#62 – Paul Sun-Hyung Lee
Paul Sun-Hyung Lee is an award-winning actor, best known for the lead role of Appa in the CBC series Kim’s Convenience, which is based on the stage play in which he also starred as Appa. Born in Korea, his family immigrated to Canada when he was still a baby. He grew up in London, Ontario then moved to Scarborough, a suburb of Toronto and later to Calgary. After he was accepted to the University of Toronto, his parents moved back to the Greater Toronto Area. He won the 2012 Toronto Theatre Critics’ Association Award for Best Actor for Kim’s Convenience and received Dora Nominations for Outstanding Performance for both Kim’s Convenience and Monster Under the Bed.
While best known for the role of Appa in Kim’s Convenience, Paul has also been seen in such roles as Hong Kong Lee in Ali & Ali: The Deportation Hearings with Factory Theatre and Cahoots Theatre Company, Robert in La Ronde with Soulpepper, and Zhang Lin in Chimerica with Canadian Stage.
Paul is appearing as Appa in Kim’s Convenience at the Young Centre in Toronto, until March 4 2017, and Montreal’s Segal Centre starting March 8 2017. Paul will also be performing as Appa when Kim’s Convenience travels to New York in July.
Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, Phil Rickaby
Phil Rickaby 00:02
Welcome to Episode 63 of Stageworthy, I’m your host Phil Rickaby. Stageworthy is a podcast of people in Canadian theatre featuring conversations with actors, directors, playwrights and more. If you’d like what you hear, I hope you’ll subscribe on iTunes or Google music or whatever podcast app you use and consider leaving a comment or rating. If you want to drop me a line you can find stage or the on Facebook and Twitter @stageworthypod, and you can find the website at stageworthypodcast.com. Paul Sun-Hyung Lee is an award winning actor best known for the role of Appa in Ins Choi’s, Kim’s convenience. When we spoke, Paul was performing the role that Neptune theatre in Halfiax and returns to Toronto in the role starting February 8 at the Young Centre. So, thanks for doing this. I’ve actually wanted to talk to you for quite a while.
Paul Sun-Hyung Lee 01:11
Yeah, I remember. We were sort of corresponding a little bit back and forth a few weeks ago. Yeah. And it’s been a crazy year for me.
Phil Rickaby 01:22
Yeah, I mean, to go from I mean, the Kim’s convenience alone, just that’s that’s been a huge ride theatrically. And then to have that do so well on on television.
Paul Sun-Hyung Lee 01:35
Phil Rickaby 01:37
Before before I talk about about Kim’s convenience, I wanted to ask you a little bit about your road to theatre? Like how did how did theatre become a thing that you wanted to do?
Paul Sun-Hyung Lee 01:49
Oh, wow. You know what it was quite by accident. To be honest. It was one of those things where, you know, going going to school, elementary school, junior high in high school was never even an option for me wasn’t even on my radar that I could do that for a living. I mean, I’d seen plays on stage before. And I remember the first professional production ever saw in Calgary growing up was at Theatre Calgary, it was Salt Water Moon. And I’d never heard of David French before, you know, had never been to a real sort of contemporary, I guess, for lack of a better term, even though it is set in, you know, in the past, you know, the only other sort of productions I’ve sort of seen a little bit of were, like Shakespeare in the Park, and things like that. But the real, like, the first theatre I ever went to, was in Calgary at Theatre Calgary watching that, and I was completely blown away by the story. And the actors, you know, on stage, and it was just so lovely, so touching, and it sort of stuck with me. But even then, it wasn’t anything that really seemed to be a viable option for me. I mean, my parents were the typical immigrant parents, and he wanted to be me to be an engineer, or a doctor or a lawyer, or one of those time honoured professionals that were safe and well known to their generation. And, you know, sort of going to school and being the model student to doing well, with grades and stuff like that. I found myself very, very dissatisfied with the, with the subjects that I was learning, the sciences just didn’t really hold the same sort of intrigue or passion that they once had when I was younger. And when I went to high school, I was actually involved in a programme called the International Baccalaureate programme. And it’s a sort of like an accelerated programme for gifted students. And you’re basically doing sort of higher level learning in the various subjects. And I found that, you know, because of my disinterested in the sciences, I was failing horribly in them. And but I really what I really sort of glommed on to and really started enjoying doing, were the more creative side of things, such as, you know, English, we were able to do, you know, we’re given free rein, and we were able to be as creative as we wanted, and presentations to the class and stuff. And I found myself really, really drawn to that part of my education. And, you know, he came time to go to university, and I’d applied to go to U of T. And for different reasons, a, I wanted to get away from home for a baby sort of stretch my wings and, and sort of be my own person. And my girlfriend at the time was going to U of T, right? So it was one of these perfect things where I thought, Oh, well, I could be with her and I could be away from my parents in a big city. And, you know, it seemed like a path that I wanted to take. And while I was choosing courses for university, I saw the UC drama programme, and I thought, hey, this sounds like fun. You know, we, we have, you know, we’ve done presentations at school, we know I’ve never done a play I’ve never done any of that stuff. And for whatever reason that intrigued me and I applied to go to U of T for the drama programme now, they don’t just let anybody in and you have to actually audition to get in. Yeah, really know what I was in for. So I got to Toronto. You know, I had to go to UC college, and I hated the city. I hated Toronto. You know, as soon as I stepped off the plane, it was like, somebody threw a wet blanket onto me because it was so humid and hot. And Calgary is you know, it’s near the mountains. It’s very dry. And the humidity was almost overbearing, and the first person I met screamed at me, because I guess I’d done something wrong at the airport. I’m not sure what it was exactly. It was a big city, I’d never seen, you know, panhandlers before. Right. And so it was all really very overwhelming, and then finding my way to, you know, the University of Toronto and and being thrust in this sort of, it was kind of a an open workshop slash audition for the programme.
