“I feel like I’ve been plucked out of the craziest dream you can imagine.”
Simu Liu is on the phone from his hotel room in San Diego. His phone is blowing up with messages. Twitter is on fire with the news that the Kim’s Convenience star is cast as Marvel’s Shang-Chi, Marvel Comics’ first Asian superhero.
“It really feels like someone waved a magic wand and your life is changed forever,” says Liu in an exclusive interview with the Star, his first since the announcement was made Saturday at San Diego Comic-Con.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is Hollywood’s first big budget superhero film with an Asian lead. It will also star Awkwafina (Crazy Rich Asians) and Tony Leung (In The Mood For Love). The show is set to debut in February of 2021.
As the first of its kind, the movie is expected to be groundbreaking in the way that Marvel’s Black Panther was for the Black community, or DC’s Wonder Woman was for women.
And it’s got a Canadian in the starring role.
“I honestly hope this will help to change perceptions of the way Asian Americans and Canadians perceive themselves,” says Liu. “Millions of children will watch this movie and feel like they belong in the larger part of the conversation, that they can accomplish anything themselves.”
It has been a whirlwind week to say the least. Last Sunday, Liu, 30, flew to New York to audition for the role. There he read lines and did some choreographed fight scenes. He then flew back to Toronto to shoot scenes for CBC’s Kim’s Convenience. On Tuesday he got the call from Marvel studio head Kevin Feige.
“It was the most incredible moment. I don’t remember what I said. My nerves were on fire. And then they told me I can’t tell anyone.”
Of course, Liu immediately got off the phone and called his parents.
“I’m not sure if I was supposed to keep it secret from them but they were the first people I thought of. No human being should be tasked with holding that secret,” he laughs. “The first thing that went through my mind was finally I could take care of them, to give back what they gave me. It’s every immigrant child’s dream to tell your parents they don’t have to work anymore.”
On Saturday, Marvel announced in San Diego their next batch of movies, including Angelina Jolie in The Eternals, Benedict Cumberbatch in a second Dr. Strange, and Tom Huddleston in a Loki TV series spin off. We all now live in a Marvel universe — Avengers: Endgame just surpassed Avatar as the highest-grossing film in history.
“It was a surreal experience — it felt like someone waved a magic wand and in a week I’m on the same stage as Angelina and Benedict and Tom,” says Liu, who sat at Jolie’s table with other Marvel Universe cast members for dinner Saturday night.
Liu immigrated from Harbin, China at age 5, and was raised in Mississauga, Ontario. After being laid off from his accounting firm in 2012, he took up a variety of roles in shows such as Nikita and Orphan Black before landing the role of eldest son Jung on CBC’s hit sitcom Kim’s Convenience.
For a relative newcomer on the acting scene, the speed of his ascent has been impressive. Just earlier this year, I asked Liu why there were so few Asian males in leading roles in Hollywood.
“Asian men specifically have not been portrayed as the leading man or sex symbol, and that’s absurd,” he said.
But that was so January. In the not too distant future, the star who used to dress up as Green Lantern and Captain America as a child will be a role model to other kids.
“I know it sounds absurd. But it means that Asian kids finally have a character they can dress up on at Halloween. It sounds ridiculous but it’s important. Who you seen on screen shapes who you are. We’ve had to internalize this sense that we don’t belong and we’re never the main character in our own story. And that will change.”
One big issue with the Shang-Chi comics was the character of Fu Manchu, a racist caricature that is sure to anger modern-day fans if it is resurrected. The show is also getting huge buzz in Asia, where Hong Kong actor Leung in particular has superstar status.
“I think they understand that the way he was portrayed in some of the iterations is not particularly in vogue for 2021,” says Liu. “It will be completely up to the creative team, but I think because he is a little more of an obscure character it gives you a little more freedom. It’s not like he’s Peter Parker and you’re stuck with having an Aunt May and a radioactive spider.”
As for his continuing role on Kim’s Convenience, Liu says show producers have been incredibly supportive of his film roles.
“To be honest I don’t know what the future holds. I do know I’m going to make every effort. I believe in the cultural significance of the Marvel Universe and Kim’s Convenience. They are two weapons in the same fight and they mean everything to me and the possibilities of what they can represent.”