Simu Liu on being Marvel’s first Asian superhero in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, and how it can build a bridge between cultures
- Previously best known for Canadian sitcom Kim’s Convenience, Liu was born in Harbin, China, before moving to Toronto, and understood his character’s ‘duality’
- It was the film’s ‘little moments’ that speak to the Asian immigrant experience that resonated ‘very deeply’ with the Chinese-born Liu
As action-packed as Shang-Chi is, it’s the “little moments” that speak to the Asian immigrant experience that really excited Liu – like Shaun taking his shoes off as he enters Katy’s apartment.
“That’s something that resonates very deeply with all of us who grew up in Asian immigrant families, because we all know, the house is a shoe-free zone, and you got to keep those floors clean!” Then there is a brief glimpse of Shaun showing respect to his elders. “That’s always been a part of the way that I was raised. And it’s something that’s very important to me.”
Born in Harbin, the capital of China’s northernmost province, Heilongjiang, Liu was brought up by his grandparents when he was very young, while his parents were studying at Ontario’s Queen’s University. At the age of five, he was spirited away by his father to Mississauga, a suburb of Toronto, where he spent the rest of his childhood.
It’s why he related to the “duality” of Shang-Chi/Shaun’s existence. “[He has] this one side of him … where he experienced one piece of his upbringing, and then has to balance that with a whole different side of his life.”
Shang-Chi is a film about achieving your potential, and the 32-year-old Liu understands that notion only too well. “I think a big part of that journey for me was making the decision to pursue acting in the beginning because I didn’t go to school for it. I went to school for accounting and finance.”
After college, he found a job at major accounting firm Deloitte, but quickly realised that a life crunching numbers was not for him. “It was under that circumstance that I finally made the decision to try something different. And that’s how I wound up on the set of a movie for the very first time as an extra.”
He played a tech nerd on Taken, the TV version of the Liam Neeson revenge movie franchise, and in 2016, won his role in Kim’s Convenience, a show that’s taken him through five seasons. Yet there was always the sense that he wanted something bigger.
“In my entire life, I’d wondered why there were no superheroes out there that looked like me,” he says.
In 2018, Liu sent out a tweet suggesting Marvel consider casting him for the role of Shang-Chi. In fact, it wasn’t the first broadside aimed at the studio; three years earlier he tweeted after watching Avengers: Age of Ultron. “I was feeling a little bit down that again I wasn’t represented, but Twitter has been a great place for me to air my thoughts. Probably too much!”
Still, in the fight for diversity and representation, Shang-Chi could be a groundbreaker. “I think when you have an Asian-American screenwriter [Dave Callaham] and an Asian-American director [Destin Daniel Creton] and a predominantly Asian cast, you have this commitment to tell authentic stories that accurately represent the characters and their experiences.”
“Michelle gave me a big hug and was like, ‘We’re gonna have a lot of fun.’ And that just meant the world to me, seeing her just so comfortable and in her element, but also just so free-spirited and friendly. And Tony as well was just such a gentle and soft-spoken guy on top of being an incredible performer and incredible talent,” says Liu.
While Liu began his career in earnest working as a stunt performer on the superhero TV show Heroes Reborn, did he have martial arts experience to bring to Shang-Chi?
“I feel like it’s a bit of a misconception that all actors have to be expert martial artists if they’re Asian,” he adds. “I kind of feel that expectation a little bit in the world and I can feel the world maybe bristling at this idea that an Asian actor can be taking on this role, but not be a martial arts expert.
“But my career has been all about breaking the mould and redefining expectations and shattering assumptions. And I think what better way to do that than to introduce the world to an actor, and a performer, rather than someone who’s just purely a martial artist.”
Now he’s ready to bring Shang-Chi to the world, all too aware of what it’s going to mean to generations below him. “I look forward to being able to share this movie with not only Asian children all over the world, but all children,” he says. “It’s a global thing. And it’s meant to be a bridge between cultures and to bring the world together.”
It’s a grand statement, but somehow you feel Shang-Chi can shoulder this burden.