Kim’s Convenience star Simu Liu talks diversity, superheroes and Crazy Rich Asians


Kim’s Convenience star Simu Liu talks the show, his career, the importance of Asian representation in the media, and Crazy Rich Asians.

American audiences may not be as familiar with the Kim family, but in Canada, Kim’s Convenience has been warming our hearts and making us laugh since it first aired on CBC in 2016. Fast forward to now, and the show has been added on Netflix around the world, garnering a whole new crop of fans to love and appreciate Appa, Umma, Jong and Janet.

The show follows a Korean-Canadian family who owns and runs a convenience store in Toronto, led by parents Appa (Paul Sun-Hyung Lee) and Umma(Jean Yoon) — Korean for dad and mom. Janet (Andrea Bang), their daughter, is a university student, and estranged son Jung (Simu Liu), the rebel of the family, works at a car rental service with his best friend Kimchee (Andrew Phung).

The Kim family face the same issues as any other, like parents struggling to see eye to eye with their children, but also deals with the immigrant experience in a way that allows viewers to relate to it, but also laugh along.

Simu Liu, who plays Jung, has been using his appearance on Kim’s Convenience to help shine a light on Asian representation in the media. Besides writing, producing and starring in a number of short films, including the Wong Fu Productions short Meeting Mommy in 2018, Liu also tours schools around Canada to discuss following your dreams, the Asian-Canadian experience, and diversity in films and television.

He recently stopped in Montreal for a talk at McGill University where Culturess got to catch up with the Chinese-Canadian actor to discuss Kim’s Convenience, his upcoming appearance on Fresh Off The Boat, his dream of playing an Asian superhero, and of course Crazy Rich Asians.

Kim’s Convenience (2016). Photo Credit: CBC/Netflix

After three seasons now, what has the response been like to Kim’s Convenience?

Well, I think you can see it on social media. We have such an amazing group of fans, some of who are incredibly vocal on Twitter and other forms of social media. And it’s really been amazing for us to see the breadth of what those fans look like. They come from so many diverse backgrounds. We were saying from the beginning that this show is not just for Asian-Canadians, it’s really for everybody. The immigrant story is something that, I feel, is so quintessentially Canadian so I’m glad that the show has hit the way that it’s hit. You know, you have people coming up to us from India, from parts of Eastern Europe, and they relate so much to the family dynamic with Appa. They feel like their dads are all very similar. So yeah, it’s reminded us of just how universal these things can be.

Family and culture, that’s really something the show revolves around. Was that what first drew you to the show?

Yeah, of course. I was a struggling actor at the time, so I was kind of drawn to anything, but I’m glad it was Kim’s! No, I remember watching the play the year before the show started casting, and it was just such an incredible experience. I had never seen myself on stage in the way that I had when I saw that play. For an Asian guy, watching things like Shakespeare, you never really felt like you could be part of it. It was more like a museum piece: you could look at it and admire it, you can appreciate all the cool costumes and the funny way that people talk, but there wasn’t really a personal connection.

So when I saw the play on stage it absolutely destroyed me. It felt like a conversation that I always wanted to have with my father that was just playing itself out on stage, so I remember tears streaming down my face. I was so absolutely moved by it, so of course, when the show came along I was very, very excited to potentially be a part of it.

On the show, the relationships come off as very genuine, so I think that’s part of the reason why people have really related to the story. It doesn’t feel forced. If you told me you were a real family I’d believe you.

I appreciate that.

Over the last couple of seasons, your character, Jung, has really grown up, getting his GED, taking his career more seriously. Where do you think Jung goes from here?

One thing that’s very obvious in the play is Jung is a guy that is filled with potential. Growing up, he was such a natural leader amongst his friends, always the most athletic, the most charismatic, and somewhere down the line something happened between him and his Appa, and he kind of went off the rails a little bit.

When we start the show on season one, he’s at a point where he is trying to kind of get his life back on track. So what we’re seeing by season three is that he’s kind of almost succeeding in doing that, but there’s things from his past that prevented him from securing a job position, so now he’s kind of found himself back wearing the polo at Handy!

