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Monday, Sep 28, 2020

Meet Simu Liu: the actor playing Marvel’s first Asian superhero Shang-chi is battling global stereotypes

The Chinese-Canadian plays a martial-arts master in 2021’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, which Marvel hopes will be an Asian Black Panther

This hotel room in West Hollywood, dimly lit with the curtains drawn, shows no signs of film-star excess. No half-full bottles of flat champagne, no overflowing ashtrays. No powder-flecked mirrors on the countertops. No cracks in the plasma television. Just some fresh clothes folded neatly over a chair and, on the table in front of us, a Nintendo Switch and a big bag of sour candies.

And anyway, its occupant isn’t exactly a film star. At least not yet. Thirty-year-old Simu Liu clears off a spot on the couch and apologises for the mess. This room – what a TripAdvisor review might deem “perfectly adequate” – has been his home for the past few months. The only clues Liu has spent that time intensively training are empty Muscle Milk cartons strewn around the place. That and the muscles themselves, defined but not ostentatious under a form-fitting shirt.

As we talk, Liu is the consummate Canadian: welcoming, warm and unfailingly polite. He seems relaxed. Rested. There’s little to indicate this sweet, earnest Torontonian may soon count himself among the most famous actors in the world.
“Kids are going to dress up like me for Halloween,” he beams.

We’ll have to wait to confirm this, but the prediction is not outlandish. Liu has been tapped for the eponymous lead role in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, due out in 2021: the Marvel cinematic universe is about to get its first Asian superhero.

Asian-Americans make up 6 per cent of the United States population but account for only 1 per cent of leading roles in Hollywood, according to a 2018 study by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, in Los Angeles.

The buzz is unanimous in hoping that Shang-Chiwill do for Asians what Black Panther (2018) did for Africans: barnstorm sorely lacking mainstream representation; prove non-white stories can deliver at the box office; and, in this case, sell a few tickets to China’s coveted cinema-going millions.

While there has been progress – recent films Crazy Rich Asians (2018), Abominable (2019) and The Farewell (2019) cast Asian actors and focused on Asian experiences – the enormity of the exposure and sheer cultural clout of an Asian Marvel hero is unprecedented.

“When I found out Simu got the role, I literally screamed in my car,” says Philip Wang, an LA-based actor and a co-founder of Wong Fu Productions who has worked extensively with Liu. “This is a guy who truly deserves the mantle of being the first Marvel superhero Asian lead.”

Liu’s trip to San Diego Comic-Con, in July, where he met fans who will likely define his celebrity – and had lunch with Angelina Jolie – left him delighted but reeling.

“It’s terrifying,” he says. “When I got the call from Marvel, I was crying, just hysterical, and I remember thinking immediately after, ‘Why am I crying?’ I think it was because this is such a wonderful opportunity, and my life is going to change forever. But I am going to have to say goodbye to certain parts of my life. There’s a kind of grieving process that has to start as well.”

Liu never expected to be an actor. Just six years ago his career consisted of one on-screen appearance as an uncredited extra. But now he has only a year or so to go from being a Chinese-Canadian immigrant with zero martial arts experience to playing the greatest kung fu master in the universe.

There’s a phrase in Hollywood for what he is about to experience: “the Chris Pratt effect”, cannonballing from well-liked supporting sitcom actor to global superstar shouldering a profitable film franchise. He may be smiling – he’s always smiling – but inside, Liu is freaking out.

Even he describes himself as a “partial celebrity”. Liu is recognised in LA mainly by his visiting countrymen, thanks to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s runaway 2016 hit Kim’s Convenience, centred on a Korean immigrant family in Toronto. Liu played Jung Kim, a reformed bad boy, or as a friend recently squealed, “the super hot one”.

Always a critical darling – Ashley Westerman, at National Public Radio, in the US, described the show as “quippy and smartly written” and said it “found lasting success in being both funny and deep” – Kim’s became a bona fide global hit after premiering on Netflix last year.

Pivotal, no doubt, but to equate Liu’s story with Kim’s would be to fail him, and to do that thing Liu condemns so vocally: reduce a wrenching, triumphant and unique immigrant story into something bite-sized and saccharine for mass (read: white) audiences.
Simu Liu was born on April 19, 1989, in Harbin, the capital of China’s northernmost province, Heilongjiang, best known for its frigid winters, annual ice festival and namesake beer. He was raised by his grandparents after his parents moved to Canada to attend graduate school at the prestigious Queen’s Univer­sity in Kingston, Ontario, intending to send for him once they were established.



