Andrew Phung Just Wants to Make People Laugh

From a quirky car rental service employee to a stay-at-home dad in the suburbs, the Calgary-born actor proves he can do it all.

Long before his role as Arnold (Kimchee) Han in CBC award-winning sitcom Kim’s Convenience, Andrew Phung was an improviser, an emcee, a writer and a community organizer.

Growing up in Calgary, Phung fell in love with improvised comedy in high school and started performing at the Loose Moose Theatre Company when he was 16. It was something he pursued as a hobby and a side hustle. While studying Economics at the University of Calgary, he ran youth programs and did community outreach at the Village Square Leisure Centre. He helped out with other non-profits and was eventually offered a position as a program director at Youth Central, an organization offering volunteer and leadership opportunities to young people aged 12-18. “It was a no-brainer,” he said via email. “Great job, helping the community, and it had a flexible schedule so that I could work on my comedy in the evenings and on weekends.”

As Phung dedicated his spare time improving his craft through small roles, emceeing and teaching comedy, he saw himself getting better each day. From 2009 to 2010, he was on Score Television Network’s sports series “Drafted” as a cast member. In 2011, he made the pivotal decision to quit his nine-to-five at Youth Central and transitioned into acting full time. Paying homage to his Calgarian roots, he hosted the Calgary Stampede from 2012 to 2015.

Gregarious with a crisp laugh and expansive manners, Phung charmed audiences with his portrayal of Kimchee, a quirky car rental service employee in Kim’s Convenience. The series’ ascent to fame after going global on Netflix also earned him an international fan base. Not just another funny Asian guy, Phung’s character develops into a sensitive son who seeks to reconnect with his estranged father in the show’s finale. Thanks to the role, he won four Canadian Screen Awards for Best Supporting Actor in Comedy.

Credit Shawn Goldberg Shutterstock.com
Credit Shawn Goldberg Shutterstock.com

Phung’s latest project is Run the Burbs which launches in January on CBC TV and CBC Gem. Co-creator and star of the show, he plays a stay-at-home father in the suburbs.

Culture recently caught up with Phung to discuss comedy and his life’s journey.

Let’s start with Run the Burbs. What was it like to make?

It’s been an absolute dream. It’s also the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. But, I’ve gotten to do it with my best friend, Scott Townend, and it’s a story I wanted to tell. I grew up in the suburbs, and it’s always portrayed as a bit of a lifeless place. But, the burbs to me are filled with energy and fun. The cast we assembled was dynamite. I’m actually kind of blown away that we were able to get all these talented people together. The crew was great, and CBC along with Pier21 has been nothing but supportive of our vision of the show. 

You once said that some of the material for the show was lifted from your experience growing up in Calgary. Will viewers get a glimpse into your life?

I wrote the show with Scott, but also a larger room of writers including our showrunner Shebli Zarghami. As any comedy does, we pull from our experiences and build from it. We all grew up or lived in the suburbs, so we spent days talking about the people and common experiences we had. For this show, we took my POV as a dad and adapted it to the character of Andrew Pham. There are similarities, but also places I deviate from the character. At its core it is about this family who is living their best life in the suburbs.

How does it feel to play the lead in a show where you are the co-creator?

Oh, it’s the best feeling. I never imagined I would have this opportunity, and I’m so thankful for the people who’ve supported and helped me along the way.

You did an incredible job portraying Kimchee who went from a goofy laidback guy to someone more mature and responsible. How much of yourself did you see in him? Did you feel yourself grow with the character?

Kimchee absolutely grew, and it’s something I had really wanted. I always saw Kimchee as a younger version of me, just by a few years. So, I was able to draw from a real place. As the show went on, I was given such wonderful opportunities to grow as a character, and I tried my best to add detail and emotion to the role. 

What was your most memorable moment in Kim’s Convenience?

It’s hard to pick one moment. I got to work with the best group of people. I loved all my scenes with Simu and Nicole, and of course Paul as Appa. Vancouver, season 2 launch, we were in the city to do an event. It was sold out, and then I got a text saying 400 people were lined up trying to get in. We felt like absolute rock stars. It made me tear up knowing this show meant so much to these people, enough for them to line up hours before the event.

You have won multiple Canadian Screen Awards, including for Best Supporting Actor, Comedy in 2020, how does that feel?

To have won four CSA’s for this role is a dream. I’m incredibly honoured, and thankful to the Academy for the recognition. Growing up, I never thought a career as an actor would be possible.

What do you like most about Toronto?

Toronto has a special energy. The move was an easy one and it’s been such a wonderful transition. I think the best part of Toronto is the sheer size and how much there is to do. It has such a welcoming TV, film, and comedy community. It’s also a city where people move to, so making friends was easy because so many people aren’t from here. 

