreen is actually very similar to our interactions in real life. Robert has a brother, I have a brother. We know what that sort of brother relationship is like. You're sort of bickering and at the end of the day, you still love each other, and that's very much part of our off screen relationship as well. So I'm happy you think that translates to the screen. There's something really safe about working with Robert because I have worked with him for an entire year already so to come back to a second season of a show—I mean, yes of course, it bummed me out a little bit at the beginning when I'm not able to talk to anyone else but there is a comfort doing all of my scenes with Robbie. We've developed such a trust and a bond over the last two years that I think we always find new things to play with and experiment within scenes. We just have a lot of fun when we're on set together.
E!: What's it like wearing the same outfit the whole time and the potential to have a different wardrobe for season 3?
JM: Well first of all, it was really hot. Last season, we shot in the dead of winter so it was fine because I was actually one of the warmest cast members but then of course, for season two, we're shooting in the dead of summer so I was sweating buckets with the black on black on black on black outfit. But actually they were nice enough this year to cut off the sleeves of the sweater so obviously you can't see it because it's underneath the leather jacket but at least I didn't have double sleeves. I just had the hoodie and the leather jacket on top but still—really hot, really hot. But there's a bit of safety and comfort in that as well. I got to set, the first day of shooting season two, and the moment I put on the boots, the moment I put on the leather jacket—it's sort of like riding a bike, you feel the character again, you feel exactly where you should be.
In terms of the crazy change in the last scene of this season, we had gone through a few iterations of that uniform. They were trying to test out different fabrics, different colors, different variations. While everyone was shooting episode 10, I was pretty much in fittings all day figuring how the actual new Sparrow Academy uniform would look. I was also in a bunch of hair trials. We had like 20 different versions of Ben's new hairstyle so it was quite a big thing because you're setting up a brand new character, especially one that's going to have sort of a pivotal role next season. It was very weird to put on the new outfit but again, fitting because in putting on that new outfit, I was trying to put on a new character.
E!: Let's talk about that because at the end, we see this new Ben who's got a new scar on his face and a new outfit. What can you say? Are you a possible new villain?
JM: I think what I can really tell you is that he is going to be completely different from the Ben that we know, the ghost Ben that we know, which is why there was so much attention put into how he would look.
With the hair, we really wanted to create something really different. Ghost Ben's hair is perfectly coiffed and made up and we wanted it to be longer, messier, and a little bit edgier. You talked about the scar—we had like five meetings about how big the scar is and where the scar should be, putting the character in a new light. I even got to grow out my mustache in the way that I can for the sake of that scene.
Not a lot of people know this, but I'm actually wearing a bit of padding underneath to sort of bulk up my shoulders. Steve was like, "You need to hit the gym before a potential season three." He's going to feel and be completely different from the Ben that we know and that's really exciting as an actor because how many opportunities do you ever get to be on a show where you can play two very different characters?
E!: Would you want to play a villain?
JM: Absolutely. I honestly think most actors' dreams are to play villains. They're always the most fun. You get to tap into like the darker, wilder, edgier sides of yourself that you don't get to necessarily do on a day to day basis. I would love that opportunity and if that happens, that would be great.
E!: How do you think fans would react to Ben as a possible villain?
JM: It's going to be jarring. It's going to be very jarring. I think the thing that fans seem to resonate most with Ben is that he's the kind, compassionate brother, and so for the sibling who's known to be the most kind and compassionate to completely flip that on his head and he sort of becomes this darker, edgier, potentially more villainous antagonist character. I think it will be really jarring for them but also really exciting. I don't know how intentional it was from the very beginning for this to have happened but I don't think there could have been a more exciting turn. No other character would you have experienced that flipped coin because all the other characters do have a bit of darkness in them so it wouldn't have been that much of a stretch but for Ben specifically to be that character will be really exciting.
E!: You mentioned you might have to hit up the gym. Are you going to start training more?
