TORONTO — Chinese-Canadian actor Simu Liu says he’s still “struggling to process” the news that he’ll play Marvel’s first big screen Asian-American superhero.
“It’s just been the craziest, craziest dream that I could possibly ever imagine happening in real life,” Liu said in an interview in his home city of Toronto this week, after a whirlwind weekend in which he was announced as the star of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.
“But I’m also learning to just go with the flow and enjoy the ride a little bit, because this is truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Liu practically willed his Shang-Chi journey into existence about a year and a half ago, when he tweeted to the Marvel account: “Are we gonna talk or what #ShangChi.”
“I didn’t seriously expect Marvel to call me back or anything,” the 30-year-old said with a laugh from the set of the CBC comedy series Kim’s Convenience, in which he plays the son of a Korean-Canadian couple who own a store.
“But I do think it’s a really interesting case study in the power of giving yourself permission to want things and to set goals.”
Then a few weeks ago Liu submitted a videotape audition for the role of the kung fu master. He “never thought in a million years” he would get to portray him but was excited about what the film meant for Asian representation onscreen.
“You have millions, maybe even let’s say over a billion people who have never been represented in that way, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe or really any superhero cinematic universe,” said Liu, who immigrated to Canada from northern China at age five and grew up in Etobicoke and Mississauga, Ont.
“Having always been a fan, I could only appreciate it from a certain distance because I didn’t have anybody that I personally related to on a cultural level.”
Not even two weeks ago, Liu did a screen test for the role in New York. The ensuing hours were “excruciating,” he said, noting every time his phone buzzed his heart “literally skipped a beat.”
Two days later — at 6:19 p.m., he remembers vividly — he got a call from Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige saying he got the part.
Liu had to keep it a secret until last weekend (although he did tell some “Kim’s” co-stars, he confessed), when he walked onstage at San Diego Comic-Con to introduce himself as the lead for the groundbreaking film that’s due in February 2021.
“I felt like Cinderella,” Liu said. “I felt like Kevin Feige was my fairy godmother and he had waved this magic wand and then all of a sudden I’m in this beautiful gown and I’m going to the ball.”
Breaking the news to his parents was monumental.
“I’ll never forget my mom said: ‘Maybe now I can think about retiring early,’” Liu said, his voice cracking with emotion.
“My parents immigrated here to build a life for our family and they sacrificed so much and they worked so hard. To be able give back, even in a small way, it meant the world to me and I’m so grateful to have this opportunity to do that. I can’t say enough how much this whole thing has meant to me.”
Liu recently finished shooting his scenes for the upcoming season 4 of Kim’s, a show he hopes to continue working on despite his Marvel commitment, and will undergo training for the role of Shang-Chi with director Destin Daniel Cretton in a couple of weeks in Los Angeles.
And to think, Liu didn’t even begin his career as an actor.
A graduate of the Ivey Business School at Western University, he first worked as an accountant in Toronto’s financial district, a job he said made him “quite miserable.”
Getting laid off in 2012 was the best thing that ever happened to him, he said, noting it inspired him to pursue his passion to be on a movie set. His first role was as an extra on Pacific Rim, a part he got through a Craigslist ad.
Where Liu was once “so ashamed, so embarrassed” to leave the financial world and defy his parents’ expectations, he’s now thriving in a career he loves and is incredibly proud of his heritage.
“I think the decision to lean into who I was culturally came from me doing the opposite thing when I was younger,” said Liu, who attended a Toronto screening of the Chinese family comedy-drama The Farewell with hundreds of fans on Tuesday, wearing a T-shirt that said “Phenomenally Asian.”
“For whatever reason I thought being Asian was something to be ashamed of. I thought it was something that made me different and something that made me looked down upon in some ways, in part because of the way that we were portrayed in media in the past and in part because just like on the playground, you’re bullied for anything that makes you different.
“So I spent a good part of my life trying to run away from my Asianness, and so a big part of what I do now is trying to get people to embrace it and to stand tall and to feel like they do belong — because they do. We do.”