Phil Rickaby 06:00
Did you have to prepare, like a monologue?
Paul Sun-Hyung Lee 06:02
Well, that’s the thing. No, it was it was just like what they said, sort of show up for this big sort of group workshop thing. And I didn’t know what I was doing, right. So I show up, and I’m the only kid of colour in the room. And there are all these kids who have obviously gone through some sort of theatrical training. And you know, a lot of them were warming up, I remember that quite vividly. There are kids who have their shoes and socks off, and they’re stretching on the floor. And I thought, Okay, what, I had no idea why they were structuring what we were in for. And Ken Gas was the instructor and he was running the workshop. And Pia Kleber, who is also the head of the programme was there as well sort of observing. And we went through a series of theatre exercises, Theatre School exercises, that were very physical in nature. And I’d never ever done anything like that before. And I just didn’t know, I couldn’t see the point of a lot of these exercises. And actually thought, This is crazy. This is absolutely insane what we’re doing, like, it just made no sense, I didn’t know how in tune an actor had to be with their body with their voice. And the physicality of movement along with text was it was completely foreign to me. So I didn’t have a very good time. And in fact, the longer the workshop went, the more I kind of felt out of place. And the more I thought, maybe this isn’t for me. And I remember ending, we all had to stand in a big circle and Ken gas, he said, I want each of you to step into the middle of the circle and say this line. And the line was what a terrible, miserable, horrible day. And I thought, This is perfect, like this is right in my wheelhouse. Because not. And I remember, you know, the different kids coming in, and different dramatic readings of it and sad and angry and this and that. And I went in and I was just so filled with disgust. When I said my line at the end of it, I spat on the ground, and just sort of and, you know, then we have the interviews afterwards. And, you know, it was one of those things where I was so naive, I brought my high school yearbook with me to show them because somebody’s taking a picture of one of their presentations that we had done that we’ve written this sketch. And like I had no idea really. And I got into the programme. And I think it’s, it’s twofold. I think a one of the reasons that I got in was the fact that I had like zero experience. So I had zero bad habits. Right off the bat, I was just as fresh as you can get in terms of, you know, being able to build somebody up and train them. And I think now looking back at it, with a lot of sort of experience is the fact that, you know, I was the only person of colour who actually did come out and audition. And, you know, that always looks good. When you when you accept somebody to a programmer who is not of the, you know, doesn’t look the same now. Yeah, you know, I want to temper that with the fact that, you know, I don’t think they would have just let anybody with different code skinny into the programme, I think they actually did see something within me that they could try to work with. And I guess, in my interview, I must have shown some sort of aptitude for learning. And, yeah, after that first year of universe, U- University College drama programme, can really, really made me fall in love with the craft of acting, I had no idea how much work was involved in becoming an actor. You know, to me, it was always Oh, you just learned a bunch of lines, you see them and you act angry or sad or scared or whatever. But I had no idea how connective and how really intricate that that world is and how focused you had to be in how there was actually a craft involved in acting. And he really, really made me fall in love with that whole process. And it opened up my mind to a bunch of different possibilities. And, you know, never turned back and I was terrible. Like I was I was the worst actor, you know. I spoke too fast. That wasn’t an NCAA thing. I rushed through my moments I didn’t sit, I wasn’t grounded. You know, all those, those those very basic mistakes that a lot of young actors do. You know, I did. But it was an incredible experience. And, you know, as I went on through the UC drama programme, and grew and learn more, and, you know, finally finished the programme and sort of like left University, it was one of those things where, as I say that too stupid or too stubborn to sort of go do anything else. So I just sort of stayed the course and kept plugging away. And yeah, so that’s, that’s how I got started.
Phil Rickaby 10:38
Well, one of the questions I sort of have listening to that story is, I mean, you had such, you describe your description of that, that workshop? And how miserable you were I kinda, I’m sort of curious. After that, what was it that made you still want to go into that programme?
Paul Sun-Hyung Lee 11:00
You know, it was interesting, I have the personality where I don’t like to give up on things too easily. And I guess part of the reason why I had such a bad time was because I felt like, I didn’t belong. And, you know, I just, I wasn’t one of this group. And I didn’t know anything about the world, I just felt as much of an outsider as you can get. And I was in a new city. And it was one of those things where I wasn’t expecting to be invited to the programme. And I guess maybe I was mentally preparing myself for that eventuality for them to say, Well, thanks for coming out. But you know, we’re going to go in another direction. And we’ve got other students who are ahead of you in terms of their development, and we’re going to go with them. And so I think I was just sort of mentally preparing myself to be rejected. And so when you think you’re not going to make it, but there’s a party that really wants to be part of that group. You know, and then the opportunity is there. I mean, you know, the exuberance of youth, I jumped at it, just because it was something that I really, really wanted to explore, but never thought I would get the opportunity to. And so when they open that door for me, I jumped. And you I’m glad I did. I’m really glad idea.
Phil Rickaby 12:14
Once you got out of that programme, what was what was the your trajectory? Like? Were you? Did you go? Did you find acting jobs right away? Did you? Did you have Did you have a hard time? I know, for me, I think it was early on in my theatre school time somebody looked looked at me and said, you might have a career in 20 years, right? My face was older, but then there were other people who were like, out the door, they look like young kids, and everybody was like, was clamouring for them because they sort of fit.