JM: Yes. It's obviously a bit more difficult amidst quarantine but absolutely, I will have a workout regimen and I will be working with a trainer. I will be picking up on more fighting type of classes. Again, knock on wood, if we get picked up for season three, I have been told there will be a lot more stunt work for the character. It's very exciting. I'm excited to potentially play a darker character but I'm just really excited to finally pop up with the other siblings. I can't tell you how refreshing it was—though I love Mr. Sheehan, it's been amazing to work with him—I can't tell you how refreshing it was to speak to Ellen Page for the first time in that scene and work with her and I hope I get to do some of that with some of the other siblings in a potential season three.
E!: Like you mentioned, your social media numbers went up. How would you say life has changed since being on the show? Even during this time, have you been spotted out by fans even wearing a mask? What are the fan encounters like?
JM: I would say one of the most moving things about being a part of this show and about this character is that I had the opportunity to go to a number of Comic-Cons because of this show. I've also just received thousands and thousands of messages from Asian Americans or just Asians in general around the world who basically just thank me for being a good representation of them and their community. I can't tell you how many times I'm at a Comic-Con and a young Asian boy would come up to me and say, "I never thought we could be superheroes" or "I never thought people like me would be on a big Netflix show," and that sort of stuff breaks my heart and moves me and makes me very emotional.
It also reminds me that I do have a big responsibility to do what I can to kind of continue to push the needle forward for our community and to continue to put out the best work that I can in whatever I do. But yeah, of course occasionally I'll walk into a coffee shop or café and someone will be like, "Hey are you on that Umbrella thing show?" I'll get that once in a while. I'll get a random free coffee, free side of fries once in a while when someone recognizes me. Other than that, life has not changed all that much especially during a global pandemic. I'm pretty much still at home as I always am, just reading a book or sending out some emails.
E!: That is so touching for a young boy to say, I never thought Asians could be superheroes, so you are representing that and changing that. You are a real life hero!
JM: I understand that sentiment because I also grew up not seeing ourselves often. People always ask me, "Did you know you wanted to be an actor?" and I would always say no, because I didn't even think it was possible. It wasn't even my consciousness, it wasn't even in the realm of possibility that I could do this and make a career out of it. To also hear young Asian Americans talk to me and tell me that they want to go into the arts or become an actor, that's also so exciting because I just see this next generation of Asian Americans who are hopefully going to take this industry by storm.
E!: Is there a hidden talent you have that you want to share with your fans? Or something surprising your fans may not know?
JM: Two things come to mind. I can make a mean avocado toast. And No. 2, I think a lot of people don't actually know that I speed read. It works out because I love reading. Pretty much my mom growing up sent me to speed reading classes and it would be really intense where you would work on your pupil movement and basically try to read as many lines on a page with your pupils without moving your head as quickly as possible, and that would increase your speed reading ability and we would have competition. It was very intense and competitive and fortunately, I was able to pick up a few skills from that and now I'm a relatively fast reader.
E!: Any special message for your fans?
JM: All I can say to the fans is thank you. We've talked a lot about social media in our conversation. I have a very love/hate relationship but when it can be used by people who don't normally have a voice in our industry to show that we have marketability, to show that we have an audience, it's really powerful right? In the same way that audiences showed up for Crazy Rich Asians making it a huge commercial success—that's one of the reasons why we have so many new Asian American movies and TV shows coming out, because they saw that market viability and in the same way, because of the fans and social media response to Ben, it sort of equalizes the playing field of the first time for people of color. You don't need to go through the Hollywood gatekeeper to be cast or to be seen as a significant character, so I can't thank the fans enough for that support particularly on social media because those things do actually make a difference.
E!: I'm excited for there to be two possible Ben Halloween costumes!
JM: I'm hanging up the hoodie for the Halloween costume. I was too confused because people would come up to me and be like, "Oh my god, I'm dressed like you," and I'm like, "You're just wearing a black hoodie." I'm excited for people to have to make a little more effort to dress as Ben come this Halloween.
For more from Min and a few of his costars, hit play on the video at the top of the post!
The Umbrella Academy season two is now streaming on Netflix.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.