Since premiering in 2016, CBC hit comedy Kim’s Convenience has become a global success. The groundbreaking series is Canada’s first Asian-led TV sitcom and has earned loads of acclaim from fans and international media with outlets like NPR praising the creators and cast for being “archetypes, not stereotypes.”
Calgary-born actor Andrew Phung plays Kimchee on Kim’s Convenience and won back-to-back Canadian Screen Awards for “Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series” in 2017 and 2018 for his role on the show. He spoke with us for Go Magazine about why it’s important to stay hungry at all stages of your career, being prepared for the unexpected, learning from failure and the evolution of his character.
What the best career advice you’ve ever received?
I didn’t get much career advice because this was never meant to be a career. When I went to university, I got a degree in economics and I did a minor in business. During that time, I was acting at an improv theater in Calgary called Loose Moose Theatre Company. It was literally how I spent all my Friday and Saturday nights. I loved doing improv, but I never thought it would become a career. I was just doing it for fun. I didn’t have a calculated strategy in that world.
It wasn’t until 2012 that I started looking at the money I was making as an actor and the money I was making at my job running a non-profit – which I loved – and thought ‘Oh, I feel like I could make a living doing this.’ So, after I spoke with my organization and we transitioned me out, I decided to pursue acting full-time. I was just doing something I really enjoyed and then it became my career. Do what you love and it’ll lead you on some path that you didn’t expect.
We agree! Being open to exploring new directions and seeing where those roads take you is important.
Yes, totally. And the world is changing, right? The jobs people have now aren’t the jobs a lot of us were training ourselves for 10 years ago. The same thing will happen going forward.
I got into acting because I loved doing it. Then it became my job and career because I spent all that time doing it and getting good enough to be able to do it. Eventually it got to the point where I would audition or people would see me and they were like, ‘You’re really good.’ But that wasn’t necessarily the goal. The goal was just to do improv, act and have fun. I wanted to get better along the way, but the plan was never to have a career in it. So, it’s trippy looking at where I am now.
Do you think your business background and your experience running a non-profit have helped you as an actor?
Yes, and if I were to give someone any advice, it would be to go to school and get a degree that allows you to be a critical thinker of the world.
When I first quit my job, I created an Excel file. I made a chart that broke down every month of the year and at the very bottom in a bolded box I wrote my salary from my previous job. In the box above it I wrote how much I made as an actor that month. I told myself I needed to make more than my previous salary each month because if I wasn’t, I would need to examine why I was doing what I was doing.
I’m proud to say that every single month I made more than that bottom number. Sometimes I would look at it and I’d be like, ‘Whoa, I’m $100 down. I’ve got three days left in the month. What am I going to do to hustle that $100?’
I think you have to treat your artistic work like a business. I treat myself like a business. I have a website, and every day I do my social media, I do my emails and I’m chasing dates. Most people know me from Kim’s Convenience but a lot of my work comes from corporate emceeing. I also do a lot of radio work and I’m moving into writing. So, your days are structured like a business. The television and the radio stuff is the outcome or the product everyone sees. But people need to see all the planning that led you there. My experience in running a non-profit and background in business really help with that side of things.
You spoke about having to hustle in the past to make sure you met your numbers every month. Even though your brand is much stronger now, why is that mentality still important?
There are so many talented people in this country and if you let up, others will grab it. You always have to stay hungry to innovate, to get better, to get new skills and to go to new places.
Five years ago, Calgary was my main market. Now I’m in Toronto and I’m trying to expand my market and book gigs in other cities which is new and exciting for me. I think it’s important to be relentless in going after work. I’m always out there looking for more things that inspire and interest me.
Season four of Kim’s Convenience is airing now. What are some of the things that still excite you about the show and your character, Kimchee?
Although it’s four years in, I still feel like it’s year one. Every time I go to work I get really giddy with excitement.