What do you miss most about Calgary?

My parents, our friends, my comedy peers, and the food. Calgary has such great food, it’s underrated. The best banh mi I’ve ever had exists there and I think about it daily.

What was it like growing up in Calgary?

I grew up in the Northeast of Calgary. It’s the most culturally diverse area of the city. I can’t compare it to anything else. At times it was tough, but those experiences made me who I am. I’m so thankful to have grown up surrounded by culture and hard-working people. My first big hit improv show was called “Northeast: The Show” and it’s my forever love letter to this quadrant of the city.

Photo credit: Josh Fee.
Photo credit: Josh Fee.
Where does your inspiration as a comedian come from?

I just like making people laugh, and I like acting. I like being different characters, connecting with other performers, finding the “game” in a scene. At the end of the day I just want to make people smile and laugh.

You are of Vietnamese and Chinese descent. Did you grow up with any customs or traditions reflecting that heritage?

My father is Chinese, my mother is Vietnamese. But, my father grew up in Vietnam. They met in Canada, actually. My traditions usually steered more to the Vietnamese side, but a lot of times, they blended together. At times I didn’t know what was from where, it was just how I was raised. I have a huge family, and that time together, celebrating traditions is a highlight of my childhood and life right now.

Tết and Lunar New Year are the absolute highlights. Weddings and big family restaurant dinners are also huge. But to me, the pinnacle was always our Tet celebrations. Seventy to 100 people crammed into a house, with tables full of food, and the chaos known as handing out Li Xi holds a special place in my heart. When I got married and got to give out money, it went to another level. I always set up a game to give out money, and I base it on “Price is Right” games, which was my late grandfather’s favorite TV show. I look forward to them every year, and missing them during COVID has really hurt. I’m really excited for an episode this season [of Run the Burbs] that captures my POV on Tết in a Canadian context. 

What do your parents think about your career in arts?

They’ve been very supportive. I think it’s because I included them on the journey. I never hid it from them. To my mom, doing improv kept me from going to the bar with my friends, so that was a win. I would invite them to shows and they loved it. But, as I got better and better, they saw my potential and actually encouraged me to pursue it full time. Their concern was that I’d be broke and hungry. But, I had proved I could make a living doing it, so when I quit my job, they were on board. I ran my arts career like a business, and they saw that. I wasn’t going to fail, and if I did, I at least had an education and job experience to fall back on.

As a father of two and a happily married man, how do you balance work-life?

It’s hard. I think it just comes down to making firm decisions and being clear that there is family time, and then work time I try to divide my schedule, and I really try to stick to it. Also, as an actor, I get pockets of time where I’m less busy, so I make sure I fill it with family time.

Photo credit: Josh Fee.
You have around 400 pairs of sneakers. Where does your love of sneakers come from?

My love of sneakers came from travelling. Whenever I travel, I buy a pair of sneakers from that city. I don’t drink, so I put my money there. It grew and then became a part of my comedy/improv persona. Fresh sneakers each show. It helped get me out of my head, and it kept growing. The writers on Kim’s Convenience brought that onto the show which I loved.

What is your favourite pair of sneakers?

Jordan 1s, 3s, 11s, those are my favourite models. But as for a shoe, it’s the Steve Nash Air Max 90 from 2005. The first gift my wife ever got me. He was the MVP and I felt like the boss wearing those sneakers.

Can you tell us about YYCSolediers, an online sneaker group you co-founded which also produces Sneaker SWAP, a Calgary-based sneaker event?

My background is in community development so I saw that there wasn’t an official sneaker community. Three pals and I decided to launch an online group to facilitate conversation, trading, and events. I’ve passed the reigns to the group and it has been doing great work.

What progress has the Canadian media industry made in terms of representation? What can we do better?

We’re seeing more projects from new creators, and a wider range of points of view. This is a huge win. We’re also seeing more representation in our performers. In short, we just need more. We need to support more creators, more performers, more people behind the scenes. It’s also great to see training and initiatives to create a more welcoming space for BIPOC creators. This initial wave is wonderful, so it’s really just doing it consistently, and for a long period of time. This needs to become the norm in our industry. 

As someone who has built a successful career in comedy, what is your advice to aspiring artists who want to break into this industry? 

My biggest piece of advice is to be willing to fail. Failing is so key to growing as a performer. My journey in comedy is full of failure, bad shows, unfunny jokes, characters that didn’t land. I was lucky enough to start at the Loose Moose Theatre Company, a place that encouraged failure. If I had a bad show, I got to come back and do it again. I’ve seen people fail, and give up completely. Failure is what makes us better. No one wakes up and is perfect at comedy, it’s a process. Fail big, fail hard, fail often.

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