I guess what I want to see from him is what his plan is next, because he does have a GED and he did invest a lot of time in it. He’s got to figure it out, he can’t just be a blue shirt polo guy forever, so I’m excited to see where he goes because he’s an ambitious guy, you know, so I think we’ll see something from him.

Simu Liu in Kim’s Convenience (2016). Photo Credit: CBC/Netflix

You mentioned how Jung had some rough teen years and problems with his father, and I find he really defies Asian stereotypes in the way that he’s not the “perfect” Asian son.

Right, the model minority.

He’s also seen as a bit of a heartthrob. Why do you think a character like Jung is important for people to see?

Oh, I think it’s massively important. Growing up, it’s impossible not to internalize what the media portrays you as. If you happen to grow up, for example, white, I think you have a lot of breadth to draw from. You have characters left, right, and center to choose and choose which parts you relate to and connect to. For us, it was literally like… Jackie Chan. And even then, he felt very unrelatable to us because he was Asian from Asia, Chinese born and raised, and for us, growing up in the West, we knew innately that we had very different experiences.

So when you looked at Asian-American actors, there really weren’t that many and the roles that we were seeing on screen — yeah, at no point would they have used words like “heartthrob” or the rebellious bad boy kid to describe these characters.

It’s not trying to encourage people to go out and fight with their parents but it’s to challenge perceptions of what Asian people can be in people’s eyes so I’m glad to be a part of the conversation that does that.

With characters like Jung or Henry Golding’s character Nick Young in Crazy Rich Asians, there’s this kind of turning point with Asian leading men. Why do you think it’s taken so long? Do you think the media is finally accepting Asian leading men in a serious role?

Yeah, I hope so. Have you seen Henry Golding?!

I think the world is ready for the whole movement. I mean, I do want to talk about Asian leading men, but I think [people] are just ready for something different, for some diversity in general. They’ve been craving it.

I think that’s why movies like Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians do as well as they do, because people are getting sick and tired of seeing the same people on screen dealing with the same problems. It doesn’t feel genuine and authentic anymore, and it doesn’t feel reflective of the world we live in.

Speaking of Black Panther, I saw you were asked on your Instagram recently whether you’d want to star in the Crazy Rich Asians sequel or in a superhero movie. You said Crazy Rich Asians would be great, but you want to be in a superhero movie, but only if you play the superhero. What draws you to that type of role?

It’s exactly like you said, it’s an Asian leading man in a way that I think we’ve never seen him before. It’s to have the opportunity to lead, to carry a tent-pole movie. That’s something that a studio has not trusted an Asian person with, ever.

I think Marvel is developing a franchise around Shang-Chi, I believe, who is an Asian superhero. But I’m really interested to see where they go with that because, even though he’s a superhero and all that, he is, in the comic books, his roots are in martial arts and mysticism. It does run the risk of falling into that stereotypical territory.

Now that doesn’t mean that we should just abandon it outright. I think Black Panther also had its roots in potentially very problematic source material, but Ryan Coogler took it and adapted it into the modern day and made being black and from Africa something to be extremely proud of. I hope that we can kind of do the same thing.

There’s an entire generation of us growing up who were very ashamed of who we were because either we were made fun of or we saw ourselves portrayed on screen in a certain way. More often than not, we wanted to hide our Asian-ness so we tried to adopt other cultures, tried to act like we didn’t want to be part of it.

So what I really hope for people now in these next coming years, as we go further down this trail that was blazed by Crazy Rich Asiansis that people can connect better with their culture and even be proud of it. We should be proud of who we are.

Simu Liu in Kim’s Convenience (2016). Photo Credit: CBC/Netflix

With Black Panther especially, it was such a massive hit because people — white, black, any race — wanted to see it, and it was embraced so well because it was finally taking on a new territory that wasn’t there before. I definitely think with an Asian superhero it would be the same thing. Look at the success of Crazy Rich Asians, that was huge. Now… you wouldn’t turn down Crazy Rich Asians if they came calling?

