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Simu Liu is basking in the glow of his homecoming.
Back in Toronto and ensconced at the Shangri-La Hotel, Liu is holding court, via Zoom, with journalists who already know him well from Kim’s Convenience. And he’s certainly made himself known, being particularly vocal about systemic problems that hold back diversity in film and television. Social media is his usual platform of choice, which he used to highlight his problematic experience behind the scenes on Kim’s. (He subsequently became the lightning rod for controversy surrounding its demise.)
His outspoken nature also brings other benefits. Symbolically, at least, it set him down the path toward starring in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, after the one-time stuntman tweeted at his current employer on Dec. 3, 2018. This is how it started: “OK @Marvel, are we gonna talk or what #ShangChi.”
And this is how it’s going. He’s been scheduled for all of 10 minutes to discuss the movie with The Globe and Mail, but he eloquently motors along with the burgeoning ease of a bonafide Hollywood celebrity.
For a man well-versed in the art of 280 Twitter characters, 10 minutes was plenty of time to capture the excitement and expectation (of fans, of family) that comes with being the first Asian Marvel superhero.
You’ve been riding a wave of positive reviews so far. But from one Chinese son to another, I have to ask about the one review that really matters. I want to know what your parents think.
So I could tell they were a bit nervous going in, because my parents don’t mince words when it comes to reviews. After every episode of Kim’s Convenience, I would get a call or a WeChat like, “Your face looks fat,” or, “I feel like you furrow your brow too much. Do you have to talk so loud?” They never let the fact that they were electrical engineers get in the way of them giving acting notes to an actor.
But I think there was relief more than anything else. They watched it. I think they were just so glad, like, “Oh, you didn’t do terrible.” I think in their way, they were trying to tell me that they were very, very proud of me.
That checks out. We know that Shang-Chi represents a lot of firsts for pan-Asian representation. What does it mean to you to join the Marvel Cinematic Universe and bring such a different perspective to such a huge franchise?
It’s an absolute dream come true for a superhero fan like me. Growing up I played with all the action figures. I read all the comic books –
Of Shang-Chi or Marvel generally?
Just Marvel in general. I actually had no idea who Shang-Chi was, he’s a little bit more obscure. But as a kid, even though I appreciated and admired that world of superheroes, I never quite saw myself in there, because I knew that I didn’t look like Superman. I knew that I didn’t look like Batman or Spider-Man or Captain America. It would have meant the world to me to have a hero through which I could see myself, my experiences, my culture. We’re really excited to be bringing that to the world now.
On that representation tip: Pan-Asian is still important at this point, but on Kim’s, you were known for playing a Korean character. And now with Shang-Chi, you’re finally acclaimed for a fully Chinese character. Are we at a point yet, in North American cinema, that there are enough projects and roles for Asians, where we’re not cast interchangeably to play Vietnamese, to play Korean, to play Chinese?
I just want to make sure that every actor that plays every role is able to do so. I think on-screen representation and off-screen representation are equally important. They truly, truly go hand in hand. When the gates open and Asian storytellers or minority storytellers are able to make decisions like casting, make greenlight decisions on projects – I feel like that’s when you’re gonna start to get the most nuanced kinds of representation. That’s when you’re going to start to see the end of tokenism, this idea that diversity is reflected by one character in an otherwise pretty homogeneous cast. I think the key to all of that is representation all around.
Looking up and down the cast and crew – you, Awkwafina and Tony Leung and everyone, your director Destin Daniel Cretton and the stunt co-ordination – you had such an inclusive production. We know you’ve been critical of your experience on Kim’s. Now you’ve been able to work with one of the biggest studios in the world. Do more money and support help fix systemic problems when it comes to diversity and representation?
I can only speak to my personal experience working for this studio, which was absolutely phenomenal. From Day 1, meeting with Destin Daniel Cretton, who is Asian-American, and Dave Callaham, who is also Asian-American and one of the scribes, it was very clear to me that they knew what needed to be done to bring this character into 2021 in a way that completely and utterly destroyed anything tropey or stereotypical there could have been.
And to be fair, there could have been many. Shang-Chi was conceived in the 1970s in the midst of this Kung Fu craze that swept the nation. Kung Fu of course was a TV show starring David Carradine, who was not Asian. That role was very famously taken away from Bruce Lee, one of my absolute idols.
From our producers Kevin Feige and Jonathan Schwartz, I think there was a real understanding of the limitations of their perspective and then having the humility and maybe the wisdom to know when to step aside. I was asked right from Day 1, what are my thoughts on this story? What are my thoughts on where the characters go? Is there anything that I can contribute with my experience?
It was honestly pleasantly surprising because I had all sorts of preconceptions going in. Maybe it was a big machine and I would just be told, “You’re a small cog, so just fit and stand there and say that and that’s all you have to do.” But thankfully that very much wasn’t the case.
That’s great to hear. I hope you won’t mind if I said that you’re a pretty outspoken guy.
Um, yeah, you know, I tweet a lot, I speak a lot. It goes back to being as argumentative with my parents as I was in my teenage years. There was definitely a lot of rebellion, a lot of me trying to fight for, you know, just being able to go out and see my friends. So yeah, I guess you could say it’s a part of who I am.
It’s so important to take up space and to be frank, especially as a minority. And let me admit that I kind of went, “Ohh, I can’t believe he said that out loud,” when you responded to comments about the Shang-Chi release strategy being an experiment. There are so many potential controversies in speaking your mind these days, especially on social media. How have you gone about fairly successfully speaking your mind in public?
I think there’s a sense that, when I’m reading the news or seeing what’s going on, often I have emotional responses. I think you’d agree our news cycle is kind of constructed in a way that elicits those emotions. It generates clicks, it feeds attention, it shines a spotlight and it gets people to care. I want to share with anybody who will listen to things that I’m really fired up about. And the things that I have been fired up about over time have been equality, representation, furthering diversity in front of and behind the camera.
In the case of what you described recently, it was really just wanting to get out this sense of excitement that I felt should have been the predominant narrative surrounding this movie. You know, I still do. It is such a watershed moment for our people, our culture, in my language that I grew up speaking. I just could not be more excited to share that with the world. That more than anything was what I wanted to get through.
One more question: You have abs for days, man. What was training like? What did you eat?
We knew that this was not going to be a Hulk-y, Thor-y, beefy superhero. Any muscle that I put on could not get in the way of explosiveness. As we got closer to principal photography, we really focused on cutting down, and that meant cutting down on some of my favourite foods, unfortunately.
It also was wrapped up in this larger training regimen with the stunt team every single day. I’ve been very vocal that I am not a Jackie Chan. I am not a Jet Li or Bruce Lee. I was not a championship-level martial artist. I am an actor. My job is to inhabit the character. Part of this journey into martial arts has been the journey of any actor that inhabits any role and genuinely wants to commit to it.
I hope you’ve been able to eat more of what you want since you’ve wrapped production.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings opens Sept. 3 in theatres across Canada