“The first time I put on that X-wing helmet, I started crying”: A Q&A with The Mandalorian star Paul Sun-Hyung Lee
The veteran actor from East York dishes on his starfighter technique, receiving a Governor General’s Award and where to get a sci-fi cocktail in Toronto
Soaring across the galaxy in season three of The Mandalorian is Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, best known for his much-loved turn as Mr. Kim in Kim’s Convenience. Now he’s playing X-wing pilot Carson Teva throughout the Star Wars universe. Here, Lee talks about what it’s like to trade the convenience store keys for those of a starfighter. He also dishes on his secret to comedic acting, how it feels to win one of the country’s highest acting honours and where to get a sci-fi cocktail in Toronto.
You recently attended the LA premiere of The Mandalorian along with thousands of fans. How’d it feel?
That’s one of those core memories I’ll keep forever. It was a dream come true—going down to Hollywood, living that dream of being on a red carpet, at a premiere event for a show in a franchise that has meant so much to me.
You were five years old when the original Star Wars came out. It must have blown you away.
Star Wars has left an indelible mark on my life. It’s a story that I became obsessed with, and I’m obsessed to this day. I have tons of toys and collectibles in my house. To be able to live out the fantasy of every five-year-old is mind-blowing. But I was also terrified that I would suck. I had a lot to prove.
As a kid, did you ever imagine that you’d make it into the series?
This journey was completely by accident. My parents moved the family to Calgary from Daejeon, South Korea, when I was three months old. They were always working. My sister, Angela, and I were latchkey kids—we took care of ourselves. But TV and movies were my touchstones; they were my anchor. I learned how to speak English by watching them. It never occurred to me that I could be an actor, because I never saw people who looked like me on screen. We say that representation matters, and it really does. When young people see themselves or their families in art, it opens up the mind’s possibilities.
What did your parents want you to be?
They told me: “Doctor, lawyer, teacher, engineer or failure.” But I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, other than to attend U of T after high school. (I think I was following my girlfriend at the time.) Once there, I saw the drama program, and it sounded like fun. Long story short, I had zero experience, but I fell in love with the craft and never looked back.
You spent so many years playing a sitcom character. How does it feel to play a fantastical hero in The Mandalorian?
As an actor, that’s kind of what you crave. Our job as performers is to be able to play that range. Doing a sitcom should be no different from doing a drama. For me, comedy is very special because it isn’t just about trying to make people laugh. Audiences are way more invested if they can see themselves reflected in you. If you play the truth of the part, then the laughs aren’t cheap. It’s a craft, and it’s difficult. I think some of the best dramatic actors have really solid comedic chops. So, jumping from genre to genre? I love it.
You have a thing for props, I hear. Tell us about that.
I make friends with the props department right away, trying to learn what everything does. I ask myself: Is there a sequence wherein I have to use a prop to make the scene feel real? When I’m in the X-wing, for example, I’m not blindly stabbing at buttons. There’s a sequence that I’ve made up in my mind. I try to keep that consistent every time I go in. Many fans do deep dives when watching, and they’re looking for that sense of authenticity.
Was there a dream prop you got to work with?
That’s like putting a kid in a toy store and asking them to pick only one thing. But one memory stands out: the first time I went for a Mandalorian costume fitting, they had to give me a temporary helmet to wear. It was a helmet from the first movie—I knew it right away. When I put it on, I just started crying.
You’re getting a Governor General’s Performing Arts Award on May 27. Congratulations! How does that feel?
I have impostor syndrome—it’s hard! When they told me, I was like, Really? Me? I think it’s the Canadian or the Asian mentality that you can always be better, just keep your head down and be thankful for the work. I’m honoured, above all, beyond belief. I love this country, and I love the opportunities that it has afforded me. I’m humbled, I’m grateful, I’m thankful. I’m just going to walk around the street with my medallion—because, it’s okay, I’m a laureate. It feels so surreal.
What do you miss most about Toronto when you’re shooting elsewhere?
I like knowing exactly where I am at any given time. You could drop me off anywhere in the city and I can figure out how to get home. I also love that we are so rich in culture here, which a lot of people take for granted. Toronto is where my wife, Anna, and I chose to raise our family. It’s my home.
Any favourite haunts?
There are so many great places. Stormcrow Manor on Church is a geek hangout with fantastic food and signature cocktails, and it has a sister bar called Offworld on Queen West, which is designed to look like a big spaceship. Of course, there’s Korean Village Restaurant—I need to shout out Jason there, because that’s like home cooking. And, you know, my dad had a fish and chips restaurant back home in Calgary, and I worked there for 10 years. For the longest time, I was looking for something in Toronto that was as good as my dad’s, and I found it at Halibut House, at Danforth and Vic Park. I want to go there right now, actually.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.