Interview with Paul Sun-Hyung Lee from “Kim’s Convenience”22 min read

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Over the last few years, actor Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, has been busy playing Mr. Kim (“Appa”) almost continuously since 2011 when “Kim’s Convenience” debuted at Toronto’s Fringe Festival. For this role, he won Best Actor at both the Toronto Theatre Critics’ Awards (2012) and the Canadian Screen Awards (2017).

Paul Sun-Hyung Lee on the set of “Canada’s Smart Person Junior”

Fall 2018 brings a new project for Paul as he will be hosting “Canada’s Smartest Person Junior,” a CBC produced game show competition featuring 12 Canadian kids competing across six categories: physical, musical, social, linguistic, logical, and visual smarts. Those competitors with the strongest performances each week will advance to the next episode, while the others will be up for elimination. In the season finale, the top six finalists will go head-to-head one final time. Finally, a competition for Canadian tiger mothers to prep their young children for! (Just kidding…sort of…) Ricepaper Magazine’s JF Garrard spoke with Paul about his latest project, growing up in Canada, working in a tough industry and how he landed a gig as a host on a gameshow!

JF Garrard (JFG): Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us! I’ve seen you on stage three times at Soulpepper in Toronto (brought different friends and family for the performances) and you were fantastic every time! I was surprised when it was announced that you would be a host for “Canada’s Smartest Person Junior.” How did this opportunity come up?

Paul Sun-Hyung Lee (PSL): I was approached at a producer’s dinner where people from CBC celebrate as they kickoff a new season. Sally Catto (General Manager, Programming, CBC) was there and I went to thank her because she pushed to get “Kim’s Convenience” subtitled in Korean. This is a big deal because my parents watch the show, but they only get 75-80% of the show because the speech is too fast, it’s hard for them. [The CBC] wanted to take the show to older Korean community members, but they don’t speak English as well. Having it subtitled in Korean was a huge game changer and I was told it was all due to Sally’s hard work. After thanking her, she said she had this show and asked me to consider hosting it.

It’s one of those things that’s definitely out of my comfort zone. I was intrigued and a little bit frightened, but it was an opportunity to expand my skills and repertoire as a performer. It was an opportunity to show Canada that I’m more than just the one character that I play. I had a nice long conversation with my wife because it was going to take all of August where we already earmarked a family vacation. My wife said I needed to do this, to show that I could do a lot more.

I spoke with Andrew Phung, who plays Kimchee on the show. Before “Kim’s Convenience,” his bread and butter was hosting. He’s an old pro at this, he gave me bits of advice and said, “you work hard at what you do—it’s not work ethic, but they asked for you specifically because of what you bring to the table. You are Canada’s “Appa,” especially on a show with kids, you are the perfect fit, you have that friendliness, authoritarian side.” It’s an incredible opportunity to be the first Asian host of a nationally broadcasted show in Canada. This was huge for me and his way of throwing support behind me was helpful [and] made me feel great. And as frightened as I was to take on this challenge, I decided to go for it and I’m so glad I did.

JFG: Did you find hosting a game show very different from acting in theatre or on television?

PSL: Oh absolutely! Script in television is easier: you can study it and do your homework. When doing “Kim’s,” I’m often three days ahead of schedule, learning my lines and making choices because I have the luxury of an almost complete script in front of me.

It’s different from doing a television show that’s improvised and ad-libbed; basically what you are saying is predicated by what the competitors do. As a host, you have to think about so many different things because there are so many different moving parts—not only technically being aware of where the cameras are, but also reacting to what you are given by the competitors and making it seem effortless is probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life!

JFG: Is this not comparable to theatre?

PSL: In theatre you get to rehearse! You’re not improvising!

When you are improvising a show, it’s different as well, because people understand you are improvising, you’re allowed to make mistakes. When you watch game shows, the really good ones, [they] look like they don’t ever miss a beat. I’ve realized that it’s because they are all edited within an inch of their lives, there were probably tons of mistakes, but it looks like everything is going smooth, but it’s like getting into the deep end of the pool and being forced to sink or swim. I’m curious to see how I was in the first episode versus the finale, as almost two different hosts because at the end I found my comfort zone, and I was more familiar with the language, the technical aspects of what was going on and being more engaged, getting to know the kids a lot better and getting to know the format a lot better.

JFG: Did you find that you had to be more careful with the egos of children versus adult actors?

