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INTERVIEW: Paul Sun-Hyung Lee on acting & growing up Asian and geek

paul sun-hyung lee
(via cbc.ca)

You know, if you’re a geek meeting another geek for the first time, you are struck by an automatic awareness of having something in common. Regardless of whatever differences are apparent on the surface, there is an inherent recognition of a mutual appreciation for some element of relatable pop culture that nerds have. Maybe it’s a defense mechanism, I don’t know, but basically, nerds start off a conversation already liking something about each other. In essence, there is a shared, similar story in common that each is eager to tell, and that’s a pretty good mechanism.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to learn Paul Sun-Hyung Lee is one of these folks.

The beloved lead actor of the CBC smash comedy, Kim’s Convenience and I sat down to talk. We began with geeky stuff and the first question I had for him was, exactly how did his love of nerd culture begin?

“Oh, I’m a huge geek,” he asserted. “Television was my gateway into storytelling and fantasy. Of course, we only had three channels when I was growing up, but the television was always on in my home. Star Trek, Lost in Space, and Space: 1999 were fixtures in my television watching. But there were other shows like Gilligan’s Island and Looney Tunes. There were epic battles between me and my Dad fighting over Hockey Night in Canada or cartoons or Star Trek! He’d always let me win, of course, because that was my dad, but even today, having the TV on in the background is such a comfort in my house.”

Kims-convenience
(via cbc.ca)

This is such a universal nerdy characteristic. So many television shows like the ones Paul mentioned were staples in others’ appreciation of the genre and in mine as well. But this love of television is also a feature of the immigrant experience. I asked Paul what he thought of this idea, given Kim’s Convenience’s obvious premise.

“I think it absolutely is,” he agreed. “I mean, I learned English from watching television. Television is a gateway for other people too. It reaches such a mass audience and it only makes sense that this is the easiest way for newcomers to learn about Canadian society and a love of pop culture comes out of that. That’s why shows like Star Trek that have such a positive and hopeful view of society in the future are so important because they will reach that audience and give them hope. It’s a powerful medium that has so much influence, so much power to abuse the trust that audiences give to it.”

The escape into fantasy is also a shared experience of nerds and newcomers alike. When you don’t fit into the dominant culture, it’s common to create your own. Paul related to this.

“I’ve always found solace in being able to lose myself in a story. It fueled my imagination – my own desire to tell stories. I didn’t have brothers growing up… I didn’t have close friends, so I was left to my own devices. I took to writing, reading a lot and building Lego kits and creating my own worlds and stories.”

That naturally beget the question of the fandoms that Paul liked to lose himself in.

“Oh, it’s all over the place!” he laughed. “Heavy allegiance to Star Trek, Star Wars, and I dabbled in Dungeons & Dragons growing up, but in terms of role playing games, I was more into the sci-fi stuff like Star Frontiers. I loved games like Star Fleet Battles and we had laminated sheets that saved the templates. I was also into comics like Todd McFarlane’s Spider-Man or TMNT. “

paul lee - kim's convenience
(via cbc.ca)

Difficult as it was for me, I had to change the subject. Paul pretty much described my own adolescent geek pastimes, and it was difficult restraining myself in sharing them. But with all of this in the background, I had to ask him about how he decided upon a career in acting.

“I was studying at the University of Toronto, and it just something that called to me by accident. You see, I never did drama in high school, but I had an amazing English teacher who used to let us be very creative with our projects and presentations. So, my dad had a VCR and video camera and we used to do sketches and videos. We would edit them, VCR to VCR and this started me thinking creatively. When I went to university, I really wanted to be a writer; I love writing. In selecting courses. I saw their drama program, read the description and thought that could be fun. I had to do an interview and a group audition. I had no idea what I was in for. I mean, I saw all these blonde-haired white kids doing drama exercises and stretches. I wasn’t doing that.” He chuckled.

“I hadn’t had a good first day in Toronto. It was humid, somebody yelled at me and my mum on our first day in the city. I wasn’t happy. Then the Program Coordinator had us do a bunch of warm-up theatre school exercises to check us out and it lasted for three hours! After the day I had, I was not in a good mood! Then they got us into this big circle. He gave us a line and were all supposed to go into the circle and say the line, which was ‘What a terrible, horrible, stupid day!’. And I thought to myself: I got this. So, I went into the circle, said the line, and then spat on the floor and walked out! To my surprise, I got in, and that’s how I started my drama career!”

After picking myself off the floor at this story, Paul went on to describe his continued discovery of acting.