Liu’s years in Harbin had their privations – even running water was intermittent – but his “gentle and patient” grand­parents doted on him and he was happy. When he turned five, everything changed. Liu’s father arrived in Harbin to collect his son – the earliest memory he has of his dad – and take him across the world to Mississauga, a bland western suburb of Toronto, Ontario, and a common landing point for middle-class Asian immigrants.

The adjustment was harsh, and not just because it was every bit as cold as Harbin. Liu went from being the coddled firstborn and only son in a traditional Chinese home to a much less forgiving situation: the firstborn and only son of young, first-generation immigrants who had sacrificed everything for his eventual, and very much expected, success.

Instead of his grandparents’ loving warmth, there was criticism, pressure and, as Liu wrote in an open letter to his parents in Canadian magazine Maclean’s, in 2017, levels of affection limited to “letting ‘put on a jacket, it’s cold outside’ stand in for ‘I love you’”.

Liu studied finance at the University of Western Ontario – like Queen’s, one of Canada’s Ivy League-level institutions – then bagged a parent-pleasing job at accounting power­house Deloitte, in downtown Toronto. There was just one problem: “I was a serial slacker,” Liu says, laughing. “I just wasn’t a motivated person.” He was soon fired for what he says were obvious reasons. “Make no mistake, I was doing a subpar job.”

Adrift and feeling that he had nothing to lose, when he saw a casting call on Craigslist for extras to appear in Pacific Rim (2013) – a sci-fi film being shot by Guillermo del Toro in Toronto – he went for it. Try as you might, you won’t be able to pick him out of the crowds on-screen, but the experience was life-changing.

“I realised I had been living my life all wrong,” he says. “The more times you get to redefine yourself, or get to change the course of your destiny, the more you want to do it. The more you learn not to take the world as it is, the more you learn to see what things should be. For people who may not have had those catastrophic failures in their life, they might not have the ability to do that.”

The former slacker began hustling for roles, winning forgettable walk-on parts in films and a few lines in cheesy television action shows. And when he couldn’t land an acting gig, he worked as a stuntman.

Then, in 2015, he got his first break, in Blood and Water, a little-watched drama targeting Canada’s Chinese popula­tion, in English, Cantonese and Mandarin.

“Although I was a pretty new actor, it was the first time I had been part of anything of that calibre,” Liu says. “And it was the first time I felt like I had a platform. True, it was a tiny Canadian show that nobody ever watched, but I was a series regular.”
His role as Paul Xie, the secretive son of a billionaire real-estate developer whose brother is murdered, helped him secure representation – he is still with the same managers – and brought him to the attention of the Kim’s Convenience casting agents.

Americans got their first taste of Liu in the short-lived TV action series Taken, which premiered on NBC in 2017 and was based on the eponymous film trilogy starring Liam Neeson. Liu played Faaron, a stereotypical tech guy who sat at a computer supporting spies in the field. “I said ‘enhance’ a lot,” Liu jokes.

He made a big impression on set. Actress Jennifer Marsala remembers him fondly: “He was fun to be silly with, backstage. We were supposed to be at this covert government agency and we’d all be singing and dancing, and Simu would be doing backflips. He has this incredible singing voice, and he’s also a really good dancer.”

Liu was apprehensive about leaving a show on a big US network for a quiet sitcom back home, but matters were taken out of his hands when virtually the entire cast of Taken was replaced before the second season.

“We knew Kim’s was important, but we didn’t know the show was going to hit the way it did,” Liu says.

Each episode attracted nearly a million viewers, coast to coast, in a country where the Stanley Cup, the biggest game in ice hockey, Canada’s national sport, drew audiences of four million this year.

Kim’s Convenience boosted Liu’s stature, but that exposure also politicised him. “[It] introduced me to issues that were greater than just being an actor getting a job. I’d been talking about issues of representation for a while and basically just not doing a good job at it,” he says.

He started to wrestle with what it meant to be a Chinese actor in North America and what responsibility he had to his viewers and community.

“I realised that representation is not just the ability to see yourself reflected on screen, but to see what you can be. So if I see Asians portrayed as losers and nerds, at least on a subconscious level, that’s all I believe I can be,” he says.

Pushing that envelope, eight months before the Shang-Chi casting, Liu tweeted: “OK @Marvel, are we gonna talk or what #ShangChi”. Months later, after the role had been announced, he followed up his original tweet with a typically wry: “Well s***.”
He recalls the incident with a laugh. “I didn’t just send a tweet and then they called,” he says. “[It was] a long process of phone conversations, callbacks and auditions that happened over a couple of months.”

