“Pachinko” star Soji Arai talks with DAMAN about his acting journey while sharing how his personal experiences and Korean-Japanese identity relates to his character in the trending series
In 2017, New York-based journalist Min Jin Lee published a popular historical novel titled “Pachinko.” The story follows the life and struggle of a Korean family who moved to Japan and live as zainichi or Korean Japanese. When Niigata-born actor Soji Arai read the novel, he immediately thought that the story resonates with him and his own life as a zainichi. Later, Arai joined the cast of the film adaptation of the book—a show also titled “Pachinko”—playing a character in a story that is close to his heart.
Arai, who is also known by his Korean name Park So-hee, started his acting career in the Tokyo theater scene. He made his professional acting debut in a play directed by Robert Allan Ackerman titled “Bent,” which created a huge sensation. Arai also played the love interest of the late Brittany Murphy’s character in the 2008 romantic comedy “The Ramen Girl.”
A while ago, DA MAN had the opportunity to talk with the actor about his journey in the entertainment industry while discussing further about how his experience and identity influence the shaping of his characters.
DAMAN: First of all, we’re very excited about “Pachinko.” Can you tell our readers a little bit about this series and your role in it?
Soji Arai: This is the story about a zainichi family, the Baeks. I am playing Mozasu, a second-generation zainichi. He is the second son of Sunja, the father of his son Solomon. Mozasu is the owner of a Pachinko parlor called “New Grand Vegas.”
DAMAN: What was your initial impression when you first read the script?
Soji Arai: I thought that this is my story, my family’s story. As soon as I finished reading the book, I called my agent and manager saying I have to do this.
DAMAN: How did you prepare to step into the role of someone as passionate and complicated as Mozasu Baek?
Soji Arai: Mozasu is one of the characters that was very well and deeply written in the book. I found every hint on how to play Mozasu in the book. Of course, I added my own spice. Those spices came from my own experiences: I am real-life zainichi. My father and his friends are real-life second-generation zainichi. Second-generation zainichi uncles whom I grew up with are legendary exciting people. I always thought they are much more interesting people than any movie and TV characters to me.
DAMAN: Do you feel that you can relate to any of the Baek family’s stories?
Soji Arai: Absolutely. I see my own first-generation grandmother in Sunja. Mozasu, yes. He is my father, my uncles and friends of my father’s whom I am very familiar with. Solomon is actually really like me! He is a third-generation zainichi just like me; he moved to America just like me; and he speaks Japanese, Korean and English just like me. I started to audition for Solomon, actually. I think I did great and stayed in the pool for a while. But I guess I was too old for Solomon. While we were in Korea, Jin Ha who plays Solomon told me that I would have been the perfect actor to play Solomon if I were younger. I was happy to hear that from Jin. And I have to say that Jin plays Solomon perfectly well. Youn Yuh-Jung, me, Jin Ha—our chemistry is great. We are like a real family!
DAMAN: For “Pachinko” you get to play alongside big names like Lee Min-ho and Jung Eun-chae, among others. Are there any memorable stories or moments from filming with these guys that you can share with us?
Soji Arai: I don’t have any scenes with Min-ho and Eun-chae because they and I are living in a different timeline. We exchanged greetings in Korea and Canada while shooting, but I really became friends with them during the premiere week in L.A. They are huge stars not only in Korea but also in the world. I respect that they took the chance to do “Pachinko” and I am proud of being a part of this with them. I am also honored to work with Youn Yuh-Jung. I want to learn from her every second I am with her. Oh, it was a precious time for me to have a conversation with her over glasses of wine after our work times.
DAMAN: Before moving to Los Angeles, you’ve made quite a name for yourself in the Tokyo theater scene. How did you incorporate your theater experience and skills into your TV performances?