PSL: No, it’s interesting because kids can take things the wrong way, but they are without guile. So sometimes irony or sarcasm is lost on them. The same rules apply—treat others as you want to be treated. Lovingly, they accepted me almost immediately, I was struck by how big their hearts were. Here I was with twelve genius children from across the nation, I stepped in and within minutes I had a nickname, and they made my life a lot easier. I may have been a first time host, but I’m also a dad and because my youngest is also in that age range, I’m really comfortable. They honestly made my job a whole lot easier. I could make mistakes and I’d make a joke about it and it would relax them because they saw me—Paul is making mistakes, he’s fixing them and moving on, so we can make mistakes. My job at the end of the day was to make them comfortable and safe enough to be themselves. That’s one of the strengths of the show and it really shines through that these are fantastic kids with huge hearts; we knew they were going to be intelligent, but what I didn’t realize was how emotionally invested I would get with all of them because they all kind of became my kids. I wanted to see them all succeed and my heart broke for the ones who didn’t. It really was a wonderful thing to see because they all bonded, became friends, they were all empathetic and compassionate with one another, the level of sportsmanship brought a tear to my eye. That was not what I was expecting at all and it was a delightful surprise. These kids are the real stars of the show.

JFG: Hearing this I’m a bit surprised. On the American shows anyways, things are shown as cut throat and super competitive. Do you think this (niceness) is because we are Canadians?

PSL: Hahaha! Maybe it is the culture, Americans are super competitive. It’s not to say that these kids were not competitive either, I mean, they all wanted to win. When they got eliminated one by one, you could feel their pain. It wasn’t because “I’m not a winner”; the feeling was that “I’m not going to be with my friends anymore.” They all want it (to win), but they realized that winning was a very small part of the entire journey. As Barry Davis (Producer) said on the show, there is not one winner and eleven losers, but the experience itself was once in a lifetime for a lot of these people, myself included and all ultimately very rewarding. I’d love another opportunity to get a kick at the can.

JFG: What was the most interesting thing you learned hosting “Canada’s Smartest Person Junior”? There are so many categories of questions during the competition, I was wondering if you came across any interesting facts.

PSL: I learned that intelligence is something that isn’t easy to measure and I’ve come to believe that heart matters. I don’t want to spoil things, but you can see during certain moments the heart of the competitors rise above. It was a challenge of intelligence, but it was also really a challenge of the heart and determination of these children. That was the one thing that got me. The incredible hearts and determination shown by them. When you think about intelligence, it can be very clinical and very boring. That’s not something you want to see. These kids really invested in themselves and the stakes [were high]! They weren’t winning any prizes, scholarship, or large sum of money, they got bragging rights. That’s all it is. When you see individuals engage in something they are passionate about and you see them really fully invest themselves, it’s a wonderful thing. Heart trumps all.

JFG: I wanted to ask you some general questions too. What was your childhood like while growing up? Did it influence you towards the path of entering the arts?

PSL: Hahaha! I don’t know about that! My parents immigrated to Canada when I was three months old and they didn’t speak any English. They were professional teachers in Korea, but they couldn’t do that here because of the language issue. They worked very menial, labour intensive jobs. Back then you could leave your kid by themselves with little repercussions. Or maybe you couldn’t, and they just did it anyways! I grew up with the television on all the time. TV was my babysitter, my teacher, my best friend.

JFG: Same thing for me! I remember that the TV was always on!

PSL: That’s was the thing! I would consume so much television and my go-to was “Sesame Street,” “The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man,” “Looney Tunes,” —all these shows I consumed as a kid, I guess maybe that made me love storytelling, the idea of getting lost in the world. It was one of these things I was never wanting even though we didn’t have a lot of money growing up because my parents would help me be a doctor, engineer or lawyer. It wasn’t until high school I went rogue, in a sense and I was tired of math and science, I thought they were boring. But what I really, really loved were the arts, English. I loved reading stories, I loved writing stories. And then my parents had me enrolled into the International Baccalaureate program for first year university credits, blah, blah, blah, and it completely backfired on them. Because when you are given more advanced things to study, you are also given more options to present your studies. I remembered doing a video presentation for the first time. That really lit my fire in terms of wanting more creative process. And it was a terrible video with long horrible pauses in it between all the cuts, but it was so much fun. And when it was time to go to university, I went far away from my parents by going to Toronto. I wanted to be an actor. I didn’t know that I could be an actor, but it was kind of fun and fell in love with the craft of acting. I never turned back.

So I guess growing up, it was a series of happy accidents which got me to where I am right now.

JFG: Where did you grow up?

PSL: Calgary, Alberta. When we came to Canada we lived in London, Ontario for a few years, then my parents moved to Scarborough. My parents had a convenience store in downtown Toronto at Wellesley and Sherbourne across from the Wellesley Hospital. We were in Scarborough until I was in Grade one and then we were in Calgary from Grade Two to the end of high school, about eleven years. Then I moved to Toronto to go to school and my parents followed me and we’ve been here ever since.