Paul Sun-Hyung Lee 12:48
Yeah, you know, and I felt that I really felt that in going through the usual perceived drama programme. I mean, they have, I think, in any programme, they have their leading men and ocean news that they want to develop, and they say, you know, you’ve got to look, you’ve got to hit your something that, you know, theatre companies are looking for. And so they can’t help but sort of have a subtle bias towards, you know, because every every programme needs their success stories in order to maintain enrollment, right? They want to point to graduates and say, hey, look at them, they went through this programme, don’t you want to be part of this long history of fine actors that we’re producing. And so the byproduct of that is, you know, the, the kids who are just sort of, are there and that they don’t think, you know, well, they might be a good journeyman actor, or they might not actor this or that, they just sort of the priorities aren’t there. And it’s not really a level playing ground. That’s just kind of how it is, especially when you have a large group of kids. You know, I think we had something like 20 to 30 kids in our class, for first year and two classes of 30. Kids. So that’s, that’s, you know, that’s a lot of kids, you have to sort of pay attention to, and the ones that show an aptitude, you sort of naturally sort of, you know, the instructors will sort of see that. And it’s because it’s more fun to work with these kids in a way, you know, when there’s something there that he more than this, and that and there’s a shorthand, you know, and I didn’t really take it personally. But it was one of those things, because when you’re a person of colour in a society that is not of your colour, you’re kind of used to be marginalised. You know, it takes place in the form of a million different microaggressions every day. And not only in regular society, but in the media to where you’re just, you’re projected as not being important. Yeah. And when you see that enough, you start to believe that other subconsciously or not, you just start to believe that and, you know, you start to just, you pull back and go, Okay, well, this is how I expect to be treated, because everybody says, I should be treated this way. And I think that’s, that’s a big thing. Growing up now and really getting more experience and finding out that more people feel the same way or were feeling the same way. And now finally, having a vehicle or having the strength to find a voice to step up and say, No, no, no, no, this is not right. This is not right. And, you know, it just sort of shows how systemically ingrained that bias or prejudice is in our society. But we’re moving now I think, is a golden age towards just awareness of that. And you know, that’s where it begins when we become aware of a problem, then we can start taking steps to sort of correct that. So, when I graduated, when I got into the programme, UC drama programme, I mean, they were fantastic in terms of providing a very, very strong foundation in terms of skills. But again, UT is an academically based institution. So I knew a lot about theatre history. You knew about all the different styles of acting in the history of theatre and Canadian theatre and this and that, but none of that’s really applicable to every you know, for an actor trying to get a job. Yeah. And that’s the one thing that I think UT really didn’t prepare me for was actual the real worlds because once I graduated, I had no idea how to get a job. As an actor, I didn’t know I needed headshots, I didn’t know the role that agent played, I didn’t really know about the unions, or what they provided, I had no sort of outlet in terms of like, Where can you go for continuing support? You know, I learned a theatre Ontario much later on. The subtle little things that I guess people kind of take for granted that you should know about what you know, like, you don’t know what equity is.
Phil Rickaby 16:20
Oh, yeah, that’s, that’s really, that’s really good. Cuz to me, I mean, why? My, like, I come to that, like, I went to George Brown, where there’s always been a business of acting course, which was always like, you know, they taught they taught us that. And I know that the universities are more academic, but the idea that to me, it just sort of seems like, like, of course, you wouldn’t know how all that works. If you’ve never been in that professional situation, nobody tells you about that, then I don’t know how you can be expected to make a career out of it. It seems like it’s one of those things that’s missing from those, some of those those programmes.
Paul Sun-Hyung Lee 16:56
Yeah, you know, and it cuz, you know, I guess it’s this whole idea of, well, we make actors, it’s not our job to let you get to help you get work. It’s our job to help you be able to work once you get the job. And I fully agree with that, because we’re not, you know, I can’t speak for George Brown or any other things, but I know that you have tea that was just, even if we’d had like a weekend seminar, where we had people from the industry coming in, and letting us know, and doing the very basics of you know, like, well, this is what the industry is like. And these are the different theatre companies. And these are the IDs and this is the protocol for auditioning or requesting auditions. Or this is how you look for an agent and this will need you can do for you. Right. And, you know, but that’s it’s one of those things where that’s not a priority for them. Right, the priority really is about just, you know, let’s teach them how to act. And I’m going to get a job as an actor. So right. You know, I think that that would be the little edge that would sort of push a lot of programmes you know, a little bit further in terms of having people who’ve gone through the programme stay in this profession, because a lot of people just got discouraged. And were like, you know, well, I can’t get a job as an actor. So what am I going to do? I gotta to eat?
Phil Rickaby 18:10
Right, yeah, I see that I see that. People graduate from all from all schools like, yeah, like, it’s, it’s a tough like, it is a tough business. Yeah. A couple of I mean, we’re talking a lot about school. But one, just one last thing. I mean, you were mentioning that when you audition, you were the only person of colour when you were at the school. Were there other people of colour in there with you? Or were you did you still feel like you were the lone person of colour?
Paul Sun-Hyung Lee 18:38
In every year, I think the joke was in every year, there was always an Asian student, just one Asian student. And the year before me, was a guy by the name of Coleman Poon. I remember him and I was like, Oh, he’s Chinese. And then there’s me. And then the year after me, was a girl named Nancy Kim. And the year after that was another kid named Alex Strong. And it was always it was always a sort of running joke that we have kind of had, it’s like, well, we feel the Asian quarter, right? We got the one Asian in per year type thing, but it was I mean, yeah, looking back at it, it was it was a very homogeneous looking group. But that also speaks to, you know, I mean, I didn’t know I could, that was even an option to train to be an actor, rare. So it’s not as much the program’s fault is the fact that systemically as a society, you know, we are not showing enough of these faces on stage. So the parents who might be bankrolling or who might have a heavy influence on what their kids are doing. Don’t see that and say, That’s not a viable option. Right. So a lot of these kids aren’t even auditioning for it. You know, because why should they I mean, why train for something that you’re never going to get a chance to use? And I think more and more you hear the cries, you hear the calls for representation on stage and screen, but you know, award winners like the gentlemen from Master of None Calling out and saying, you know, to the Asian parents, give your kids the cameras give them the opportunity to create and this and that. And you can, you know, we have success stories and when they see more success stories, and it’s easier for them to let their kids sort of go into this field where they can tell their stories. And they can represent not only themselves, but their communities at large as a byproduct. You know, that’s, that’s very important as well. And that’s something that we’ve really sort of taken to heart and realised and recognised and gone. Yeah, you know, there aren’t very many success stories in the Asian community, for actors, or writers or directors, there’s a few, but there’s not nearly as many as they should be. And if we can get to the source of it, if we can start reaching a broader audience and showing these immigrant families, you know, this is you can be a success. It might be a little bit harder, but it’s it’s attainable, then I think we’ll start to see that rise in enrollment or people trying out for these programmes and trying to get their training.
