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Paul Sun-Hyung Lee in Season 5 of Kim's Convenience.CBC

In a little over a decade, Lee’s acting career has gone from struggle to stratosphere. His starring role as Appa on CBC’s Kim’s Convenience led to a recurring role on Disney+’s Star Wars spinoff The Mandalorian. Next, he’ll play Uncle Iroh on the much-anticipated live-action adaptation of Avatar: The Last Airbender, due early next year on Netflix.

Good things come to those who wait

Lee, now 51, first played the curmudgeonly Appa on stage, at the 2011 Toronto Fringe Festival, and he went on to portray the character upwards of 500 times. But he didn’t get his big break on TV until he was in his mid-40s, when CBC adapted the play into what became a breakout hit in 2016.

Onward and upward

When Kim’s Convenience ended abruptly in 2021, before its promised sixth season, Lee talked openly about how sad he was—after all, he’d spent a decade playing Appa. But he never veered into acrimony toward the show’s producers, as did a couple of other cast members. “At the end of the day,” he said, “we have a body of work that we’re super proud of...We’re gonna be okay. Life goes on, right?”

Dreams do come true

Lee has been a Star Wars fanatic since he was five, when his dad—who moved the family from Korea when Lee was a baby—took him to see the original in 1977. Lee’s Toronto house is filled with Star Wars paraphernalia; he has a YouTube channel dedicated to unboxing figurines and other assorted geekery; he’s even a member of a Star Wars–focused cosplay group. So it was a literal dream come true when, in 2018, the executive producer of The Mandalorian—who’d become a fan of Kim’s Convenience via Netflix—wrote a part just for Lee, as X-Wing fighter pilot Carson Teva. Mando is now going into its fourth season, with Teva reportedly set for a storyline of his own.

Representation matters

Until Appa came along, Lee struggled to land meaningful roles as an Asian actor. “You’re forced to audition for these dehumanizing parts that are perpetuating stereotypes,” he recently told Zoomer. Even his beloved Star Wars universe failed miserably when it came to diversity, and fans have been known to spew racist vitriol toward non-white actors (Kelly Marie Tran was forced off social media after being cast in Star Wars: The Last Jedi in 2017). But as Lee said at the 2018 Canadian Screen Awards, where he won best actor in a comedy for Kim’s: When people see themselves represented on screen, “it’s a powerful moment...because it means they’ve been moved from the margins to the forefront, and it gives them a voice, and it gives them hope.”

Nice guys finish first

Lee’s company—which includes a YouTube channel, a line of merch, a blog and more—might be called Bitter Asian Dude, but Lee is known for his unbridled warmth with fans. As a super-fan himself, he has said he knows what it’s like to reach out to someone you admire and get crickets back. “It’s such a small thing to do to say, ‘Thanks for watching.’”

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