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As his new sitcom Run The Burbs launches, the Kim's Convenience actor talks collaboration, healthy writers' rooms and how he learned to love the suburbs
RUN THE BURBS created by Andrew Phung and Scott Townend, with Phung, Rakhee Morzaria, Zoriah Wong, Roman Pesino, Candy Palmater, Julie Nolke, Jonathan Langdon, Ali Hassan, Aurora Browne, Chris Locke and others. New episodes Wednesdays at 8:30 pm on CBC TV and CBC Gem
Andrew Phung will hate that this story is about him. He would rather his new sitcom Run The Burbs, airing Wednesdays at 8:30 pm on CBC and CBC Gem, be the focus. He would rather share the credit with his co-creator and lifelong best friend Scott Townend, and his co-stars Rakhee Morzaria (who’s also one of the writers), Roman Pesino and Zoriah Wong. He would spread the love around, because that’s who he is.
But he’s also the guy who played Kimchee on Kim’s Convenience for five seasons, and that means we cannot walk 10 feet in Toronto without someone recognizing him. He handles it like a pro, posing for selfies and even recording a video message for a fan’s partner, thanking her for binging Kim’s (and reminding her that Run The Burbs is coming out soon, and please tell her friends). It’s just what happens.
(Part of it is the haircut, he admits. Even when he’s wandering around masked at a holiday market, people know the hair.)
Andrew Phung poses near Victoria Park and Sheppard. “Whenever I visit my parents in Calgary now? In the burbs? I get it.”
Our original idea was to visit a few of Phung’s favourite spots in East York and Scarborough, but the Omicron variant scuttled that. We did stop in at the Tung Hing bakery, where the curry beef buns are the best I’ve had since Yung Sing Pastry Shop in Baldwin Village closed down – I may have inhaled one like a python on the drive back downtown. Andrew is a big fan of their hot dog and cheese bun, buying a few along with a couple of banh mi. The owners tell him his order is on the house; he gently but firmly insists on paying.
So we’re wandering around Victoria Park and Sheppard, taking photos for this piece and talking about the post-production crunch he’s currently enduring. And people keep noticing him. Not everybody, mind you; some people are just wondering why the two of us are being photographed in a strip-mall parking lot. But the ones who do recognize him? They always smile.
Run The Burbs came about because Andrew grew up in the suburbs of Calgary, and now lives in the suburbs of Toronto. Nothing against downtown, but it’s not his thing.
“When I was like 16, 17, 18? All I wanted to do was live in New York City, you know, live that life,” he says, with just the tiniest hint of swagger. “And then I was in New York [in summer 2017] when Kim’s Convenience was playing Off-Broadway, just hanging out, and I’m thinking to myself, ‘It’s so busy,’” he laughs.
“Whenever I visit my parents in Calgary now? In the burbs? I get it.”
The show ended up shooting in Hamilton, but he made sure his hometown was represented.
Andrew Phung fills up at the suburban Tung Hing bakery.
“Our suburb is called Rockridge, which is a nod to where I grew up in the Properties,” he explains. “Falconridge, Pineridge, Whitehorn – these are mountain peaks. So Rockridge was a subtle nod. You’ll notice it throughout where I’m trying to sprinkle little bits of northeast Calgary into it, but we were trying to really make Run The Burbs look like any suburb.”
It’s something he picked up from Kim’s Convenience, he says.
“Be specific, but then also be vague. You had people who thought Kim’s Convenience could be a store in small-town Saskatchewan. I learned a lot from the show about making things as relatable as possible.”
Part of that meant creating a strong bond between the central couple, Andrew and Camille Pham.
Morzaria, in a separate interview, talks about building the characters out in rehearsal.
“Sometimes we would just ask each other questions, like ‘When did they meet? How did they first see each other? What was the first concert they went to with each other?’” she says.
“From the get-go, they’ve been a team. I think about my cousin and his wife, who live in Milton, and how they’re just ride-or-die for each other. They’re together when they’re together, and when they’re apart, they’re independent people. They fit, and they rep each other.”
“I already had such a crush on Rakhee as a performer,” Phung says. “Like, watching her web series and seeing how she is in a room; she isn’t afraid of pitching silly ideas. And just figuring out a rhythm with each other [as actors] really helped this relationship.”
There’s a casual, lived-in warmth to Andrew and Camille, who are ride-or-die in their efforts to raise their kids, teenage Khia (Wong) and tween Leo (Pesino), and similarly committed to goofy comic detours like challenging a local car crew to a street race over a permit for a block party. But even at its silliest, Run The Burbs is always about a family that enjoys being around each other.
Run The Burbs, starring Andrew Phung (right), Rakhee Morzaria, Zoriah Wong and Roman Pesino, airs Wednesdays on CBC.