Phil Rickaby 20:59
Yeah, yeah. Yeah. Um, so to talk about about Kim’s convenience. I mean, you’re gonna be you’re, you’re in Halifax right now. Performing the show, you’re coming back to Toronto? And then after that, you’re going to Montreal, and you’re heading towards your 400 performance of APA, APA. That’s right. Tomorrow night. How does that I mean, how does that feel, I mean, first one thing for an actor to to be able to have the 400th performance in any role is pretty rare. But for one that’s been in a show that is as much of a Canadian sensation as it is possible to be. How does that that feel, as you’re approaching that milestone,
Paul Sun-Hyung Lee 21:51
I feel incredibly blessed, actually, because I realised that it isn’t something that happens to a lot of actors where they get, you know, the chance to play a role for that long, it really is a luxury, and it’s a gift to have this opportunity. And, you know, it’s overwhelming sometimes. Because, you know, I think about how many, how many times I’ve done the show and how many different cast members we’ve had, the different cities we’ve gone to, and what the show really means has become the mean to to lots of people in the community. I’m overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude for it, and a little bit of exhaustion, to be honest, it’s taken its toll on me just in terms of being away from my family, for huge chunks of time. But, you know, this, this role is a gift. It’s wrote this role. And I was lucky enough to sort of be attached to it and, you know, do the various workshops. And, you know, once he intellects to say that once, once he heard me read for the role, he started writing, with my voice in mind. And we’ve had a wonderful sort of collaborative, symbiotic relationship with this play over the years. And I’m very proud of the fact that I’ve been able to do a good enough job that, you know, people still want to see the play, and they still want to see me in it, so that that’s very heartening. But it is, I mean, and I still love doing the play, I love the role. And I’m still finding things in a role, which is, it’s such a treat, it’s it’s so mind blowing that, you know, you get a different actor in who’s who’s playing the same, you know, like a role that’s been previously defined. And they bring their own energy to it, their own sense to it. And within the confines of that character, they give me something different, that makes me approach my response to them differently. And I find something. And it’s, that’s, that’s why acting is so fantastic. Like on any given night, you’re not going to recreate the exact same shows you had the night before. It is a very fluid sort of beast, where you have to take what’s given to you and you have to respond accordingly to make it realistic to make it you know, truthful and authentic. Right. Otherwise, you’re just, you know, robots on stage barking outlines. And that’s, that’s the thing about this role. And, you know, I look back at it and never would have, I never dreamed that I would have the opportunity to play a part like this for as long as I have, and to have it received this way. And so I am eternally grateful. And yeah, I just humbled, humbled by the whole thing.
Phil Rickaby 24:33
Well, I mean, the show was was I think people recognise right away when it premiered at the Toronto fringe that it was something special. It had worked out before fringe though, didn’t it?
Paul Sun-Hyung Lee 24:45
Oh, yeah. I mean, it’s working on the place since 2005, I believe. And it started off as because he was in the playwrights kitchen at Fu Gen Theatre Company, and the then artistic director Nina Lee Aquino. You know, that was part of the exercise they had to their final project was to have two completed scenes of a play. And they presented. And the feedback to his two scenes about Kim’s Convenience was so overwhelming that the need encouraged is to expand this to fall into play. And so over the years, he had done at least four or five different workshops, like once a year. You know, and I think there was only one workshop that I wasn’t involved in, because it’s one to hear somebody else in the in the role, which is great. But he, you know, he gave up on it, and you put it away for a bit, and he dragged it back out and get some seed money from his church to do another workshop. We do the workshops, we do a public reading, we get the responses back, and it’s just kept plugging away. So he was working on it while he was part of the conservatory company at Stratford. And then when he joined the the Soulpepper Academy, he was working on it still. And, you know, finally 2010 he finished it, he’s like, I’m done. And he shot the script around to all the different theatre companies and they all took a pass on it. And you know, it’s one of those things where, on the surface, you look at it and go, Okay, well, what’s the synopsis? It’s a story about an immigrant family in Toronto. And, you know, the father wants to restore to his daughter, and you read it, and it’s kind of like reading Shakespeare, right? Like Do we have -. Okay, okay. Yeah. But it’s, it isn’t until you see it performed. And you hear the words out loud. Yeah, it’s really even a life. And that was the thing. You don’t want nobody on all the theatre companies took a pass on it. I don’t think they really saw the potential for it. They just sort of went immigrant story. Oh, it’s an Asian guy. Asian story, meh.
