Without question, James Yi has developed a special relationship with Kim’s Convenience, both on stage and television.
The Surrey-based actor has earned an award nomination for his work as store owner Appa in a theatre production of Ins Choi’s story, and Yi also has a recurring role on the hit TV show.
For this Fraser Heights-area resident, employment as a professional actor is in addition to his work as an associate pastor at New Joy Church, located on 104th Avenue in Guildford.
It all adds up to a busy yet fulfilling work life for Yi, who was born in Korea, raised in Cleveland and moved to Alaska before settling in Vancouver to take a shot at an acting career, at a time when he was well established in church ministry work.
Yi said he enjoyed acting in college “a little bit,” but never really pursued it professionally because of his job as a pastor.
Acting may have been an afterthought for Yi, yet he recently earned a Jessie Richardson Theatre Award nomination for outstanding performance by an actor in a lead role, for his work in Pacific Theatre’s 2018 production of Kim’s Convenience.
On Monday night (July 15) in Vancouver, the “Jessie” award didn’t go to Yi – it was won by Félix Beauchamp for work on Théâtre la Seizième’s production of Le Soulier (The Shoe) – and nonetheless, Yi said he was “honoured” just to be nominated for an acting award, a first for him.
“It gives a lot of validity to the journey I’ve taken,” he said prior to the awards event. “I didn’t go to acting school like most of my peers, and that was something I struggled with. I was just not in a place to go to school for it, because I was too far along – I had a family, and I just couldn’t imagine how I was going to support them while going to school, so I just said, ‘Well, I’m not going to school.’
“But I always had that kind of envy of other actors who had gone through it from the beginning and got their BFA and studied theatre and learned everything the proper way,” Yi continued. “But I had a few teachers tell me, ‘Don’t worry about that, you went to the school of life and everyone has a different journey in getting there. You’ll still learn but it’s just not the way you maybe wanted it to be, that ideal way.’”
In 2004, with some acting classes under his belt, Yi moved from Alaska to the Vancouver area with his family, and later settled in Surrey.
“In Anchorage, I auditioned for a play and I ended up getting a lead role – it all happened so fast, and I realized that OK, well maybe I can do this thing,” Yi recalled. “So at that time I entertained the idea of going to L.A. for acting, or going to Vancouver, because I had a friend who told me about all the acting opportunities in Vancouver. I just thought, Vancouver is a smaller town than L.A., it might be easier to get a start here, and I made that choice to be here, with very little knowledge about anything here. I just took a chance and came here, and it turned out to be a very good move.”
Yi has now been acting professionally for close to 13 years, with a couple of those spent doing Kim’s Convenience.
On stage, to date he’s starred in three different productions of the show – one in Chemainus last year, the Pacific Theatre version in Vancouver and, most recently, a spring run in Seattle with Taproot Theatre.
“I have a long history with this show, for sure, and I would say I have a very unique perspective of it, because I saw the original, I’ve seen the Soulpepper version, which is the production of it after it was done at the Fringe in Toronto, and I’ve seen every other production of it since, because I was in it.”
The television production of Kim’s Convenience has Yi playing Jimmy Young, a recurring character he describes as “a chauvinistic rich guy who’s always getting under everyone’s skin, who always says the wrong thing and brags about how rich he is.”
On stage, Yi is Mr. Kim, or Appa, the Korean-Canadian shopkeeper played on TV by Paul Sun-Hyung Lee.
“What I love about that character is that in the beginning he just seems so fixed and set in his way, a very difficult guy,” Yi outlined. “But what’s remarkable about this character is, in spite of all of his flaws and his past history of doing bad things, he has this ability to want to adapt and change for the love of his family. I mean, the character is redeemed at the end (of the play), so audiences come and they laugh so hard, because he reminds them of Archie Bunker in many ways. And after they laugh so hard, suddenly things change and they’re starting to sniffle. People are moved, and it’s this roller-coaster ride for an audience.”
Looking ahead, Yi’s ride with Kim’s Convenience is far from over, as the Pacific Theatre production has been picked up for an Arts Club on Tour run that includes dates at Surrey Arts Centre next February, among shows in 11 cities around B.C.
Immediately after that winter tour, Yi says the Taproot production of Kim’s Convenience done in Seattle could be remounted in Tacoma for a run there.
“I think the TV show being on Netflix has given it quite a following,” Yi said, “and that made a lot of people aware of the show in Seattle, where we were sold out almost every show. In the end, a few shows were added during our run, which was five or six weeks, which is pretty long for a theatre show.”
The Now-Leader caught up with Yi for an interview at New Joy Church, where his work includes interacting with people and public speaking – skills that have obviously helped his career as an award-nominated actor.
It’s been quite a journey for Yi to stage, television and film, and he knows it.
“For people who read this story, I guess I would want to encourage them to not ever be afraid to try something new and limit yourself,” Yi said in conclusion, at the end of the interview.
“I pinch myself and say, ‘Did I really do this and come this far with it?’ It’s just astounds me that I actually wanted to do something and now I’m pretty far along in this journey, you know. It’s something I don’t really take pride in or think I’m something special, but I’m really amazed that it is possible.
“And anyone can do something like that,” he added. “Things fell into place, and some things fell in my lap and I feel that’s because I did it the right way – kept my priorities right for my family and I let my life dictate the pace of my acting career, and it worked out.”