Before filming a new season, I usually go back and watch the previous season or all of the seasons if I have a bit of time. And what I love about my character specifically is that in season one and two, there’s this arc of him as the best friend. But then it kind of evolves to him as an individual with emotions and feelings. He was a bit of a slacker at work, and then something happens between season two and three where he says to himself, ‘Oh, I can do more. I can be better.’ I think this is something a lot of young people can relate to because most of us have that moment when we start asking ourselves ‘How can I do better?’
I’ve had a really fun arc in seasons three and four as a young professional. Someone who is now ready to get their hands dirty, wants to work and build a future for himself. There’s a really interesting moment where Kimchee shows up to a work meeting having prepared a presentation and some pitches. And I could totally relate to that because I’ve been that guy in my twenties who wants to do better in his life and wants to put in the work to be prepared.
Something I really love about this new season is that the focus is on the six characters and their relationships with one another. There’s opportunities for me to interact with Appa (Paul Sun-Hyung Lee) and Umma (Jean Yoon) in ways I never engaged with them previously on the show. This is a show about love and an imperfect family and I really like the closeness of it all. This season is incredibly funny and I think it’s our best one yet.
What do you think are some of the most important business lessons that Kimchee has learned as he’s matured and put a greater focus on the professional side of his life?
I think his business lessons are really similar to my business lessons. I come from the world of improvisation. In improv, you’re commonly told ‘Oh, don’t be prepared. Don’t have any ideas.’ Which is a bit deceiving. As an improviser, when I get onstage I don’t want to have a pre-set list of ideas or jokes. But I do want to make sure that I’m prepared to be onstage. I’ve taken the classes, done the warm-up, cleared my head and eaten properly. It’s the same in business. The world of business is constantly changing. We’re constantly adapting to new things, but that doesn’t mean we’re not prepared for them.
For me, it’s all about whether I have done the work. With Kimchee, it’s the same idea. He’s a pretty outgoing and fun guy. But he’s doing the work behind the scenes, getting the numbers right and making those presentations. He’s aware of his business and he’s aware of his staff. What I’ve learned throughout my career is that you have to be prepared so that you can be unprepared. By putting in all the time beforehand, when you take on your day to day you’re ready for the things that come at you that you weren’t prepared for.
We really like the opening line from the bio on your website – “You learn by failing.” Can you tell us more about that?
My whole life, my parents taught me to succeed. Like most parents, they taught me to be the best and to get the best grades. But then I started doing improv when I was 16 and people said, ‘Just try and if you fail you get to do it again.’ That shook me to my core because I had never experienced that before. I had never been in a situation where I was allowed to fail.
What I have found over the years is that when I do fail, I get to look at the reasons why it happened. So, failing has built up resilience in me and allowed me to get better and come back stronger. I always remember being onstage and doing improv one time and a dude in the front row was sleeping. After the show, I was so bummed. But then I asked myself, ‘Why did that guy fall asleep?’ I could have blamed it on him or on the audience. But I didn’t. I blamed it on me.
If you look at how I perform now and ever think ‘Why is Andrew Phung the way he is onstage and as a performer?’ It’s because I don’t want you to fall asleep in anything I do! I’ve learned that you can blame your failures on others or you can look at yourself and ask, ‘Why did this happen and how do I avoid it happening again?’ And it might happen again … and again and again. But you’ll keep getting better because of it and that’s why I think that failure is something we all need to embrace.
On Kim’s Convenience, Kimchee is a sneaker collector. In real life, you also have a very extensive collection that includes over 400 pairs of sneakers! Do you have any special insurance for all your shoes?
When I got home insurance and was doing the form online, I came to this page to list the things in your home. I remember sitting there with this sneaker collection and thinking ‘How do I even handle this?’ I wrote something about having a detailed sneaker collection and I knew right away that it would get flagged – and it did. The next day someone from the company called me and we came up with the best plan for the home and how I would document all of my sneakers and that kind of stuff. So, yes I’ve taken the proper precautions to make sure my insurance reflects what I have inside my home – including my sneakers. That’s something I think all people need to do.