Phil Rickaby 26:43
Paul Sun-Hyung Lee 26:44
But they don’t do their they don’t do that. Well. And so you know, when that happened in, you know, he’d worked on it for so long. He was adamant about not just letting it die. He needed to see it produced at least once. And so that’s when he entered it into the the best, the new play competition for the Fringe Festival. Yeah. And he ended up winning it. And he gets a spot in the fringe. And he comes to me and says, Hey, I got to spawn the friends you want to? You know, will you be in it? Can you do it? Absolutely. And Erie gathered the forces rally the troops. And we started rehearsing that thing, you know, four hours a day here, they’re in the basement of a church outside, wherever we can find space. And we lost our director, Wyndham vacation was going to direct a friend show, but she got an offer to go to Stratford. So that was kind of a no brainer, go to Stratford. And so, you know, it’s kind of took over, but we all were very collaborative in terms of shaping the scenes, and you know, how the play went. And it was one of those things where a lot of it was done on the fly, just because that’s the fringe. Yeah, you don’t have time for ourselves, you don’t have as much resources that you would like to have a fully polished piece, which is why I think audiences are pretty forgiving at the fringe, you know, to $10 a ticket, you realise it’s not going to be letter perfect. But you’re there. And when we hit Oh, my god, it was crazy. Because our opening night where the bathroom suite theatres, a 200 sheet, a 200 seat theatre, and it was packed. Yeah. And, you know, the response was overwhelming. Like, they just people went nuts. And I thought, Okay, well, that’s great. But it’s opening night opening, I thought it was weird and filled with friends and family. And the next letter, remember, was a Friday night, there was a 10 o’clock performance. And I thought, you know, it’s Friday night, there’s a lot going on in the city, we might have 75 people maximum. I remember showing up early to the theatre to get ready. And there was a line up around the corner. Yeah. And I thought what the hell is going on? And I asked what shows everybody waiting for it. People are waiting to see Kim’s convenience. And, you know, the buzz just sort of hit the fringe. And it’s one of those things where, you know, once you get that buzz, and everybody, you know, sort of jumps on chance to see something that, you know, is supposed to be the next big hit. And, you know, we just kept certain people kept lining up earlier and earlier to try to get those tickets. Yeah. Yeah, it was crazy. And then of course, you know, we finished the run, we sell out every single round, we do an extra show because we’re the patron pick of the venue. We got invited to the Best of Fringe festival. And in all the theatre companies that had said no came knocking on the door wondering if they can present Kim’s on their stages.
Phil Rickaby 29:20
Of course. Yeah. I mean, it’s, it’s interesting, like from there and and that performance. I mean, I saw one of those fringe performances. And it was it was like something special I don’t think I’ve ever seen. There have been in the last 10 years of my life, to genuine standing ovations that I was part of. And Kim’s convenience was the first. You know, standing ovations happened all the time, but Kim’s convenience was like the first one that I can remember where they go. There was that if I had to take that. No, thank you. It’s To take that show, you then went to to salt pepper, did you find that this that this this script changed much from fringe to Soulpepper? Or did it basically state that it? Were there many changes? Or did it really –
Paul Sun-Hyung Lee 30:11
that was the you know, because whenever a show from a fringe jumps up to a mainstage is especially, you know, from one of the biggest theatre companies in the city, you know, with with the incredible resources that soulpepper has at their disposal, I mean, we jumped on and then, you know, when he came back, and we had a set, you know, our set designer, Ken McKenzie, who’s with us at the fringe, had this budget to recreate this beautiful store on stage, we had a lighting designer, you know, and we had eight hours of rehearsal a day, six days a week for like, four weeks, which was a luxury. So, you know, there’s that whole idea of well, you know, is it going to sustain. So let’s, let’s look at the script, and we’ll pull it apart. And it actually started writing a couple of extra scenes that we sort of put in. And by the end of it all, it does the plays remarkably the same. You know, those scenes, the extra scenes that he wrote, didn’t work, they didn’t fit, so we dropped them. And, you know, we tried, we pull those scenes apart, we did dramaturgy on them, we got on our feet, we tried different ways of playing them. And it always it just sort of all went back to the way we performed it at the fringe. Because it was it just came from a place of honesty and authenticity. And you really can’t beat that. And the biggest difference was, because we had been able to rehearse and really explore the text so much. We were well more were more grounded in our choices. We knew why they work now. When we were rehearsing for the frames, there wasn’t enough time. So you you go with your gut, what feels right, you can’t really articulate why it’s right. You just, it just feels right. And, you know, rehearsing it, so peppers, waney, all those all those weeks, you knew why they work, there’s like, Okay, this is a connection that we make. This is why we’re playing this role like this, or this beat like that, because you now have a chance the luxury of exploring and mining that. And so, in my mind, the show became very, very grounded and rooted in a sense of of realism and authenticity, where the choices made perfect sense. And there’s a confidence and a self assuredness that comes from that. And it was just reaffirming all the choices that we’ve made before. And you know, it’s hard to hard to argue with success. Yeah, absolutely. Again, we were lucky enough that this stadium of Kim’s convenience for me has always been a question of Well, is it going to be good enough? You know, is it gonna be good enough? Like, from the first to see is? Is it going to be good enough to be a play? And from the play? Is it going to be good enough for fringe audiences, you know, to enjoy? And is it going to be good enough for mainstage audiences to enjoy? Is it going to be good enough for cities outside of Toronto to enjoy when we’re going tour? Is it going to be good enough to to be television series? You know, is it is it gonna be good enough to go to New York outside? You know, like, someplace outside the country, you know, and Kim’s has beaten the odds on all of them. You know, but there’s, there’s always that little for me at least that little bit of fear. Like, is it gonna work? Is it gonna work? And or is it going to be good enough? And so far, so good?
