On Tuesday (January 19), the award-winning CBC television series Kim’s Convenience returns for its fifth season—and its first since 2020 turned everyone’s lives upside-down. It’s not just that COVID was a thing, delaying the start of production by several months; Simu Liu went to Australia to star in a Marvel’s Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings, and Paul Sun-Hyung Lee appeared in the second season of The Mandalorian, fulfilling his lifelong dream of being part of the Star Wars universe. (Full disclosure: Paul and I are friends, and I could not be happier for him.)
In advance of the show’s return, I had a virtual sit-down with Lee, Liu and co-stars Jean Yoon and Andrew Phung to discuss what’s changed this year … starting with how the pandemic affected everyone.
“Our producers—especially Sandra Cunningham—really thought thoroughly through the way we work and every single possible way of mitigating COVID,” Yoon says. “Everything from strategic testing, policy, masking [and] obviously PPE, but also in terms of the traffic in the studio so that different departments didn’t co-mingle.”
The cast wore masks right up until the cameras were rolling—at one point, Liu had to call cut on himself because he’d walked into a scene still wearing his.
“There was a high level of off-set COVID protocols and on-set trust,” Yoon continues, “and because everybody was so diligent and so prepared and so committed… we didn’t have any COVID on-set at all.”
Masking up on the Kim’s Convenience set
Lee picks up the thread. “We also had a fantastic COVID protocol officer, Cher Merlo,” he says. “She did a fantastic job. And it was tough for her because she often had to be the bad guy, enforcing all these rules, making sure people were wearing the proper PPE, following the protocols and stuff. She was the beat cop, making sure we were following the rules.”
“At the beginning, specifically, I was kind of pissed off that I had to wear a mask. ‘We’re being tested, we’re only being exposed to each other, why do I have to wear a mask?’ And it came to that point where I thought, I can either fight it and make life really hard for her and for everybody else, or I can lean into it and make it easy. Just sort of put up with it because I’m doing it for everybody else. And everybody adopted that attitude, which was fantastic to see. And it really did make things easier, if you lean into the protocols instead of fighting them all the time.”
However conscious the production might have been about COVID-19, the world of the show is untouched by the virus.
“People have had enough COVID in their lives; they worry about it when they turn on the news, when they walk on the street,” Liu says. “I don’t think it was something our producers thought we needed to specifically address on the show… however, like Paul and Jean said, that doesn’t mean that the protocols weren’t observed, and that the six of us did not collectively become really, really good at powdering ourselves. The male cast members, especially,” he laughs.
“I wore makeup for this interview!” Phung adds. “Like, I’m used to it now! It’s a new skill I’ve learned.”
Marvel movies and playing catch-up
The spread of COVID across the globe impacted the show’s production schedule in a number of ways. Liu, who went off to Australia to shoot Marvel’s Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings after season 4, found himself still stuck there when season 5 started back up.
“In an ideal world, things in Australia would have wrapped up super nicely and I would have come back in time for the start of season 5,” he says. “But obviously, the universe had other plans for all of us.”
Liu flew back to Toronto as soon as Shang-Chi finished principal photography, quarantining for two weeks. Then he caught up to the Kim’s production timeline with what Lee calls “an almost crazy bootcamp-esque period of like nine straight days, where he [shot] all the stuff that he missed out on. He just stepped in… right back into the frying pan. And he killed it.”
“Simu has the greatest ability to micro-nap,” Phung says. “You’ve heard of the one-inch punch—Simu’s one-minute nap is epic. And then dude pops up like Michael B. Jordan in Creed, like, ‘I’m ready to go.’ It’s so impressive.”
“You’re right,” Liu laughs. “It’s the same.”
“Can you teach us how to do that?” Yoon asks.
“It’s easy,” Liu says. “Never sleep enough. That’s the real secret.”
Appa in space
Liu’s entry into the Marvel universe happened around the same time Lee made his own pop-culture breakthrough, playing a New Republic pilot in two episodes of the Disney+ series The Mandalorian. Playing a character in the Star Wars universe was a life goal of Lee’s, and the fact that his appearance made national news in Canada last fall was, honestly, one of the highlights of a truly miserable year. And it all comes from the way people respond to Kim’s Convenience.
“Outside of Jean and Paul, no one really knew who we were” when the show premiered in 2016, Phung notes. But everyone knows them now.
“The world has seen us,” he says. “I got to watch Simu fly high in a Marvel movie; I haven’t seen much [footage], but I’m excited about it. And we all saw what happened when Canada saw Paul show up in The Mandalorian—like, we lost our minds. And in an industry where for so long we’ve heard that there’s no star system… for the Canadian public to know our names and our faces is incredible. And so I get to cheer on my brothers and everyone just doing their thing right now. It’s awesome.”