I mean, sure! I auditioned for the first one a bunch of times, obviously I would love to be involved with it in any way. The second one, I think there’s an opportunity for a lot of new characters to come in because in China Rich Girlfriend, there are a couple of new crazy rich Asians that come into the mix. So I’m sure when that script is ready, I’ll get to get a look at it, but as of right now I don’t think they’re ready to cast yet.

That would be amazing. Do you think that movie’s success will impact Asian representation in film moving forward?

Of course. It’s the first studio movie featuring an all-Asian cast in 25 years so, yes the economic success of that movie proved to Hollywood beyond a shadow of a doubt that a market does exist for those movies and for those stars.

I think what you’re going to see in the future is Hollywood will course correct and green-light more movies like it because any studio just wants to make money. And when you’ve just proven to the world that there’s a whole new untapped market, I think actually they will be quite hungry to satiate that need.

Before, studios likely assumed“Oh, well this isn’t going to make money.” Now that they know it does, get ready to pump them out!

Exactly. And you know what, they should. We should have the opportunity to make mediocore films, bad films, and also great films. You can’t get to the great necessarily without being able to experiment. The amount of pressure that was put on Crazy Rich Asians to succeed is absolutely insane, and it must’ve been very creatively stifling in a way. Because, being a very good movie as it was, it was very safe, it was very formulaic rom-com — and that’s great, because we’ve never had that before! But at the same time, for us to continue to expand our craft and to tell interesting stories, we will need to make mistakes here and there and we should feel safe in doing so.

You’re set to guest star on Fresh Off The Boat, another show dedicated to positive Asian representation. Can you tell us anything about your appearance?

I was actually lucky enough to be invited on for their 100th episode. I think it’s premiering sometime in May. I play a character named Willie, and he’s very, very different from Jung so you’re going to see something totally different from me. Being on that set was actually my first time working on an L.A. set and I was actually really struck by just how similar the crews were in terms of how inclusive they were, how diverse it was in makeup, behind the screen, and obviously in front of the screen. It was a really, really awesome experience.

That’s great, I can’t wait to watch it.

Me neither!

Finally, you do a lot of motivational speaking at schools, like with McGill University. Why do think it’s so important to talk on campuses?

There were a lot of things that I wish somebody had told me growing up. First was that, if you try to live your life for somebody else, sooner or later you will come to resent that and you will be tremendously unhappy. The moment that you decide to live for yourself, and what I mean by that is to acknowledge your passions and to actively pursue them, you’ll be far happier doing that.

So I talk a lot about my life because I went to school as an accountant, I majored in accounting and finance, and then quickly realized that it was not for me. I was stuck in a job that I hated and thank God I got laid off about a year after I started because it kind of paved the way for me to experiment and try different things. I somehow wound up on the set of a movie as an extra and that kind of kickstarted my love for TV and film. I shouldn’t say “kickstarted”, the curiosity was always there, but that kind of cemented it for me.

And it gave you the kick that you needed.

Yeah, exactly. So that’s one big part of it, giving yourself the permission to follow your dreams and acknowledge that thing that you have inside you and not to live for, for example, pleasing your parents or doing the right thing. It will only lead to repressed feelings of frustration, anxiety and this idea that you’re not living this life that you want. Nobody wants that.

The second thing is we’ve talked a lot about Asian representation and what it means to have a cultural identity. I think for Asian-Americans or Asian-Canadians or all Asians growing up in the West, traditionally our parents were immigrants and we kind of grew up doing a balancing act between two cultures. What I’d like to do, what I’d like to instill in all of us as a community is a sense that we can create a culture of our own now.

This Asian-American or Asian-Canadian identity is still in its infancy because so many of us are so new here. But it’s such an exciting time because we get to choose what we are now and we don’t have to be what people say that we are. We can decide for ourselves what our destiny in this world is going to be. I find that very exciting and I want to make sure that people know that and people can make that choice.

Seasons 1 and 2 of Kim’s Convenience are streaming now on Netflix. Season 3 is currently airing on CBC in Canada.