A few weeks before a new CBC series called Kim’s Convenience began filming, I got an audition for a recurring role on the show. Based on the hit play by Ins Choi, the series was going to use the characters from the stage play and give them comedic life on television with the help of experienced show runner Kevin White, (Corner Gas, Dan for Mayor, Schitt’s Creek) who’d co-run the series with Ins. I went in to see the casting directors and gave, what I thought was, an excellent audition, playing a pal of the main character, Mr. Kim.
I didn’t get the part.
Then, about halfway through the filming of Season One, my agent got a call from the casting director. The next script had another character in it, also a friend of Mr. Kim’s. If it was okay with me, casting was going to show my original audition for the first character to CBC again, and if they signed off, I’d get to play this new character in one episode.
I got the part.
His name was Mr. Mehta, and the scene was a Korean card game he played with Mr. Kim while they discussed their parenting styles. It was a hilarious and touching scene on the page in my mind, and surprisingly, the production booked me for a half hour rehearsal with Paul Sun-Hyung Lee a few days before filming (not common for a one-day TV engagement).
I’d known Paul for years, often auditioning against him for the same part and, about six months earlier, we’d spent a cold night outside working on a feature called 22 Chaser, mostly improvising an extensive scene between me, a drunk-driving politician and him, an exasperated cop. If you watch the film, we are barely in it, and our extensive scene is nowhere to be seen. But Paul and I developed an acting camaraderie that night that came in handy when I went in to rehearse with him.
It wasn’t a long rehearsal, but right after, casting called my agent to tell me that I was booked for two more episodes in Season One playing Mr. Mehta. When I got the scripts for the other two episodes, I recognized the dialogue from my original audition for the first character I never got. They’d transferred it all to Mr. Mehta. And I’ve recurred on the hit Canadian comedy ever since.
All the long-running recurring cast of Kim’s Convenience have their own casting story.
Michael Musi recalls getting the part of Terence, the chipper eager beaver at Handy Car Rental, who was originally in a single episode. “When I auditioned for Terence, it was supposed to be a one-episode ACTOR role. I had one line. It was, ‘Hey!’ You never know what can happen. I think the writers saw that this character had a place in this world. I kept getting calls from my agent that they wanted me for one more episode. Suddenly I was a regular on the show. It’s been a dream.”
Christina Song remembers that she had a very long audition for the role of Mrs. Lee, one of Umma’s church friends. “I think I was in the room for at least 20 minutes. I had two scenes to prepare, and we did each one about four or five different ways! Everything from fake-smiley to slightly desperate to completely deadpan and everything in-between. When I actually showed up on set, I wasn’t sure which Mrs. Lee they were expecting!”
In Kim’s Convenience, besides his positive pal Mr. Mehta, the dark side is fuelled by the cynical Mr. Chin played by John Ng, coming to TV with an extensive stage background. “I got cast because Ins knew my work in theatre and thought I would be a good fit for the role of Mr. Chin, a character he had created for the teleplay of Kim’s. I had been away from the small screen for years, so it wasn’t easy at first to step into that environment again. The stress was palpable, I think, for everyone that first season, with a brand-new show and a host of unknown characters introducing themselves to the TV audience.”
Ben Beauchemin plays Gerald, Janet’s college friend and roommate. “I think Gerald, like many people, acts very differently based on who he is hanging out with, which is why cast chemistry is so important for me. The writers have done a really great job with writing the character and making him feel, to me, like a very real person. Appa, for instance, makes him extremely nervous, and Paul does a great job at barrelling down on me. It makes it easy and fun to play off of someone who is so critical of you and unimpressed. I think Paul is the person who I’ve broke character and laughed with the most while shooting because we work each other up so well, he terrifies me, and I constantly disappoint him.”
As Ben points out, we really serve the writers and one of Kim’s Convenience’s best, Anita Kapila, describes how the team approaches these secondary characters: “When we’re developing a character on Kim’s, our focus is on story: who would have an interesting, funny perspective? Sometimes they’re written as one-offs for a particular story or cold open, but other times we want to open up the Kim’s world. Whether the character comes back has a lot to do with story, chemistry and, of course, if they’re funny. Although sometimes the secondary character, and the actor who portrays them, are great, we realize that they take a story point away from one of our leads. We try to write each character with a distinct voice, but it’s always great when an actor puts their own spin on their character. If it’s funny, we’ll write to it.”
Jeff Goldblum once said of his early career that he felt it critical to make his one-line roles stand out and I’ve always taken that to heart. Once I got the job of potentially recurring on Kim’s Convenience, I wanted to make Mr. Mehta as memorable as possible. And even more important, as “writeable” as possible. The writers are in charge of how much screen time any character will have. I want to make it easy for them to want to write for my character.
This meant making a clear, distinctive character in Mr. Mehta. He’s actually inspired by an uncle who taught me to smoke a cigar when I was 11, an old family friend who knew how to make friends with anyone and my spouse’s boss who has a distinctive speech pattern that I decided to steal. Adding my own personality to that mix and then always trying to make bold choices in the playing of a scene or, more importantly, the delivery of a line, became critical to me. As we film our fourth season, I no longer think of that prep, but I know it’s the creative crucible for Mr. Mehta.
But that’s just my approach. Each of us brings our own take to performing our roles. John Ng: “There is a greater comfort level we have wearing our characters’ shoes. And that’s what playing Mr. Chin is like for me today, putting on a piece of familiar clothing and being comfortable in my – in Mr. Chin’s – own skin. I feel the brilliant team of writers are attuned to what makes Mr. Chin unique and alive. It is to their credit that I still make new discoveries about the character to this day.”
Christina Song remembers, “Mrs. Lee first appears in a scene with Umma and some other church ladies, including Mrs. Park. Although Mrs. Lee did say some things that could sound judgy, I wanted to give her a different energy from Mrs. Park, who was somewhat nastier. I wanted Mrs. Lee to have a warmth and genuine love for Umma (also, so I could hopefully stick around and get to be her friend going forward!)”
On the other hand, Rodrigo Fernandez-Stoll, who plays the flighty Enrique explains his approach, “Playing Enrique is a great chance to annoy Appa. And I like that. In fact, I like to annoy Paul just as much. So, it works out.”
Kim’s Convenience focuses on the Kim family but has expanded to include all the recurring characters as the series’ extended family. Getting a chance to be a part of that family the first time, took showbiz luck and some talent, but getting to recur took a bit more than that. I still consider all of us very lucky.