Shang-Chi the character was conceived in 1972, as the son of super villain – and notoriously racist stereotype – Dr Fu Manchu. For a time, he joins the Avengers and in one storyline teaches Spider-Man to fight after he loses his “spidey sense”, helping Peter Parker develop his own martial art, “the way of the spider”. This bit of arcana was not lost on Liu, who has tweeted his support for Spider-Man staying in the Marvel cinematic universe amid rising tensions between Marvel and Sony, who share ownership of the character.

Having been so careful to avoid playing into Asian stereotypes, the irony of being cast as a “kung fu master” caught the attention of the actor.

“Starting out, I wanted to be an American leading man,” he says. “I wanted to be Tom Cruise. I wanted to be Matt Damon. And it’s funny, Tom Cruise has done plenty of action movies, Matt Damon has done Bourne, but they were never pigeonholed. I’ve done one family crime drama and then a family sitcom and now I’m doing an action film and I’m likely going to follow that up with something completely unrelated.”

Before being cast, Liu had said publicly he didn’t “want to be a kung fu star”. Not only are the optics problematic but, until recently, he had no fight training whatsoever.

Learning to play a master of all the world’s martial arts in a year of pre-production is no easy task.

“I am training very hard, believe me. I have our stunt coordinator, Brad Allan, a phenomenal martial artist who trained under Jackie Chan, and he’s assembled a wonderful team around me,” Liu says.

At least his parents finally seem convinced of his success. Not because he was cast in a big-budget film, but because he will appear opposite Hong Kong movie legend and Wong Kar-wai muse Tony Leung Chiu-wai, star of Chungking Express (1994) and In the Mood for Love (2000). Also cast is another of Liu’s favourite actors, Awkwafina, who has experienced her own rapid rise to film stardom, going from cult rapper to Crazy Rich Asians scene-stealer and the lead in The Farewell.

“I haven’t had the chance to talk to Leung yet,” Liu says, “but I met his visage and his body.”


His what?

“I was at my costume fitting yesterday. It was … weird. They take you to a place and they infrared-scan your body and 3D-print you, life-size, so they can fit clothes. There was a 3D-printed me, Awkwafina and Tony Leung. It’s crazy,” he explains.

It is no coincidence that Shang-Chi is slated for release at a time when Hollywood is increasingly covetous of China’s massive cinema-going public, the second largest audience after the US. Co-productions between the two countries are now common, and more films are being produced to appeal to Chinese audiences, even as political and economic tensions between the two nations grow ever more fraught.

Still, American-made, Asian-centred hits have gained little traction in China. Crazy Rich Asians, for example, failed to resonate with audiences in China because, among other things, the American humour didn’t translate.

There is hope Shang-Chi will be an exception – like Abominable – and do equally well in both countries. But early reactions from Chinese cinephiles have not been entirely positive. In one YouTube video, people questioned on the streets of Beijing thought Liu was “too ugly” to helm a Hollywood blockbuster, a charge unimaginable to anyone who has spent a few minutes with him. For Liu, it was less about his appearance than the general atmosphere of distrust, which he puts down to the misinformed and racist depictions of Asians and Asian culture in American TV and film.

“They’ve certainly been burned before,” he says, throw­ing up his hands. “They’re just being rightfully defensive of who they are. They feel like there’s a potential for Hollywood to really eff this up, and maybe it would be easy for me to be like, ‘Well, eff them, what do they know?’” (Yes, he said “eff”; he’s a good Canadian boy.) “But then, I mean, when I look at the leading men in Asia, I agree with them. I don’t look like them. But that’s OK. I look forward to showing them something new, that leading men come in different shapes and sizes.”

People who have worked with Liu are convinced he’ll pull it off

“From the beginning, Simu has been an active voice for our community, unapologetic of his Asian background and mission to help bring us forward,” says Wang. “I know he’ll represent us well and also use this opportunity to be a driving force and inspiration for all of us. He already has been.”

There are a lot of expectations riding on this film and its star is feeling the pressure.

“To take a quote from Stan Lee, the legend himself, ‘With great power there must also come great responsibility’. But I think the reason I have the platform I do is because I’ve leaned into my Asianness. If you are going to ask an entire population to support you, to rally behind you and give you a platform, I won’t shy away from that responsi­bility. I feel like we’ve been shying away from it as people for too long, especially the children of immigrants who are taught to keep their heads down. We have reached the limit of that philosophy.”

Heady topics perhaps for a superhero film?

“Well,” says Liu, as self-assured as a superhero should be, “I really think this movie could change the world.”

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