Phil Rickaby 33:22
Yeah, I mean, it’s it, I think it’s, it seems to have resonated everywhere it goes and on television as well. It seems that it’s one of those. I can’t actually think of a show, a Canadian show in the, for one of a better phrase sitcom genre that has really succeeded in Canada. We’ve been known for sketch comedy, but never quite anything that could be a situation comedy. To see people to hear people like I see all over Facebook and Twitter people are raving about, about about Kim’s convenience. And it’s it’s kind of amazing to see this show that that started out on a two and a 200 seat theatre at the fringe. They’ve just gone on to television. Yeah,
Paul Sun-Hyung Lee 34:11
yeah. And I think that the key to the show has always been I mean, the one thing that we’re very conscious about was trying to capture the essence of what made the place so successful. And at the core of it is I think, we play we portray characters that are real, they’re authentic and honest. And the tone of the of the show, even though it is a situation comedy is we’re not playing General, or broad for laughs. We are trying to be as specific as possible and we’re playing the situation and letting the humour arise from that instead of trying to play the office gag. And I think we’ve caught a lot of people by surprise with that. And I think that’s what sort of sets us apart from you know, your regular sitcom, where it’s like, set up, set up, set up joke, set up self serve a joke, you know, we’re really we’re present Something that I think is, is new for a lot of audiences. First of all, it’s an all Asian, you know, cast in terms of leads in a sitcom. And you know, I, there’s this, that’s the first in Canada, we’ve had these young these presented on our screens before, but always in a dramatic sort of sense, you know, but it’s really great work that’s put out there, but never in a comedy. And I think because we’re not, we’re not going for the regular, the cheap chop Socky. Oh, my God, he’s funny, because he sounds funny sort of gags, when we’re actually portraying them as real people in real situations that and things that actually happened that are quite humorous. And because we’re playing it with integrity, the laughs come from there. I think audiences recognise that audience is very smart. And we’ve seen the same old, same old before and it works. And there’s a market for it. Absolutely. You know, I’m not trying to downplay or denigrate. You know, it shows that use that formula, because there is a desire for that. But I mean, do we want to do something that’s exactly the same as everything else, except for the colour of our skin? No, you know, we want to do something that is fresh and exciting and real. And when people notice, and the first season that comes, I think, we’re very fortunate in terms of, you know, Yvonne fits on was a fantastic leader, and such a calming presence. And then it’s, with Kevin white, as co creators and co showrunners, putting together a fantastic writing room, you know, and then the production side work, everybody who was on board, you know, who’d read the scripts, really, really loved the scripts, and believed in what was going on, it was a very, very happy set from top to bottom, everybody felt appreciated. Everybody believed in the work, everybody was, you know, really pulling for it. And when you’re on a happy set, it’s amazing. Because that translates on the screen, I absolutely believe that, you know, you can tell a happy set from what you’re watching on the screen. And it makes people do that extra bit, because they want to, because they believe in it, you know, and that’s, that’s incredible. We’re incredibly fortunate to have had that situation this summer. And I think that that, in itself as well speaks to the success of the show. There’s just so much love and respect put into it.
Phil Rickaby 37:17
It’s the show has a – I mean, it’s expanded, it’s expanded the character of APA, putting them in different situations, do you find Have you found that having done the TV show, and now coming back to the play other things that you’ve learned through this show that that, that make things in the play a little bit different?
Paul Sun-Hyung Lee 37:44
Um just thinking about, I remember when we were about to start shooting the TV show, I was really worried about how Apple would translate just because I’d done the stage version for so long. And the TV version of us was 10 years younger, the entire family has been young doubt by 10 years. And everybody’s world has been expanded. And I was under the impression Initially, I thought, Okay, well, this is up from 10 years ago. And he’s going to be much different from the upper in the play. And, you know, it’s just like, how do we get that so he becomes the upper in the play later on. And, you know, my fears are regular laid to rest quite quickly on that, because it’s, it’s like almost like an alternate universe, because there’s no way with the way that we’ve played up on the television series for this first season, that he would be the same person that you would see at the beginning of the play. It’s like Star Trek, it’s that alternate timeline that where little universes and but you know, going from the television series, which is great in terms of expanding my character and Jane’s character, and Andrea, like Janet, and john and everybody else’s worlds, much more expanded upon and looked at in detail and so much fun. The play, stepping back into the place is actually I was a bit scared. I kind of felt like, was this part going to be too small? Now you’re going to feel too restrictive and too, you know, the whole summer I’ve been spoiled. So the comeback, like is it gonna work? And you know, it is it’s been a treat, it’s it’s so good to go back to the roots of where you came from where the character originated from, to see the genesis of a lot of these ideas that we expanded upon on the television show to see these are where the kernels came from. And to be able to play him, you know, because the play takes, it just takes place in the course of one day. And, you know, it’s just supposed to be a regular day in office life, the same as every other day has been for the last 10 years. And he just sort of gets thrown, thrown through the wringer. And, you know, it’s refreshing and it’s lovely and the fact that we have a new cast as well as a different wrinkle to it. But, you know, you look at it and go, that’s a difference apart from the TV up. And I know a lot of TV audiences who’ve seen the show when they’ve responded on Twitter actually spoken the means. They say, Wow, it’s, it’s kind of the same, but so different. Now and absolutely, because the upper, you know, on stage is a very, he’s still a very closed off, very sheltered, very bunker mentality, you know, it’s been this way for so long. The isolationism, the way he’s set in his own opinions. You know, nobody’s ever really rocked the boat on that it wears on the TV show, we explode those ideas every, every episode, right? So there’s an incredible growth curve. But for the play to sort of get back to that Genesis, and to see where it all came from. It’s nice, and they’re really great reminders for me. So when we head back to season two, you know, to just sort of keep that there in it again, that’s, that’s a byproduct of being able to play this role over 400 times on stage. You know,
Phil Rickaby 41:02
yeah, you’re gonna be able to you’re I mean, like, we were saying earlier, you’re going to to Montreal, and then New York, how do you feel about about taking this this very Canadian show? To to New York to present?
Paul Sun-Hyung Lee 41:18
I’m excited at the opportunity to do it. You know, it’s very funny, because your if you just switch a couple of words, in your question, you could say, you know, like, how do you feel about taking this very Korean centric story? the audience’s in Canada are thinking that, you know, and it’s the same thing, the strength of the plays, the fact that we are talking about a lot of universal themes, family, intergenerational conflict, love forgiveness, what is a man’s legacy? And these are things that resonate with a lot of people and with human beings, period. And, you know, one of the biggest compliments we get is, you know, from people watching the show and say, you know, I’m not Korean. But this guy is my dad, we’re, that’s my mom, or that’s my uncle, or this or that, people, because it’s so specifically, you know, Korean, it becomes universal in a, in a weird way. And I think audiences, I hope audiences in New York will look at that, too. I mean, New York is a city of immigrants. And really, it’s, it’s the same struggle. It’s, you know, it’s about family. It’s about duty. It’s about love, honour, forgiveness, all these things. And I think, you know, despite the fact that, Oh, this is a Canadian play, I think there are a lot of commonalities that are just shared with being a human being, and having parents or having children and wanting to do the best by them as you can. And, you know, that that’s, that’s what I love about doing this role as well, is that it connects with so many people.