Soji Arai: I always thought that on the stage or in front of the camera, it doesn’t matter for great actors. I mean, look at Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Daniel Day-Lewis, Vanessa Redgrave … they all came from theater. They still do theater. I respect them. I want to be an actor like them. I played Brittany Murphy’s love interest in the movie “The Ramen Girl.” I got cast for that part because the director Robert Allan Ackerman knew my craft since he directed me in some theater productions in Tokyo. I always miss plays. Maybe sometime soon, I will make an appearance in New York, London or Tokyo’s theater scene. Why not?
DAMAN: You’ve been in a lot of plays and series. Can you tell us about a past role or project that you’re most proud of?
Soji Arai: “Bent” “Bent” was chosen as one of the Royal National Theatre of Britain’s top 100 plays of the 20th century. I made a professional acting debut playing the lead role of Max in “Bent.” That production made a huge sensation in the Tokyo theater world. Martin Sherman, who wrote “Bent,” came to Tokyo to see us. He said that he had seen so many productions of “Bent” around the world, but our Tokyo production was the best he had ever seen.
DAMAN: “Bent” and “The Ramen Girl” were both directed by the late Robert Allan Ackerman. What was it like working with such a legend?
Soji Arai: Bob was my father in showbiz in both Tokyo and America. He was my mentor, my best friend and my partner in crime. He was the director of the very first American production of “Bent” with Richard Gere. He told me many great background stories about that production; about how deeply Richard Gere was preparing for his role every day and night. Bob was a master. He directed Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Sean Penn, Helen Mirren, Anne Bancroft … you name it. I am so proud of being one of his actors! When we were preparing for “The Ramen Girl,” the character I play—Toshi—was Japanese in the original script. Then a couple of Japanese personages in the creative team whispered: “Why is a ‘Korean’ actor playing a Japanese? We should hire a Japanese actor!” And that’s although everyone knew that I was born and grew up in Japan and that I was zainichi.
But then, Becca Topol—the writer—and Bob, who both understood and trusted me and my craft, stood up and fought for me. They changed Toshi into zainichi, saying: “Why not? Trust us. It should’ve been like this from the first place.” They were right. Because we made Toshi as zainichi, Abby, who was played by Brittany Murphy, could share her feelings with him about being an outsider, an alien or gaijin in Japan. Their chemistry became so much richer and the story got much more interesting. And “The Ramen Girl” is still being watched by many people around the world. Bob passed away in January 2022 without watching me in “Pachinko,” but he was very happy to know that I got cast as Mozasu. Rest in peace, Bob…
DAMAN: When you’re considering a potential show to join what do you look for?
Soji Arai: My instinct always tells me. And I will consult my pug puppy Bébé.
DAMAN: When you’re not busy how do you spend your time?
Soji Arai: Sleeping. My motto is “male lions sleep twenty hours a day.” Otherwise, I am developing my own projects that I want to produce and perform in. And also traveling and visiting my friends around the world.
DAMAN: What is your secret to staying fit and in shape?
Soji Arai: There’s no secret. I have been working out ever since I was in high school. Since COVID happened, I created a small gym space in my place. I work out five days a week. I usually eat whatever I want to eat, but when I need to be in better shape, I try to eat higher protein meals.
DAMAN: Do you have any other upcoming shows or series that you can share with us?
Soji Arai: You will see me in the new Amazon Prime series “Dead Ringers” with Rachel Weisz, probably later this year.
DAMAN: Last but not least … as a seasoned actor with a wide range of roles, what is your advice to young, aspiring actors?
Soji Arai: I will share with you the precious words that were given to me by an Oscar winner Youn Yuh-Jung: “Practice. Practice. Practice.”
U.S.-BASED CREATIVE DIRECTOR MITCHELL NGUYEN McCORMACK
U.S.-BASED FASHION EDITOR & PHOTOGRAPHY KIMBERLY GOODNIGHT
GROOMING JENI CHUA FOR EXCLUSIVE ARTIST MANAGEMENT USING SMASHBOX AND ORIBE
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