Calgary-raised actor Paul Sun-Hyung Lee receives Canadian Award of Distinction

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Given that Paul Sun-Hyung Lee is currently starring in the big-budget Netflix spectacle Avatar: The Last Airbender and has become part of the Star Wars universe with a recurring role in The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett, it’s tempting to think they would be the main source of his fame while out in public these days.

But that’s not really the case. Being part of these famous franchises brings a certain prestige, of course. But for many, the Calgary expat will always be Appa, the Korean patriarch he played in Kim’s Convenience for five seasons on CBC.

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“I was in San Francisco, just at the airport, and feeling as anonymous as ever,” Lee says. “I was just be-bopping along doing my own thing and a guy came up to me and said ‘Are you Paul? From Kim’s Convenience? Oh my God, I’m a huge fan of the show. My whole family watches it.’ To this day, it’s Kim’s Convenience more than anything else. Star Wars obviously gets in there and Avatar, because it’s very recent. Mostly you can tell what subset of fandom they are coming from. If they are younger, it’s generally Avatar. If they are a little bit older, it’s Star Wars. But Kim’s has been universal. It has been really gratifying to see it’s a worldwide phenomenon. People still talk about it, even though it’s been off the air for three years now.”

With his long silver beard and friendly smile, Lee is not hard to pick out of a crowd. But he admits fan recognition is not something he would have predicted earlier in his career. Chatting with Postmedia at the Banff World Media Festival earlier this week, Lee was set to accept the Canadian Award of Distinction, an annual honour that has previously gone to people such as Paul Haggis, Colm Feore, Eric McCormack, Will Arnett and his former Kim’s co-star turned A-list action hero Simu Liu. Lee was not expecting that, either.

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“It’s all rather surreal,” he says. “The imposter syndrome kind of kicks in. It’s like ‘Who am I compared to all these people?’ It’s gratifying, it’s humbling. I’m trying to accept all of these things that are coming in my life right now with a certain amount of grace and humility and gratitude.”

Born in South Korea, Lee spent most of his childhood in Calgary. He left for Toronto after graduating from Winston Churchill High School and began acting, including playing the role of Appa in the original stage production of Kim’s Convenience. But what makes his recent success particularly sweet is that, up until quite recently, it seemed out of reach.

“Right now, I’m just so focused on playing in those playgrounds I’ve been traditionally denied from because of the colour of my skin,” Lee says. “Being able to do Star Wars and a fantasy series like Avatar, I’d love to be able to explore that more.”

Diversity and representation is something Lee has often discussed in the past and it was the focus of panels at the Banff World Media Festival, a sign that the industry is changing. Things have improved since the 1990s, when Lee began acting.

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“With that is the inevitable pushback from people who say ‘Well, it’s a woke initiative. There’s an agenda. It’s a woke agenda,’ ” Lee says. “It’s not that we’re taking away jobs from you, we are opening up jobs that were traditionally only available to you. We’re opening it up for everyone else. That is a meritocracy. That is true equality. It’s not less rights for you, it’s equal rights for everyone. Once we can get beyond that and the whole idea of ‘you’re taking my job’ – once we get beyond that mentality – I think we’ll be far better off for that. I’m seeing that in the fandom right now, particularly Star Wars. You look at The Acolyte and hear from all the – for lack of a better term – butt-hurt fanboys who are like ‘Oh, I hate this show. It’s just people of colour. All the white people are the bad guys … blah, blah, blah.’ Dude, it’s been that way forever, but the other way. Now that it’s reversed, you’re upset? You’re calling everyone else fragile?’ ”

While Lee doesn’t know what his future holds in the Star Wars universe, Netflix announced that Avatar: The Last Airbender would be renewed for Seasons 2 and 3. Despite his success, Lee admits that maintaining stable work is still something he thinks about. So knowing he will remain a part of a big-budget series for the foreseeable future is a relief.

“That’s what you want, that security,’” he says. “At the beginning of my career, at the beginning of everybody’s career, there’s a lot of ‘what’s going to happen after this? I don’t know. That’s always looming in the back of your head: Do I have to get a Joe job? I’ve got to eat, I’ve got to feed the family, I’ve got to pay the rent. So to have that certainty is a luxury. Not everybody gets a chance at that.”

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