Becoming Mr. Kim

Actor savours the role of a lifetime in Kim's Convenience


KIM’S CONVENIENCE by Ins Choi, directed by Weyni Mengesha, with Clé Bennett, Choi, Esther Jun, Paul Sun-Hyung Lee and Jean Yoon. Presented by Soulpepper at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts (55 Mill). Previews from tonight (Thursday, January 12), opens January 19 and runs to February 11, Monday-Saturday 8 pm, some 2 pm matinees. $51-$68, stu $32, rush $5-$22. 416-866-8666. See listing.


There’s nothing like seeing a terrific actor connect with a fantastic part, one that shows him or her off like never before.

That happened last summer when Paul Sun-Hyung Lee seized the role of the proud Korean-Canadian owner of a Regent Park convenience store in Ins Choi’s breakthrough Kim’s Convenience.

Lee’s portrayal of Mr. Kim – a part that’s as weighty as an Asian Willy Loman – was funny, terrifying and ultimately moving. From the start, the actor knew it was something special.

“It really is a dream role, the kind of part where you think, ‘I know how to play it,'” says Lee, in a café a couple of weeks before the work’s revised remount as part of Soulpepper’s new season.

“If you play golf or baseball, you know that feeling when you hit the ball right in that sweet spot. It’s comfortable, and there’s this confidence that comes from that.”

It helps that Lee knows these characters, particularly Mr. Kim, or “Appa,” who in the play is hoping his unmarried daughter takes over the family business after he retires.

In the Korean-Canadian community, he points out, Mr. Kim would be called an ajusshi.

“There are bits of my dad in there, my grandfather, my uncles and all these other church men I knew growing up,” says Lee. “There’s a certain ajusshi uniform: rolled-up dress pants, dress socks, slippers, cellphone clipped to the belt or golf shirt. They have a certain way of acting – it’s usually their way or the highway.”

Lee, who has been attached to the role in the seven years it’s been developed, first at a Diaspora Dialogues reading and then at a Fu-GEN Potluck Festival, is excited about what director Weyni Mengesha is bringing to this production.

“She’s digging deep roots and giving the show a real emotional core,” says Lee. “We had this shtick we’d use at the Fringe to get laughs. And as a comic” – he has a background in improv comedy – “I was concerned that she was taking away my fun stuff, the money-makers. But Weyni explained that things would be funnier if they came from a more honest place. And she’s right.”

Like most Asian-Canadian actors, Lee has starred in many works exploring the immigrant experience – but this one is different.

“I like that it’s contemporary,” he says. “Younger audiences can relate to it. We’ve all seen those historical plays that are part fairy tale, involving a dragon head or smuggled immigrants. Those plays had their hearts in the right place, but they often seemed derivative.”

Lee’s on a roll, and I can feel he’s wanted to talk about this for a while – hell, it’s something I’ve thought of myself.

“I remember being in shows where people said afterwards, ‘That’s such a beautiful story,'” he says, his voice full of syrupy sweetness. “And I’m thinking, ‘Are you just saying this because I’m an actor of colour?'”

While the Fringe run of Kim’s drew a big Korean-Canadian audience (Lee says it’s the only play he’s starred in that his family has seen twice), the work resonated with everyone.

“It’s a generational tale,” says Lee. “Everyone has baggage with their parents. There’s miscommunication. Parents and children love each other and truly want the other group to be happy, but they go about it in different ways.”

For this production, Lee hopes his Korean has improved. Soulpepper’s hired a dialect coach to make sure the language is authentic and the rhythms right. Mr. Kim speaks a couple of lines of Korean with his wife (Jean Yoon), and Lee recalls his mother not being convinced.

“‘Why not just get a Chinese or Vietnamese guy to do it?'” he says, mimicking her affectionately. “‘Talk same way!'”

Interview Clips

Paul Sun-Hyung Lee on playing to huge Fringe crowds, and how Kim’s Convenience has spoiled him for future Fringes:

Download associated audio clip.

On telling his agent he needed to play the role (regardless of any film or TV that came up):

Download associated audio clip.

On raising his own children:

Download associated audio clip.

On being recognized for his TV commercial work:

Download associated audio clip.

On playing the role in any future production of Kim’s Convenience:

Download associated audio clip.

glenns@nowtoronto.com

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