“I fell in love with the craft of acting. Breaking down a scene, finding the beat, understanding character motivation – all of these things became real to me on a level that I had never before appreciated. It was more than just memorizing lines; it was excitement and never in a million years before this, did I think that this would be a job for me. And that was exciting as well!”

paul lee - kim's convenience
(via cbc.ca)

Paul related the combination of his ethnic and geek experience to this journey.

“You know, there were only three Asian faces on television that stood out around the time I was growing up. There was George Takei’s Sulu from Star Trek, Sam from Quincy, MD, and Bruce Lee’s Kato from The Green Hornet. There was such a narrow range. I loved Sulu in “Amok Time” and “Mirror, Mirror” and those performances stuck with me. This became normal to me but it was kind of subversive and I knew that this was something that I wanted to change.”

The fascinating thing about this aspect of Paul’s career was in trying to identify what role he would want to play? I asked him to discuss this further.

“You know, all your experiences lead you to one moment in your life when you learn what it is that you’re supposed to do. That’s what Kim’s Convenience is. When you’re 18 and you’re starting to lose your hair – it sucks. So, my agent always got me roles that were older than my actual age. I’m Asian and an actor and I worried about my appearance. I played dads, grand-dads and that was my career. But that taught me something: I learned that I’m never going to have a leading role but that doesn’t matter; I’m going to be the best actor I can – bit roles, whatever and that attitude made me a better actor. I believed I could be a character actor and that’s a thing to aspire to.”

Of course, this is the attitude that helped Paul land the leading role of Appa on Kim’s Convenience – a role that has endeared him to Canadians across the country, winning him the Canadian Screen Awards Best Actor in a Comedy Series award in 2017 and contributed to Kim’s Convenience receiving 12 nominations for the upcoming 2018 awards. If there’s anything this talented storyteller knows, it’s the value and success from contributing to an ensemble cast. Paul’s dedication to being the best that he can be clearly contributes to the appeal and accomplishment of this incredibly poignant show, in that it not only speaks to the immigrant experience but also to the diversity of Canadian culture.

“You hone your craft so that you can be excellent in whatever it is that you do. I say that to my kids but it really is about the way you approach your work, your craft, whatever, that’s what makes you a success. 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. Our industry is based on hope – being discovered and all that, but that accounts for only 0.001% of success. I’m pragmatic, I just decided I was going to be excellent and realistic and be a grinder at my work. I was just going to keep going, be happy, work hard, and accept the roles that came to me. So, when Ins Choi approached me about the role of an older Korean store-owner and asked me if I could help him. I said sure! I mean, there aren’t that many Korean roles out there!”

Paul continued.

“It was just two scenes. But when I read them, I was struck by a sudden wave of familiarity and nostalgia. It was my dad. My dad’s still with us but it was just one of those things. Suddenly I was faced with my story. When you are raised in a culture and have grown to accept that everybody else’s story is normal, you believe that your story isn’t important. I have never seen a representation of my story on television. This was my dad… and the daughter in the scene, that was me.”

paul lee - appa - kim's convenience
(via cbc.ca)

Paul decided that this was something he needed to do. After public readings and off and on workshops for about six years, it finally developed into the dynamic of father and daughter. It was apparent to Paul that this was the story that he had to tell.

“I felt that everything in my life had groomed me for this role.”

It is also the story that nerds, newcomers and all Canadians can relate to. At some point in their lives, everyone has felt that their story wasn’t accepted. While, on a personal level, this may be Paul’s story, on another level, it is a story that belongs to everyone. It’s about a family finding its place in Canadian society and culture and really, aren’t we all trying to find our place?

“Good storytelling stands for itself,” he agreed.

We all have our stories. They describe the sum of our experiences; where we’ve been, where we hope to go, and even the geeky inclinations that we have in common. They are what define us and Kim’s Convenience is a story that aptly (or Appa-ly?) fits that definition.

Paul is Appa, but so are we all. We are geeks, immigrants, or newcomers – the ones who don’t fit in but who have stories to share with each other. The outliers in society who recognize the worth in each others’ stories. We look for the ideal in each other and we dare to dream that who we meet is capable of such things. Geeks make such great storytellers because they dare to believe the best in each other, and in this day and age, we need that more than ever.

So, I’m going to continue to watch this show that talks about the best, knowing that it is fuelled by the geek within and the belief that we are all capable of seeing something of value that we can share and like about each other. I hope you will too.

Okay? See you.

paul lee - appa - kim's convenience (10)
(via cbc.ca)
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About Captain John K. Kirk

Captain John K. Kirk
John Kirk is an English and History teacher and librarian in Toronto, Canada. In addition to the traditional curriculum, John tries to teach his students to make sense of geek culture. And with the name "J. Kirk," it's hard for him to not inject "Star Trek" into his lessons. Comics, RPGs and the usual fanboy gear make up his classroom resources.