In 2018, Simu Liu posted a tweet: “OK @Marvel, are we gonna talk or what #ShangChi.”
At the time, the Chinese-born, Canadian-raised actor was best known for starring in sitcom Kim’s Convenience, the story of a Korean-Canadian family running a grocery store, and a TV version of the Liam Neeson Taken franchise.
This week he becomes the first person of East Asian heritage to play a titular superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as the star of Shang-Chi and the Legend of Ten Rings.
“I definitely didn’t think that Kevin [Feige, president of Marvel Studios] would be scrolling through his Twitter and reading tweets from a guy that had frankly, like, 27 followers at the time,” says Liu.
“But I think it’s a great lesson – in manifesting, in visualising your goals, and focusing your life around something. It’s definitely putting it out in the universe.”
Liu had always dreamt of being a superhero. “Even though I never saw myself represented in that way, I always wanted that for myself,” he says.
“I always wanted to see somebody that reflected my face and my culture, lifted up to that level.”
When finally he got the nod, after a long round of auditions and callbacks, he was overcome.
“I remember getting that call and just feeling like my life was completely changed from that moment onwards.”
Shang-Chi and the Legend of Ten Rings is a rip-roaring action adventure movie that blends mysticism and martial arts. When he started, Liu had only minimal martial arts experience – and endured intense training sessions.
“I got to a point where I could convincingly play one of the greatest hand-to-hand fighters on earth. And it was due in no small part to our incredible stunt team, with whom I trained pretty much day in and day out.”
No question, one of Shang-Chi’s biggest delights is Liu flexing his newly acquired martial arts skills like a grandmaster.
As big as this all is for the 32-year-old Liu, it feels like an even bigger moment for Marvel.
The character of Wong (Benedict Wong), the acquaintance of Doctor Strange, has already appeared in the MCU – and he makes a brief cameo here.
But Wong is a supporting character; Shang-Chi is a lead. And the feeling is that Liu’s appearance is every bit as significant as the late Chadwick Boseman’s turn in Black Panther, as the MCU’s first titular black superhero.
“It could potentially change the world for so many people,” Liu says, referring to Shang-Chi.
“You think about kids watching and seeing themselves truly reflected across the screen. It really shows them the best possible representation for their community, somebody who represents hope, who embodies this sort of inspiration and endless possibility that superheroes frequently do. And that’s very important for the mind of a child as they’re developing and learning where they fit into the world around them.”
Wisely, Marvel has excised the character of Fu Manchu, who appeared in the original 70s comics but is now seen for what he was: a racist stereotype.
“That character belongs firmly back in the past,” Liu says.
“And so do, to be frank, many of the tropes that were present in the 1973 comics. It was our goal from day one to provide audiences with a modern retelling of this superhero origin story – one that makes sense in 2021, and one that Asian audiences all over the world can watch and feel proud of.”
Does he feel this positive representation can change Hollywood’s near future?
He nods. “It’s clear that audiences are – at least according to the early reviews and first impressions – really connecting to the material and want more of this and more diverse stories,” he says.
“I think it’s part of a larger paradigm shift in Hollywood that has been slowly correcting over the course of the last, I would say, four or five years. It’s been really, really encouraging to see.”
Beyond this, it’s not hard to see why Liu connected so deeply to the film. Shang-Chi is a martial arts-trained assassin who flees his homeland to live out a normal life as a parking valet in San Francisco – until his ruthless father (In the Mood for Love’s Tony Leung) and his fearsome Ten Rings gang come looking for him.
Liu’s own background included a similar, if not quite so deadly, journey of assimilation. Born in Harbin, the capital of China’s northernmost province, Heilongjiang, he was raised by his grandparents, while his mother and father were studying at Ontario’s Queen’s University.
Aged five, he was taken to Mississauga, a suburb of Toronto, where he had to adjust to life in the West. It’s why he immediately bonded with Shang-Chi – or Shaun as he calls himself in San Francisco.
“I definitely related to the duality of his experience,” says Liu.
“That’s very much the struggle of growing up Asian-American or Asian-Canadian – having a certain face and being raised in a certain environment, but then finding yourself with one foot in each culture, and in each side of the world. It’s a very unique struggle.”
After school, Liu studied finance at the University of Western Ontario before landing a job with the accounting firm Deloitte in Toronto.
“I spent the better part of my life trying to live up to my parents’ expectations of who I ought to be. And I was bad at it. I remember being in the offices of Deloitte, counting down the seconds until five o’clock, or whatever time it would be that I could finally leave, and just feeling miserable every day at the office. Feeling like I wasn’t where I wanted to be.”
He was finally made redundant (“It was, honestly, in many ways a relief”), and decided to pursue acting – something for which he had always had a hankering.
“I didn’t have to put up a façade any more, and I could finally be authentic, be real and honest, and live life on my terms. I finally made the decision to try something different.”
After seeing an advert for extras in Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim, he got an uncredited part in a crowd scene – and never looked back.
After joining the TV series Heroes Reborn as a stunt double, he then began auditioning for acting roles – winning the part of Jung Kim on Kim’s Convenience in 2016.
He’s more than ready now for losing his anonymity when Shang-Chi hits cinemas.
“All things come at a cost and life is definitely rapidly shifting for me. I think back to when I was a struggling actor, and I was booking two speaking lines a year and drowning in credit card debt. And I think about the most incredible adventure that the past two years has set me on.
“It’s rare for people to have a platform on such a global level. And I think the more that I can share that kind of infectious joy and excitement with the world, the better.”
Epic status beckons. With Halloween on the way, how does he feel now he’ll see children wearing his costume?
“That feels pretty crazy. I look forward to opening the door for trick or treating and seeing someone dressed as a young Shang-Chi!”
He should wear his Shang-Chi duds for that night, just to really blow some young minds, I suggest.
“That would be cool,” he grins. “I’ll have to talk to Marvel
Shang-Chi and the Legend of Ten Rings opens in cinemas on 3 September
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