“I want to tell a story about this young Vietnamese-Indian family just, like, living their life in the suburbs,” he says. “With BIPOC creators, oftentimes there’s an expectation that the story is rooted in some sort of trauma, but what I loved about Kim’s Convenience was the trauma with this disagreement between a father and a son – which is, like, the most relatable family thing possible. ‘You mean you don’t get along with a family member? There’s something you don’t talk about? Every family has that!’
“We just wanted to tell a story of this family in the burbs, and their trauma isn’t this deeply rooted cultural thing; it’s more their struggle to be the best parents possible. And that’s a struggle I’m living now. But within that, as I developed the show, there were some struggles of disconnect that came out. Like, I’ve always struggled with my Vietnamese identity. I’ve [embraced] it later in life. But growing up, I was the worst. I didn’t speak the language well, I had to go to school for it. And we see that a little bit in the show: Andrew’s son speaks better Vietnamese [than his father], and he and his sister always give him a hard time about that. But that’s not what the show is about. The show’s about a family trying to raise the kids.”
But no matter how ordinary the Phams are supposed to be, the fact is that they’re representing a demographic that rarely gets to see itself at the centre of a network sitcom. Even casting the kids broke new ground.
“Finding kids that look like they are of half-Indian, half-Vietnamese descent is quite hard,” he acknowledges. “But the really cool thing is that outside of Zoriah and Roman, there were all these new kids [coming in], and this was their first audition. And whenever we didn’t cast someone, I always wrote them a personalized letter or note, encouraging them to not leave; to keep pursuing a career in the arts, if that was something that interested them. I didn’t want this to crush them in any way. I wanted them to know: ‘You can make it. You’re fantastic.’ The hope is that if a show like this is on the air, other kids of colour are going to see themselves up there and be like, ‘Whoa, that’s really cool.’”
At this point, Andrew would also gently but firmly insist on reminding everyone that Run The Burbs isn’t The Andrew Phung Show; he’s an essential part of it, certainly, but he’s very consciously designed it to be an ensemble project. Morzaria’s Camille has an equal role, and gets just as many comic moments as her on-screen husband; the kids have their own storylines as well. The supporting cast – which includes Baroness Von Sketch Show’s Aurora Browne, Second Jen’s Samantha Wan, Jonathan Langdon, Chris Locke, Simone Miller, Ali Hassan, Julie Nolke (like Morzaria, another cast member who started out on the show as a writer) and the late Candy Palmater – gets plenty of room to play.
It feels like he’s taken all the right lessons from Kim’s Convenience, without the behind-the-scenes tensions that surfaced earlier this year when the news of the show’s premature cancellation was followed by Jean Yoon and Simu Liu coming forward to detail an often toxic working environment. The Run The Burbs writers room was putting scripts together at the time. It wasn’t ideal.
Andrew Phung poses for a selfie with Jesse Wiseblott and even records a video message thanking Wiseblott’s wife for binge-watching Kim’s Convenience.
“Every few weeks there would always be some news around Kim’s Convenience [ending],” Phung says, “and Rakhee and Julie and Scott and Wendy [Litner] and Brandon [Hackett] would always be like, ‘Hey, we’re really sorry.’ Like, they were willing to listen. But when we went into development on this show, Scott and I have always been collaborative. We always want to build a room that is really inclusive of voices.
“I had nothing but wonderful experiences working on Kim’s. I loved working with Ins [Choi] and Kevin [White] and all the writers. I have such a loving experience working with those performers, especially Paul [Sun-Hyung Lee]. But my experience was different, because I was not one of the stars of the show; I was a supporting character that worked his way up to being one of the core members of the show. I can’t speak on their experiences, though I support them fully and I am aware that there were things that happened that could be improved upon. I took their frustrations, their experiences – mine and everyone else’s – and I was like, ‘How do we do it on this show better?’
“It came down to how our writers’ room was built, how our relationship was going to be with our performers. We hired a Vietnamese cultural consultant. We hired an Indian cultural consultant, who also served as our food consultant because she is an incredible chef and person – Tara O’Brady, she’s incredible. And the Vietnamese cultural consultant, Vinh Nguyen, is my cousin – he is a tenured professor in refugee studies and gender and queer studies. And being able to work with my cousin on this show was really special. But you know, we’ve always been very collaborative.
“It’s also a look into the power dynamics in a room, because people like Rakhee and myself have always been fighting for seats at the table in the larger creative sector. And so when we get seats at the table, I think for us, it’s just ingrained in us to be as collaborative as possible so that we share the balance of power among many people in production. And people like Scott and our showrunner Shebli Zarghami have been so wonderful in doing it. So that’s a long rambling answer to be like: yes, it was a conscious effort. We wanted to do it. We wanted to set the precedent and do it.”