“From Kim’s Convenience, there’s an understanding of what a Korean Canadian family might look like”: A Q&A with Jean Yoon
The Toronto actor talks about her new Audible mystery series, her love of old CBC radio dramas and how things have changed since her early days trying to break into the TV industry
Jean Yoon is best known for her role as Umma in the stage-show-turned-CBC-series Kim’s Convenience, about a Korean Canadian family running a convenience store in downtown Toronto. Since the show ended in 2021, Yoon has had a guest role in the Amazon series The Horror of Dolores Roach and loaned her voice to the animated series Red Ketchup and the Audible series Mistletoe Murders, written by Ken Cuperus. For the second season of Mistletoe Murders, out on November 8, Yoon returns with an all-Canadian cast that includes Marvel star Cobie Smulders and Ginny and Georgia’s Raymond Ablack to bring the holiday whodunit to life. Here, Yoon talks about how voice acting is different from performing for the stage or screen, Asian representation in media and her upcoming holiday plans.
How did you get involved with Mistletoe Murders?
The casting director, Larissa Mair, knows my work. She contacted my agent, and I was like, ‘Yeah, absolutely.’ It sounded like a fun project. It reminded me of the CBC’s old radio dramas, which I grew up on.
Which radio dramas did you listen to?
There was a speculative fiction series called Vanishing Point that got me hooked. Back then, radio dramas were the quickest way for a writer to get an idea out to a national audience in a compelling way. There was some great work done back then. It’s a shame that the CBC doesn’t produce radio dramas anymore, but I’m glad to see that the talent, initiative and audience are moving to this format at Audible.
Why do you think the audio format is becoming more popular?
The advantage of audiobooks, podcasts and radio dramas is that you can listen to them while you’re doing something else: walking or driving or washing the dishes. And there’s an intimacy to them—the human voice goes directly into your ear. It’s a very compelling format.
Mistletoe Murders is a murder-mystery series set around the holiday season. Are you a fan of crime stories?
I’m not big into true crime, but someone recently recommended the Dark Poutine podcast to me, which is about Canadian crimes. It’s on my listening list. During the pandemic, my anxiety levels were so high that my personal entertainment diet became completely saccharine. It’s all Korean melodramas and rom-coms. I’m slowly making my way back to more serious material. I think what’s nice about Mistletoe Murders is that it satisfies the itch of wanting the crime and mystery without freaking you out.
Is the preparation for voice-acting similar to how it is for a role on the stage or screen?
The preparation for any scripted work is to read the whole script. It’s a rookie mistake to only read your own part or episode. The great thing about doing voice work is that you can show up to work in your pyjamas, if that’s how you’re most comfortable. You make sure you’re well-rested and alert and have done your prep. I’ve started doing more voice work in the past ten years, and there are a few little tricks I’ve learned along the way, like making sure you don’t wear jewellery or clothes or shoes that jingle or crinkle. If your tummy is empty and you’re drinking water while you’re recording, your stomach will gurgle and the microphone will catch it. I recently learned a trick from another actor, who told me that he always eats a banana before he records, so there’s just enough in his stomach that it doesn’t make a symphony of sounds.
I know you worked with an all-Canadian cast on this show. Did that make it feel extra special?
It’s very comforting and satisfying to know that’s the team that we have. But I don’t see anyone else unless they’re recording right before or after me. I’m alone in a booth.
I didn’t realize it was like that. Does someone read the other lines for you?
It’s a bit weird—sometimes you can ask for somebody to read the lines, especially if timing is important. But, usually, you just read your own lines. When I’m recording and I pause, I’m thinking about the other character’s line.
It must seem magical when it all comes together at the end.
It really does! Sometimes you think, Oh, that worked out really well, because you don’t know exactly how it’s going to turn out. You really count on the director to give you a sense of how it’s going. As an actor, I always try to provide a couple of options so that they can find the right fit.
Tell me more about your character, Sue.
Sue is a Korean Canadian woman who runs a diner in a fictional small town in Ontario. In season one, the diner is a place where the community gathers to catch some gossip. In this season, one of the first crimes occurs at her diner.
You’ve been vocal about the importance of Asian representation on screen. Are you noticing more roles for Korean characters?
Oh, yeah. I’m definitely seeing more projects in which the lead family or characters are Korean. From Kim’s Convenience, there’s now an understanding of what a Korean Canadian family might look like. There’s also been a flood of new Korean TV series and movies lately, so there’s much more awareness about Korea. When I was a kid, hardly anybody even knew where it was. I’ve also seen a couple of things coming down the pipeline that have been created specifically for Korean characters, which makes me happy.
It sounds like things are moving in the right direction.
There’s definitely more awareness, from the top down, that BIPOC characters and actors need to be included or productions will lose an audience. Directors, writers and producers are creating stories that are specific to their experiences, and those stories might be ethnically specific. I think that the industry has come a long way, but it’s still a long way from perfect. When I started my career, in 2002, I attended the TV writing program at the Canadian Film Centre. I came out of it pitching story ideas to big broadcasters, and development officers told me to my face, “It’s not you. We love this, but we can’t take it upstairs unless there’s a white lead.”
Speaking of change, what’s coming up for you in 2024?
I feel very privileged to have time to think about what I want to do next. I’m not in financial panic like I have been for most of my working life, which feels like an incredible luxury. Next year, I’ll be working on a journal project from my time in China—I lived there from the mid-’80s to the early ’90s, when I was teaching English. I also want to spend some time in Korea. During the pandemic, I started trying to improve my Korean. It’s actually been a kind of obsession. Right now, I’m at the level where I can watch cheesy rom-coms, which are intended for teenagers, without subtitles. With some of the wittier shows or shows that have a lot of medical or government jargon, I have to stop and start.
Any holiday plans?
For me, Christmas is about family and food. For the past several years, I’ve been hosting a dinner for my family. We don’t like turkey, and we’re no longer ashamed of it. Instead, we’ve been having prime rib or salmon. It’s great to get everybody together—and it’s a nice opportunity to eat good food.
Hopefully there won’t be any crimes for you to solve this Christmas.
If anything, it’ll be something with the dog. Like, Who stole the dog treats? Where did that bone go?
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.