JFG: In an interview with Pop Mythology, you said, “You can be pissy about not getting the lead role or the attention you think you deserve, but when it comes down to it, it’s all about doing the best role you can.” That’s an amazing attitude! How do you avoid becoming cynical or bitter in an industry that has not been very fair to many people?

PSL: I think you don’t! You do get pissy! Everyone’s allowed to do that! That’s why my twitter handle is @bitterasiandude for a reason! For a large part of my youth, I was very angry and very pissed off. It’s one of those things where you’re allowed to feel that. However, if you spend all your time pissing and moaning about and just talking about it, instead of doing something about it, that’s the problem. When you are complaining about the status quo, it’s easy to rail against the man and it’s comfortable because usually when you are ranting about it, so many people agree with you. The hardest thing is doing something about it. It’s a painful lesson to learn, but I’m on the other side now and I understand completely, especially younger people, being super pissed and stuff. I needed to understand when I was young too, that no one is just going to hand it to you because of the color of your skin or because you think you deserve it.

This is a difficult industry we are in. You have to focus on doing your job, doing your best, so next time they can’t ignore you. That’s tough. In my 20s I wanted it all right away. We are sold on the idea of instant stardom. “He was discovered folding laundry on the back of a Volkswagen Beetle!” Come on! In this industry, it’s 0.0001 of the story. But it’s sexy. What they don’t talk about is the other 99% of the people grinding it day in and day out, super talented, juggling three jobs and family, doing everything in their power to work.

When you finally get the opportunity to get (a job) people respond to, that’s catching lightning. This could have gone right by me if I wasn’t ready or if one thing skewed, or if we all gave up on the play, “Kim’s Convenience” might have never happened. It’s not how you get that opportunity, it’s what do you do with that opportunity. It’s all about being ready for it, prepping yourself for being as excellent as you can be. Also, the whole notion of being humble and grateful for it. There are people who work their asses off and do all the right things and they still haven’t gotten the opportunity. It’s ok to have ambition, it’s to aspire to these other things, but you shouldn’t ever think you deserve all these things. Everyone deserves success. Just remember to be grounded. You can always be ambitious, you can confident, but to think that “I deserve it,” that’s just a pitfall of despair and it’s a trap, a hole.

JFG: Looking into the future, there have been more talks about diversity and a willingness to entertain Asian-led casts. Have more opportunities opened for you and what do you think the trend will be for future Asian actors?

PSL: I really do think that it’s not a trend, this really is the start of the crest of a wave that is making its way across North America, especially in the sense that we are tapping this unexplored pool of talent that has never been given opportunity before. As I said before, it doesn’t matter how you got this opportunity, it’s what you do with it. If it opens the door for other Asian performers on or behind the camera, that’s fantastic, take it while you can. Show what you can do and be excellent at it, then you can’t be ignored anymore. It doesn’t have to be a culturally or ethnically specific role or project; you can just be a talented filmmaker, artist, actor, producer or whatever, you can turn that corner. If that’s what gets you in great, but that isn’t what we should always be limited to (culture/ethnicity).

In terms of other roles, no! It’s very funny, that’s the ironic thing. To be quite frank, I’ve won two Canadian Screen Awards for best comedic actor as a lead in a television role, but I don’t get offers for even guest starring roles. The stuff I get offered is the same stuff as before, asking to be played the jeweller or grocer #3. I can do more now, but I’m lucky that I’m in the position that I don’t have to say yes because I have “Kim’s” and I have a little “piece of mind money” that I saved up. It’s this whole idea about “he’s great as a Korean, but can he play a non-Korean. Can he?” It’s very funny.

Mr. Kim, “Appa,” is not me! The acting ability that I have to bring to the table to play a character that is not me is tremendous! But everyone thinks it’s so easy! I suffer from doing it too well sometimes, people think I’m at home and I speak with a Korean accent all the time! I love it when fans come up and say “Wow, you speak perfect English!” Well, yes! Because I’m an actor and my job is to play characters!

It’s a double-edged sword though, sometimes casting directors don’t know what to do with me otherwise, and the more I do this the more people will associate me with this role. It’s a first world problem! Woe is me, I’m going to have to resigned to the fact that I’m the lead on the #1 Canadian comedy. If I start to sound too whiny, I tell myself to “shut up, you’re doing good!”

JFG: Your play, Dangling premiered at Toronto’s fu-GEN theatre festival in 2010. Do you have more plans to write more?

