Greg David / TV, Eh?
After being bumped a week because of the Toronto Blue Jays wild card game, Kim’s Convenience is back on track. Debuting Tuesday at 9 p.m. with back-to-back episodes on CBC, the series is the brainchild of Ins Choi, who penned the original, award-winning play.
Starring Paul Sun-Hyung Lee as Appa, Jean Yoon as Umma, Simu Liu as Jung, Andrea Bang as Janet and Andrew Phung as Kimchee, Kim’s Convenience tells the story of Appa and Umma Kim, a Korean couple who immigrated to Canada and opened a convenience store in Toronto’s Regent Park. The headstrong Appa has big plans for son Jung and daughter Janet, and those expectations cause friction in the family.
We spoke to the cast and creator about bringing Kim’s Convenience from the stage to TV, what viewers can expect and how the Kim’s story is universal.
Ins Choi, co-creator and co-executive producer
What’s been the biggest learning curve for you, adapting your play into a television show?
I’ve just been on a big learning curve throughout and ever since I started collaborating with [series co-creator] Kevin White. He’s been teaching me a lot as we adapted it. I guess writing with someone else was the biggest thing initially. We wrote two scripts together initially and then we were in the writers’ room. You have to keep your ego in check and have faith that everyone has the show in mind rather than their own ideas. The best idea will stick and the best thing for the show is what we choose.
It’s not always your idea that’s the best, is it?
No! It’s rarely mine! [Laughs.]
Who did you have in the writers’ room?
We had Kevin and myself, Garry Campbell, Anita Kapila, Rebecca Kohler and Sonja Bennett.
Is Kim’s Convenience a prequel to the events in the play?
It’s kind of an adjustment and a prequel. We find everyone in the cast anywhere between six and 12 years before the time of the play. We’ve adjusted some ages to better suit our needs. Janet was 30 years old in the play and now she’s 20. She and Jung were two years apart in the play and now they’re two. We find Janet at OCAD, studying photography. We fudged things a bit, but we liked that world of students and assignments, teachers … we thought that would be good, fertile ground for story. And Jung is 24 and is working at a car rental company. So, we have the school, the car rental agency with a bunch of other characters and like the play we have the store, the apartment above the store and the church.
You’re learning the back stories of the characters you created for the play. That must be fun.
You live with the play for so long … and I had all these other ideas for the play. Scenes, different ideas. As hard as it was, I had to edit all of that out. Here, we get to dive into those extras. I reach back and go, ‘Oh yeah, there was a scene I had a long, long time ago…’, so that’s been exciting. But also creating it with new eyes with these writers and the actors. Sometimes, we come up with a character and hire the actor, and that actor brings more to the character than we had thought. Or they come up with stuff and we go, ‘Oh, that’s better than what we had, let’s write to that strength.’
How long have you been involved in Kim’s Convenience?
Ins Choi wrote the play in 2005 and shortly after that I became involved in workshops for it. He was developing the play and would call me in to read scenes, give feedback and do workshops and work out the kinks. So, off and on before we’ve even been in production, I’ve been involved in it. I remember, in the very beginning, reading two scenes and just being enraptured by it and blown away by how authentic and truthful it sounds. I immediately knew I needed to be involved.
This play could have disappeared and just been lost in the shuffle. So many things went right for it to happen, and it was like catching lightning in a bottle.
What does it mean to you to be learning Appa’s back story after playing him for so many years?
It’s an incredible advantage for an actor to step onto a stage and know the history of the character. With Appa, we’ve aged down the family by a number of years. For me, I’m not so much learning about his backstory because he was always a full-realized character to me. He’s a force of nature. He’s there to create disruption around him. We keep saying this: the play is one world and the series is another world. There are parallels and similarities, but the paths don’t really cross.
Watching Appa judging Janet during the scene I saw you run through … I think people sometimes forget that you can say a lot with facial expressions without saying a word at all.
Being able to act with subtext is a bit of a lost art now. I feel like younger actors now are uncomfortable with the silences and need to fill it with ums and ahs or come up with dialogue they hope you’re going to cut off. You just have to be in the moment and trust that this silence is far more effective than if you stammer through a scene.
Did you have any questions for Ins or concerns when it was announced this would be a TV show?