Phil Rickaby 42:56
It’s interesting, because, you know, I’ve heard, you know, if, if you had, if it’s had a decide, had thought that he wanted to make a play that was universal, it probably wouldn’t work so well, exactly. as being so specific and telling such a specific story about a specific character, that that kind of his, the fact that he’s so real, and so Korean, and he is who he is, has made him resonate with so many people, because the specificity is those are the things that we see in our own families.
Paul Sun-Hyung Lee 43:31
Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. And that’s, that’s one of the things that I really love about it, too, is the fact that people sort of CO you know, because when you try to be something for everybody, you’re never going to fit, you’re never going to succeed, you’re always gonna feel right, it’s too broad. And people can see through that, but when you’re speaking truth, and when you’re being authentic, people can recognise those qualities, because they’re human qualities that, you know, really sort of define up not Korean qualities, but human qualities. And you can have, he could be Greek, he could be, you know, Jamaican, he could be European. And there’s that whole stubborn dad sort of mentality that’s there. And a lot of people said, you know, like, did the watch it and they’ll realise yes, even though it is specifically Korean, we’re not that much different. You know, yeah, they look at that and go, wow, you know, we aren’t you know, you’re dead. I had no idea about Korean culture. But I’m looking at going, it’s not that much different from my own culture. You know, my dad can be just as stubborn or can see just as stupid things as Oppo does, right. And so, there’s a joy in that there’s that whole idea that, you know, we are not that different. At the end of the day. We all have our hopes and fears. And that draws us together.
Phil Rickaby 44:51
Yeah. Yeah. I’m just trying to think of, Oh, you know, one question that I have for you And you know you’re on Twitter people find you on Twitter your Twitter handle is is bitter, bitter Asian do and I have to ask about about that is was that a tongue in cheek or when you created your Twitter account? Were you a bitter asian dude?
Paul Sun-Hyung Lee 45:18
it was kind of tongue in cheek. There are moments I mean, I’m sure you can ask my friends Where are where I want to get my my hackles up I get I tend to rant a little bit. When I was younger, I was I was bitter. I was blessed with hair loss at a very early age. And so much like you, I was told that once I got older, I would probably find a lot more work. Yeah, I started losing my hair when I was 21. And, you know, because of that, because I was going bald, basically, I wasn’t I was too old looking to to play the roles that were in my age group, right. And so I get set up for older roles, and I was too young looking to play those roles. So I kind of got screwed on both ends. And you know that with sort of hitting not a glass ceiling, but just having doors of opportunity close to me, because of not only the way I looked in terms of, you know, my hair, but because of the colour of my skin time and time again, you know, that affects people, and I, you know, I, I get it when the younger generation feels like, you know, what, we’re not given any opportunities, we’re mad, we don’t take it anymore, I’ve been there, I’ve done that. And, you know, like when, when things aren’t going well for you in the area that you’re very passionate about. And you let it affect you, it bleeds into the rest into your other parts of your life, you know, and it for me looking back at it now, I let it affect who I was. And I was still fun. But there was this undercurrent of nastiness and bitterness that maybe I was using as defensive mechanism. You know, I never used my anger or bitterness to hurt people, I always sort of deflected it in a very, very humorous way. You know, towards my situation, or, you know, this is why I didn’t get it because a racist, you know, or this or that. It’s just stupid things you say that when you’re younger, you don’t know any better. And you just want to vent, you start to say, so when it came time to picking your Twitter handle, I just wanted something that a people would recognise. And it was easy to remember and be that people get a laugh at. And so
Phil Rickaby 47:29
Paul Sun-Hyung Lee 47:29
you know, it’s
Phil Rickaby 47:31
Yeah. Is that your early days in the theatre, you’re talking about the, you know, not finding not finding the, the roles there, because, and believe me, around the same time that you were losing your hair, I was also losing mine. So I, I feel Yeah, yeah. And, you know, having a young face, but a old scalp. Yeah, is, is can be a difficult thing to do to deal with in the business. But then I, I had the advantage of have some, some some white privilege there. So I didn’t affect me in the same way that like, because I don’t get seated in the audition room in the same way as a person of colour. The roles that you were getting in the back in there, when you were you know, before in the days before Kim’s convenience. Did you find a lot of stereotyping? Or did you were you able to find a community that was able to to give roles that were worthy comes to mind but more like just like, like people and not an a character in air quotes,
Paul Sun-Hyung Lee 48:49
yeah, I hear you saying I’m on stage, I was always given a better opportunity than on screen. To be honest. You know, I remember that the first big play that I was actually sort of recognised that and people sort of probably it was the second play ever did was called Mom, Dad, I’m living with a white girl, written by Marty Chan. And he, it was he was having his Toronto premiere. And it was this about this Chinese couple and their son and the son was dating a white girl. And he was you know, the son was a bit of a he’s a bit of a milk toast and a mama’s boy was definitely afraid of how his mom was going to react. If he’s, you know, when she found out that his girlfriend was white, and they were having a really, really difficult time casting the father in that role. Because, you know, it was the play was divided. It was a two structure there was the regular world where it’s, you know, the the older Chinese parents, and that the sound of a gong would slip into this fantasy world of the you know, the old B movie, the parallel of the yellow tongue type thing where the, the parents were like the mom was the Archie, villainous and the father was the toady sort of hen. And, and you know, they were chasing down agent banana, who was the son and the white snow princess who was his girlfriend. And it was difficult