As he took the stage on Saturday in San Diego, at Comic-Con’s cavernous Hall H – the venue of super-fan fever dreams – for the surprise announcement that he will play Shang-Chi, the first Asian superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Canada’s own Simu Liu was thrilled, grateful and, frankly, terrified.
His is an origin story fit for a comic book: The only son of hard-working Chinese immigrants, a lonely kid who never felt he belonged, he spent every Halloween in superhero costumes that looked nothing like him – Superman, Green Lantern, Captain America. After graduating from the University of Western Ontario, he spent eight months as an accountant at Deloitte, chafing against his mild-mannered alter-ego before assuming his true identity as an actor. And then, suddenly – well, seven years of work and luck later – pow!
I met him on Wednesday on the Toronto soundstage where he shoots Kim’s Convenience, the hit CBC sitcom that gave him his first sip of stardom. We sat on director’s chairs inside the store set, between jars of jam and boxes of sour keys, while he detailed the week that changed his life.
On Sunday, July 14, he did his final audition for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, for director Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12). On Tuesday, he got a call from Kevin Feige, the president of Marvel Studios, “the architect of the MCU” [Marvel Cinematic Universe], Liu says. “He said, ‘Hey, we’d love to have you play Shang-Chi, I’m going to need you to go to Comic-Con this weekend and you can’t tell anyone.’ ”
Liu spent four days wiggling inside his skin, and then on Saturday there he was, climbing into a caravan of Cadillac Escalades with Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston and Chris Hemsworth – his soon-to-be-Marvel-peers. “They were very welcoming,” he says, “but deep down I was screaming, ‘How is it that I’m here right now?’ It was surreal.”
Marvel chose well. Tall, lean, super-fit – as a kid, he did gymnastics and parkour – Liu, 30, wears a modest but remarkably well-fitted T-shirt, and radiates decency, earnestness and charming self-deprecation. In one recent tweet, he writes, “Hard to believe that a week ago I was just sitting at my desk in my underwear eating shrimp crackers and now … okay well I’m still doing that but I’m also a superhero.”
Like all superheroes, however, Liu’s story is shadowed by childhood pain. Born in Harbin, China, he was eight months old when his father immigrated to Kingston to study electrical engineering at Queen’s University, and only four months older when his mother did the same. (He lived with his grandparents.) By the time he joined his parents at age five, “I didn’t know them very well, and they didn’t know me.”
In Kingston, and later in Mississauga, “I never felt like I belonged,” Liu continues. White kids mocked his lunches as “smelly and disgusting,” and “very quickly, being Asian was something I was ashamed of. It’s taken, I’m sad to admit, a really long time to come around.”
Many a Saturday, his parents would go to work, dropping Simu at a movie theatre, alone, at 11 a.m., picking him up at 6 or 7 p.m. He was “totally fine” with it, he says. He loved escaping to different worlds. Sometimes, he’d watch the same movie two or three times.
He now understands what his parents’ sacrifice entailed. But as a kid, he slammed up against their “fiery tempers” and “felt like they regarded me as a defective product.” In an essay he wrote for Maclean’s magazine, he recalls, “If I tripped on my laces, I was clumsy. If I scored below an A, I was stupid. If I wanted to hang out with my friends, I was wasting my time. I grew to resent the pressure you put on me, resolving to make your lives as difficult as you were making mine. I ran away from home … spoke dismissively about you, told you I hated you ... but privately, I yearned for your love and affection.”
His parents were focused on stability, and he tried to comply. But Liu believed that “taking risks and swinging hard for the fences is what it means to be human.” Plus, “I was a terrible accountant,” he admits. “I was always late for work, because I would lie in bed staring at my ceiling, thinking, ‘Please don’t make me go.’ One of the best things Deloitte did for me is fire me.” (Ironically, in the streetscape backdrop on the Kim’s Convenience set, the Deloitte skyscraper is front and centre.)
Without telling his parents, Liu began pursuing the career he wanted, acting. After one day on the set of Guillermo del Toro’s film Pacific Rim, making minimum wage as a background performer, “I knew I had found something, maybe the thing I’d been put on Earth to do,” he says. When a national commercial he’d done was about to air, he sat his parents down and “came out” to them as an actor. It did not go well. They barely spoke for the next two-and-a-half years.
Eventually, Liu landed a lead role in the Chinese/Canadian TV series Blood and Water and needed his parents’ help with his chunks of Mandarin dialogue. For the first time, they could see that acting was work and Liu was taking it seriously. Then came Kim’s Convenience, where he often found himself playing arguments with Appa (Paul Sun-Hyung Lee) that echoed his real-life ones, “except with better writing.”
After his Maclean’s essay – which Liu and HarperCollins will expand into a book – he and his parents “finally came to a point where we fully understood each other,” he continues. “Now, I’m not exaggerating, they’re among my best friends. We’re making up for lost time.” They love calling him after every episode of Kim’s and telling him, “Your face was too scrunchy.”
“They’re still my parents,” Liu says, laughing. But recalling a conversation with his mom about how his Marvel gig might afford her the opportunity to retire soon, his eyes well up. “Even in the years we weren’t talking, when I needed it, a little extra money would appear in my bank account. It will feel good to be able to repay them in a way.”
Liu also has embraced his Asian heritage. His messaging on social media, “aside from the shirtless pictures,” he says, “is, ‘Don’t be afraid to put your hand up.’ Because I really do feel like we’re constantly fighting for our right to be represented, to belong, to have a cultural identity here. We have not been portrayed in media well. We’ve had two studio movies with Asian lead casts: The Joy Luck Club and Crazy Rich Asians. Shang-Chi will be the third.”
He wasn’t familiar with the comic Shang-Chi, but last year, when the film was announced, he cheekily tweeted, “Hey, Marvel, are we gonna talk or what?” Now, that feels like “a classic case study of vision-boarding,” he says. The film will begin shooting in January, 2020, for release on Feb. 12, 2021. He hasn’t read the script yet. He doesn’t care. When he sees his first Shang-Chi Halloween costume, he’s going to flip out.
But here’s why Hall H also terrified him: He caught a glimpse of his near-future, when his life will no longer be fully his own. He’s had enough exposure to fans of Kim’s to know that fame comes at a cost. He won’t be able to take a selfie with everyone. He might not be able to walk down a street. “So I am sad, actually, for the life I had,” he says. “I know parts of that are gone already, and I’ll never get them back.”
He saw it on Tuesday, when he bought 500 tickets to the film The Farewell at Toronto’s Varsity Cinema, to give away on a first-come-first-serve basis. He wanted to support its writer/director, Lulu Wang, and its star, Awkwafina – his future Shang-Chi co-star – and “to show that this is what we do for each other,” he says. Within minutes of his announcing of it on Twitter, 100 people were lined up, then 200. By the time he arrived at the theatre, the line went out the door, down the escalator and along the corridor below.
“So yeah, it’s scary,” he sums up, “but I also know it’s – literally – a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I have a real chance now to do the thing I feel I was put here to do: tell a good story that is Asian at its core, that will help millions of children – and adults, too – feel like they belong.”
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