15 Minutes with Paul Sun-Hyung Lee

Known for his starring role on the hit CBC series Kim’s Convenience, Paul Sun-Hyung Lee has become one of Canada’s most recognizable faces. This fall, he returns to television screens as the host of Canada’s Smartest Person Junior.

Actor Paul Sun-Hyung LeePhoto: Courtesy of CBC

In conversation with actor and writer Paul Sun-Hyung Lee

Reader’s Digest Canada: What have you learned from your stint as the host of Canada’s Smartest Person Junior?

Paul Sun-Hyung Lee: The good hosts make it look easy—everyone watching thinks, “I can do that.” The reality is that there’s a lot you have to do on your feet. You have to take a script that was rewritten seconds before you say it and make it sound believable. You don’t know who’s going to win, get eliminated or how these kids will react.

What was your relationship like with the child contestants?

My main job was to make them feel secure and safe enough to just be themselves. I think we established that at the beginning because I kept screwing up. Kids love when they can laugh at someone who makes mistakes. I’d never [hosted a show of this scale] before, so I made plenty.

Put yourself in their shoes for a moment. How do you think you’d fare as a contestant?

These kids are solving things that would take adults five to 10 minutes to guess. It’s stunning. The linguistics problems were easy for me, but then again, that’s my strength. When it came to music: “Find that note” or “how many times did this note play?” I don’t know! Who knows that?

With Kim’s Convenience and now Canada’s Smartest Person Junior, you’ve become a staple of Canadian TV. How important was TV to you growing up?

When my family first moved to Canada, we spoke nothing but Korean. Television for me was how I learned to speak English. It shaped my sense of humour, my sense of storytelling and what I found appealing. But for a long time, I’d only seen Western families portrayed. I thought, “My family story isn’t up there, and it’s because I’m not important enough.” You carry that with you—even subconsciously.

Thankfully, a lot has changed in terms of representation, both behind and in front of the camera.

We’re seeing more authentic portrayals of different communities and cultures, and it’s exciting. Growing up, the biggest argument against [diversity on screen] was that it’s not relatable. With movies like Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians, we’re seeing that it’s simply not true. We’ve been fed the same diet of stuff for so long, and everybody’s tired of it. Audiences demand more now.

What words of advice do you have for actors of colour?

I’ve met a lot of young actors who think they should be handed roles solely because they’re minorities. But you know what? You still need to bring your craft and work your butt off. You’re given so few chances to succeed, and even fewer chances to fail, so you have to be prepared when the opportunities come.

Can you imagine yourself doing anything else other than acting?

Originally, I wanted to be a writer and visual artist. My girlfriend was going to the University of Toronto, so I decided to go there. I remember hearing about the drama program and fell in love with it. I like to think I was a good storyteller, and acting was just a natural extension of that. At first it was all wine and roses, but then the harsh realities of graduating settled in. Then it was, “Okay, now how do I get a job?”

What sets Canada’s Smartest Person Junior apart from other game shows?

Because it’s elimination-style, you get to know the competitors, and you’ll find your favourites and the ones you root for the most. They’re all competing, but the level of sportsmanship and intelligence is tremendous. It’ll be lovely for audiences to see.

Canada’s Smartest Person Junior premieres Wednesday, Nov. 14 at 8 p.m. (8:30 NT) on CBC.