Eric Volmers/ Calgary Herald
It was during his early days as Appa in Ins Choi’s hit play Kim’s Convenience that Paul Sun-Hyung Lee realized just how convincing he was in the part.
At a Toronto Q&A held after a performance a few years back, Lee said he heard something like a gasp from the audience when he began speaking. The Calgary-raised actor has played aging patriarch Appa Kim nearly 500 times on stage and for two seasons on the hit CBC sitcom based on the play, which takes place in a Toronto convenience store and focuses on a dysfunctional Canadian-Korean family. But he is not Appa Kim. For one, he doesn’t have the accent. He also had significantly less grey hair at the time and was also least was 20 years younger than the character he was playing.
“There was this huge rumbling,” says Lee, in a phone interview from his home in Toronto. “I couldn’t understand why and then it was ‘Oh, yes, this is my voice. This is how I actually sound.’ People started to laugh and clap. The reactions have ranged from people being completely floored and saying ‘Oh my God, that’s even more incredible’ to people being disappointed and saying ‘Oh, so it’s not real?’ I think it’s a huge compliment as an actor when it doesn’t even occur to people that it’s an accent that is being put on.”
A veteran character actor who has a long history on stage and screen, it seems inevitable that Lee will nevertheless be forever inked to Appa. While the CBC has not made a formal announcement, it would be surprising if the sitcom was not renewed for a third season. While Appa has always been a main character in the story, it could be argued that Lee is still the breakout star of the series. You would be hard-pressed to find any promotional video that does not involve a befuddled and stubborn Appa and his wife Umma Kim (played by Jean Yoon). In the past couple years, Lee says he has been slowly getting used to the vagaries of Canadian fame.
For instance, there is often a double-take from fans who think they may recognize Lee but are reluctant to approach him in case they are wrong.
“They don’t want to appear racist,” says Lee with a laugh. “They go ‘That’s the guy from Kim’s Convenience.’ But I walk differently, I dress differently and then they hear me speaking and they stop and go: ‘That can’t be him. Oh, my God, I’m so racist because I think every Asian guy with a beard is Appa!’”
When the CBC announced it would be adapting Choi’s play for television, there was never any question who would play the gruff family patriarch. Lee helped develop the role and workshopped the play with Choi more than a decade ago. He debuted Appa in 2011 at the Toronto Fringe Festival and, so far, is the only actor to professionally portray the character in theatre productions as the play travelled throughout Canada and to an off-Broadway stage in New York City.
As a character, Appa was older and a touch darker in the original theatrical production. The series uses Choi’s 90-minute play, which is about the Kim’s relationship with their daughter Janet and estranged son Jung, as a jumping-off point. But the show has obviously needed to expand on the original concept.
“He’s not as grouchy,” says Lee about the television version of Appa. “In the play, because he is in his 60s and close to retiring, he is at the end of a very long road. The play takes place over the span of a single day and in that day he is faced with his own mortality and having to answer the question of what the true legacy in life is. Whereas in the television series, we young the family down and the separation from Jung is still rather fresh. These two Appas will never ever meet. The Appa in the television series will never become the Appa in the play just because of the amount of learning and the themes and the situations and scenarios that we’ve explored in the television series. Appa has incrementally been learning and growing as a human being.”
Lee did not have to look far for inspiration for Appa. Born in South Korea, Lee came to Canada at three months old with his family. By Grade 2, the Lees had relocated to a booming Calgary. As in Kim’s Convenience, Lee and his sister were put to work in various family businesses, which included a variety store. And, just as Appa Kim disapproves of Janet’s less-than-practical ambitions to be a photographer, Lee’s parents were horrified to learn that the son they brought to Canada for a better life planned to spend his pursuing an acting career.
Lee didn’t get the acting bug until after he graduated from Winston Churchill High School and went to the University of Toronto. Eventually, Lee discovered that his father had a good and poignant reason for disapproving of his son’s career choice. It turns out Lee had an uncle in Korea, his father’s older brother, who died years earlier. He had been a respected actor but died in poverty.
When Lee received his first big paycheque as a thespian for the 1995 TV movie Where’s The Money, Noreen — a thriller starring the former Mrs. Bruce Springsteen, Julianne Phillips — he gave it to his parents. It was for $5,000, which was the biggest cheque Lee had ever seen at the time.
Now back in Toronto, Lee’s parents have become true devotees of Kim Convenience and their son’s involvement is a point of pride in the Korean community. Lee says he loosely based Appa’s accent on his father’s voice.
“I cheat on it for clarity’s sake,” Lee says. “If I was to go fully authentic as my dad, people wouldn’t be able to understand what I’m saying.”
Still, Lee bristles at the idea that Kim’s Convenience somehow promotes stereotypes of Korean immigrants, something that has been talked about since the series began.
“I took umbrage to that,” he says. “The word stereotype, I think, was misused in this case. I always say we are not stereotypes, we are playing archetypes. The difference is, with a stereotype it is one common trait that you blanket an entire group of people with. That’s it. That’s all they are, that’s all they will ever be. You can interchange anybody with a stereotype. With an archetype, it’s similar in that you’re bringing a blanket trait that is common to a group of people but that’s the starting point and you build from there. You get three-dimensional, realistic characters with hopes and fears and faults and strengths and that’s what we’re trying to portray in Kim’s.”
The season finale of Kim’s Convenience airs Dec. 19 on CBC.