for them to cast because they needed an actor who looked old enough to play believably the father who was in his 50s. But who had the physicality and the stamina and the comedic chops to be able to play the over the top henchmen in, you know, in the yellow parrot, the yellow claw world, they were killing themselves, because they could find actors who were old enough to play the dad, but who couldn’t do the physical stuff. And then they could find younger girls to play the physical stuff, but weren’t old enough looking to play the father believably. And, you know, I sort of slid in with my, you know, receding hairline, and my ability to grow facial hair. And, you know, it was like, almost a perfect thing. And so, you know, that character was my first sort of foray into like, oh, okay, this is an actual, I’m not a stone, I play a stereotype. So I get to play that up. But at the end of the day, he he has, you know, he’s, he’s a dad, and he’s worried about his son, and he fights with his wife, and, you know, things like that. And so that was my, you know, my second ever professional role that I’m very, very proud of. and theatre has afforded me a little bit more in terms of giving me characters to play, I think that’s just the nature of theatres, the fact that, you know, time is limited space is limited, so you’re not going to waste it with characters that don’t add to the play. Everybody should have like, an integral role of this. Film and TV not so much. You know, that’s where I found most of the stereotypical stuff that you know, you saw banging your head against the wall, go, Oh, okay. I didn’t, you know, I’m not gonna complain too much, because they put bread on the table for me, you know, they paid me Yeah, I went in, but you know, what, they’re not satisfying roles. I mean, if you look at my, my resume, the majority near the beginning, you know, that the player parts, I made a career as a day player, I show up on the queue of exposition, I explain things and then I disappear. And so I played a lot of er doctors, I played, you know, a couple of lawyers, I played, you know, a clerk, all these things, nothing really substantial. Again, it’s just I am a cog in a wheel to help pull the story along. Because the writer didn’t do a good enough job to sort of get the meat of the story told, you know, and I mean, that’s the way it is. Or like, whenever something big did come up for film and TV, it was always, oh, oh, it’s a Chinese game. Okay. Or, you know, it’s just all the same old, same old stuff in embrace. You look at it, you go well, who’s who’s the writer? Oh, they’re not Chinese. Okay. Right. offset. Right. And yeah, me and some of the other actors we joke about. It’s like, Okay, do they want these gangsters? But these are gangsters from the 90s from a Chow Yun Fat movie? Right? Yeah, real triads Don’t act like that anymore. That’s so know how, you know, and it’s so even in that, sort of, you’re gonna get me to play a stereotype at least have it? Let it be relevant stereotype one that’s at least contemporary instead of something that’s stuck in the past? Yeah, so there’s that. But I mean, with all that, too, there have been generals that I’ve been, I’ve had an opportunity to play that have been very, very wonderful, you know, and it started with Randy Coe on train 48 you know, that, that improvised soap opera where I was able to, he gave me reign to develop a real character, somebody who wasn’t just a one note, that wasn’t just the colour of his skin, or just did one thing was defined by one single thing. You know, he was a complex, fully realised character, which I love, you know, shoot the messenger, I was able to play Marty Chen, who was the lawyer for the Gazette. And I was able to work with some incredible actors and learn from them, as well and talk about their experiences. And and of course, Kim’s convenience, which is like, the crown jewel for me. Yeah. To be, you know, to be given the lead on a television series is something I never ever, ever thought was going to happen. totally honest. You know, yeah. It’s just, it’s not in the books. And you look at me and you look at my body type and, you know, my lack of hair and I’m not sexy. I’m not young. You know, it’s just like, what’s out there for me? You know, and then along comes Kim’s convenience and just upset the upsets the whole boat and that’s why, you know, every moment I spend on set on living, you know, and that’s that’s why I’m grateful for it. so grateful. Yeah.
Phil Rickaby 54:47
I don’t think anybody could whatever, like going into any fringe show, whatever think that that show a few years down the road. Would tour Canada be going to the states and be a TV show. Yeah. These are things that we in, in, especially in you know, it’s fringe, you know, starting at the fringe indie theatre, things that we think of,
Paul Sun-Hyung Lee 55:08
yeah, we joke about that. Your you’re sitting at the beer tent after a couple of performances, and we’re just sort of buzzing about the response from the show. And we’re joking and say, Hey, would it be great if a theatre company picked us up? put us on their main net, you’ll think we’re gonna go on a national tour, and then they’re gonna make it into a TV series, and then they’re gonna make the movie. And we’re joking about stuff like that, you know, because you don’t expect it, you don’t
Phil Rickaby 55:32
Paul Sun-Hyung Lee 55:35
and that’s, like, every that’s why I it’s so humbling Phil, to be, you know, going through this and just especially after the, the long road that I’ve had to travel with this, because, you know, at a very early age, in my my acting career, I sort of resigned myself to the fact that you know what, you’re never going to be a star. But what you’re going to need is a good character actor. And I love character actors. They are my favourite. Like, they are the glue that holds stuff together, like you’re in the work so much. And they do such a good job that people remember them, but they don’t remember who they are. It’s like, yeah, you’re never did you play this guy. And you’re that guy in that movie. And oh, my God, he was, you know, because I thought, you know, let’s be realistic about the state of the industry and what’s available to me. Because I think, I think if I gotten on my soapbox and said, I want a series I deserve this. I deserve that. Like, gimme, gimme, gimme, gimme, gimme, I would have gone insane. You know, and that’s, that’s the thing. You make your opportunities by being excellent at what you know, you can control.
Phil Rickaby 56:39
Hmm, yeah. I think that’s as good as any place to stop. Thanks. Thank you so much for talking to
Paul Sun-Hyung Lee 56:47
so nice. Thank you Phil