The only real concern I had was the tone of the show. It’s so easy to play broad, to go sitcom-y with a laugh track. We really didn’t want that to happen. One of the real strengths of the show is being able to connect the audience with these characters as human beings and not stereotypes. There is a real danger, especially when you’re portraying non-white characters. I wanted to keep these people as real and believable as possible, and that’s what we did with the play. Yes, at the end of the day we’re entertainment and we push the envelope as we entertain. We do find ourselves in situations that are manufactured, but our way out is to play it straight.
What’s it been like seeing the evolution of Umma from the play to the TV series?
It’s a lot of fun because I’ll read a script and say, ‘Oh, Umma had an old boyfriend!’ or ‘Umma likes to sing!’ or ‘Umma has a friend at church,’ we see moments of tenderness and squabbling. That whole range is there. In the play, Paul and I are just sort of passing each other in the night. It’s very intense, but we get to do so much more here.
There is already a buzz about the show. Are you feeling that?
Yeah, my neighbours are all really excited. One of my neighbours stopped me in the grocery story and told me she’d seen one of the commercials. And, even the people who saw the play saw it more than once, so we already have a built-in audience.
Can you talk about the Korean immigrant experience as it relates to Kim’s Convenience?
In 1965, my family came. I think, in the Trudeau years, they changed the immigration policy. Prior to that, Canadian policy was more geared to people who would blend in, so European immigrants were favoured over Asian immigrants. Then they changed to the point system, and if you had a college degree or a trade, would bump you up. My father was a professor at the University of Toronto. But when I first came, everyone was very isolated. The Korean community really started from 1970 onwards and for them, the experience has been families working really hard to raise their kids, and their kids—especially the girls—end up growing into a culture where their ways don’t really match that of their parents.
The church is a huge cultural centre for Koreans and actually have more churches per capita than any other ethnic group. That’s where everybody meets, even if you don’t believe. Our parents work hard, sacrifice and have dreams for us, and then when the kids go off in a different direction and become photographers like Janet … or like my mother. I got a callback for an audition once and my mother answered the phone and said, ‘Jeanie doesn’t do that anymore!’ and hung up.
What were you supposed to be?
She wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer or something like that. But I wanted to be a writer or an actor.
Kim’s Convenience seems like a natural play to be developed into a TV show.
Yes, and frankly I think it’s one that doesn’t get told enough. I’m speaking from the standpoint of coming from another show with an all-Asian cast [Blood & Water] and I think that’s a huge anomaly. I find the themes in Kim’s Convenience to be universal to the Canadian identity. It’s so much a part of the Canadian identity to be an immigrant because we’re a cultural mosaic. The show is about a Korean family, but I’ve heard Polish people come up to me and tell me how much the play resonated with them. It doesn’t matter where you come from; you come to Canada in the hopes to build a better life for future generations.
So, were you supposed to be a doctor or a lawyer, or was your family going to support you not matter what you did?
My parents were both electrical engineers and work in aerospace. I went to a school for gifted kids and enrolled in a private school. They did everything they could to nudge me along that path and I just couldn’t do it.
When we meet up with Jung in the first episode, he’s detailing cars at a rental place. He’s estranged from his father. Is he trying to rebuild that relationship with Appa this season?
Yes, you’ll see that. It’s Jung and his best friend, Kimchee, dealing with life. But then there is always something peppered in about the past between Appa and Jung. Whether they get to that reconciliation, I can’t say for sure, but there is definitely movement on that front.
How did you end up getting the role of Janet?
I had heard about the show and talked to my agent. I submitted a self-tape and then heard back to come and do a test in Toronto. That whole process was about two and a half months.
Everyone on the cast has told me how this story has resonated with them personally. What about you?
Oh, totally. A lot of the things Umma or Appa would think, or their viewpoints on life, are super-similar to either my own parents or people that I know of. A lot of the people I hang out with are also Asian-Canadians. Even when I read the audition I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is so me.’
Talk about the relationship between Janet and Appa. It seems pretty contentious from the scenes I saw you film with Paul.
I sometimes call Janet ‘Mini-Appa,’ because they are very similar in a lot of ways, especially the stubbornness. For me, those were some of the most fun scenes to do with Paul because we’re always trying to one-up each other and gets so ridiculous. Appa is so stubborn and Janet has become progressively more stubborn as a result. But Janet also brings out a side of Appa that no one else does because they are so similar.
Kim’s Convenience airs Tuesday at 9 and 9:30 p.m. on CBC on Oct. 11. After that, episodes air Tuesdays at 9 p.m. on CBC.