PSL: This is funny because it never was produced—it was a stage reading of a play that I had written. That was really fun. It was great to get back to writing, it was part of the Potluck series at fu-Gen Theatre. Nina Lee Aquino, who was the artistic director at the time, had this play writing unit. I needed an excuse and a strong reason to write with a hard deadline and being part of a collective forced me to have to write. Initially I’m very good and self motivated, but it’s hard to stick with it and when there are no stakes, I fall behind. With this group, there was a commitment I had to make to do this. I enjoyed it tremendously and learned an awful lot as well. It’s something that I would love to do again, but it’s finding the discipline and something I’m passionate about. Dangling was a play about hockey and mirrors my discovery of playing ice hockey. I’ve always loved watching and criticizing hockey, but I’ve never actually put on skates and played the game. It was a very humbling experience about something that I love, about someone discovering their love of hockey and being on the ice and trying to describe that in a theatrical way. Again, I would love to write some more. I have a few screenplay ideas, an idea for a feature film and it’s these lovely things that I afforded now that I have a bit of cache. That’s the other blessing about “Kim’s Convenience” is that it’s given me these incredible opportunities as well and it’s been so rewarding on so many levels. “Canada’s Smartest Person Junior” is another thing I would not have discovered if had not been all the hard work put in for “Kim’s.”

JFG: For newcomers to the arts, what advice can you give them? It’s hard for Asian kids to go into the arts; for people in high school it’s hard to gain support from parents. For myself, I couldn’t take writing more seriously until I graduated university and didn’t rely on parents for money.

PSL: If a show like “Kim’s Convenience” was around when you were in high school and you showed your parents “see this on television, Asian directors, Asian actors, Asian writers, and it’s the number one rated show,” do you think this would have changed your parents’ minds a little bit? Would you not think this would have a bit of an influence?

JFG: I don’t know. My background is Chinese, and we watched a lot of Hong Kong shows and Asian dramas. In our household it was a mixture of English and Asian stuff; if I had wanted to go into the entertainment industry, I would have gone to Asia and not stayed here.

PSL: OK, but do you think the reason why you wouldn’t do it here is because there isn’t as much (in the industry)? In Asia they tell their own stories, but in terms of Asians telling their own stories in North America, there had been a bit of a vacuum until recently. There’s a theory floating around that a lot of times there were no examples, no success stories. In spite of the lack of success stories, someone has to be the first—there has to be trailblazers and there has to be followers.

It’s the beginning of a movement, the genie is out of the bottle, the audiences are more savvy now, especially in North America and they won’t be fed the same lies. “Oh, there’s no real Asian television here!” That’s BS and garbage. It’s one of these things that we can monetize on the fact that this show is successful and there’s a big push for these types of stories to be told because there is money to be made. Vast, untapped sources of money. If you really want to be draconian about it, you can tell your parents this: “Look, there’s a potential to make a ton of money in this because you will be the first!”

There are thousands of doctors, lawyers and engineers. They are such crowded professions and there’s no guarantee you can get anywhere good anymore. Back in the old days, sure. Now, if it’s going to be just as risky, then why not go for the big cash in, jackpot? And why not do it by doing something you want to do, that you are passionate about?  I understand family’s important, but you have to live your own life too.

Of course I wanted to please [my parents], but there was no question in my mind that I wasn’t not going to take drama. It was my choice, I was old enough to live on my own. It never came to the point that they would disown me because I’m an adult now and I’m old enough to do what I want to do. You can either support me or we won’t see other, that type of thing. At the end of the day, I’m a product of having been raised in North America, but I still have one foot in Korea with my parents. The thing is, because my parents were not home as much, I’m not as deeply entrenched in Korean culture as some of my other friends with Korean parents at home and going to Korean school. I never had the resources for that. My experiences were similar, but I was granted a lot more leeway because my parents were not around since they were always working.

JFG: This sounds like my own story, although I was raised by my grandmother because my parents were working and I was reading books.

PSL: I would say follow your passion, follow what you love. You are going to be doing it for a long time, so at least you have to like it! I know a lot of people who have a good paying job and when I ask if they like it, they say “no.” Then why are you doing it then and what would you rather be doing? “Well, to make money.” You make these choices in life, you can choose to be comfortable or choose to be passionate and do both, few can do both at the same time. That’s life too. I had to work retail jobs just so I could stay acting. But there was never a question for me to quit acting. I was just too stupid and stubborn to quit! Things change, if you have a family too, I get it! You need more money for your kids to eat! If acting doesn’t pay for it, then you need to get that job and you find a way to make things work. Sometimes you have to wait, but at the end of the day, nobody owes you anything!

JFG: This has been an intriguing conversation, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us at Ricepaper Magazine! It’s been a pleasure, since we are both in Toronto maybe we’ll get together for coffee one day!

NOTE: This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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