Simu Liu’s superhero origin story certainly isn’t lacking for drama: after breaking out as one of the stars on CBC’s Kim’s Convenience, the Chinese-Canadian actor decided to shoot his shot with Marvel on social media, with a tweet that ended up going viral once news broke some eight months later that not only had the two talked, but Liu had booked the starring role in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Call it the shot retweeted ‘round the world.
It was the very definition of a dream come true for the Toronto native, especially as Shang-Chi’s cast list grew to include Tony Leung and Michelle Yeoh – legends in their own right – alongside up-and-comers like Liu, Awkwafina and Crazy Rich Asians’ Ronny Chieng. The first new lead in Marvel’s Phase 4, as the cinematic universe reboots itself post-Endgame? Yeah, that’s kind of a big deal. And Liu knows it.
The morning of Shang-Chi’s Canadian premiere, Liu returned to Toronto only to be greeted by his own face plastered across a two-story billboard overlooking Yonge-Dundas Square. The same one that, only a day or two earlier, had been promoting another famous Torontonian’s heavily-hyped new project: Drake’s Certified Lover Boy, also releasing this Friday. Talk about a homecoming.
But this story is so much more than just a local-boy-made-good tale—and that’s because Shang-Chirepresents so much more than just Liu’s story. Featuring a mostly Asian cast and the first Asian-American superhero to join the MCU’s ever-expanding roster, it’s easy to draw parallels with 2018’s Black Panther and all the pressures and expectations and attendant hype. (To put it another way, up to this point, 40 percent of Marvel’s solo adventures have starred white dudes named Chris.)
If anyone seems equipped to handle all that comes with those important “firsts” though, it’s Liu. The actor’s poise and innate star quality is immediately obvious after spending just a few minutes talking to him, making it easy to see why Marvel tapped him to make a Chris Pratt-like jump from sitcom star to action hero. Even if Liu hasn’t quite wrapped his head around the fact that he’s soon to be a global household name.
Sharp spoke to Liu via Zoom earlier this week to chat about how he’s been adjusting to his newfound fame, his hopes for Shang-Chi, and joining the ranks of the Chrises with the rest of the A-list stars that make up the Marvel universe.
Welcome home. I saw your selfie this morning with your giant billboard in Yonge-Dundas Square. That had to be surreal.
Isn’t it crazy?
What’s it been like for you coming back to Toronto, with this movie coming out in two days?
That moment in particular threw me for a loop. It was so early in the morning. It was like 6:30. I’d gone from my hotel straight to the first stop on our press day, which was Breakfast Television, which was right at Yonge and Dundas Square. I literally step out of the car, and I see the side of my face, but it is massive. I’m like, “No way!” And I peek over and see just how big that billboard is… A huge shoutout to the folks at Disney Canada for throwing it all together. It definitely made me blush. What a wonderful homecoming it was to experience that.
I feel like we kind of have to talk about the famous tweet… You have one of the best “How it started, how it’s going” memes maybe ever. At what point did the reality of this all set in for you? Was it when you were auditioning, when you got cast, when you started filming? When did this first hit you?
I definitely didn’t allow it to enter my mind through the audition process at any point, that I had this role in the bag. Because truthfully, I really really didn’t. Especially in the beginning, I had no expectation whatsoever that I was ever going to book it, in a million years. So I would say probably the first time it really hit me was at Comic-Con, and that was shortly after I was cast.
I had gotten the job, I had flown down to San Diego, and when I was loading into my car to go to the convention centre, I went down the elevator, the door opened up and I just saw pandemonium. I saw a row of Escalades lined as far back as I could see, and I saw just… Natalie Portman. Chris Hemsworth. Angelina Jolie. I mean, the most famous actors, the most recognizable faces on Earth, loading into their cars and getting ready to go. And then somebody looked at me and was like, “You! Shang-Chi, you’re next.” I was in my shirt that was $19 and had a hole in it, I had no stylist, no team, I was just there by myself. And I was ushered into this car and thrust on-stage in front of 8,000 people. That was the first time it became real for me.
And then another time [was] when I tried on the suit for the first time. That’s another distinct memory I have of when I really started to grasp the magnitude of what was happening.
You’re part of that world now though! You’re one of those names. How have you been handling the increased attention that comes with a role like this?
I’m not gonna lie… It’s caught me off-guard on a couple of instances. And what I mean by that is, we all go on social media. Sometimes we’re at a restaurant, the food comes out, it looks really nice, we’re having a good time with friends, and you just put it on your Instagram Story. I would do that all the time. And for the longest time, nobody in the world would care. [Laughs.]
But what started happening really recently is, anytime I put a Story up and I post it in the moment, inevitably, if I stuck around for half an hour, 45 minutes, people would start showing up and they would have things ready for me to autograph. And it was just such a bizarre moment for me, where I was like, How did you know I was here…? Oh right, the Story! And feeling like oh shoot, my relation to the public is different now. That’s thrown me for a bit of a loop.
But the fact that Marvel is such a global brand and exists on such a global platform, those are all positive things. The fact that this movie has a global reach is a positive thing, because we really get to be the stewards of our culture, and we get to share that with the entire world. And we also, within our own community, get to celebrate that, and that’s just so amazing and incredible.
I do want to talk about the milestone this movie represents. This is a big blockbuster Marvel movie, and to start, we go maybe 15 minutes before any English is spoken. It’s all Mandarin with subtitles. That feels important. How much did that opening set the tone for you?
I think it’s just so incredible that we spend the better part of the first little chunk, the first 15 minutes of the movie, listening to the language that I grew up speaking as a kid and heard at home with my parents. That has a special significance with me. And also, in that time, we get to pay homage to so many iconic Asian wuxia films, like Yi-Mou Zhang’s Hero. Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
That first fight scene between Li and Wenwu, for me, is one of the most incredible sequences. Where it’s not a fight for the sake of a fight, it’s a dance and it’s a flirtation. It is a connection point between two souls, and it’s just so beautiful. Seeing it for the first time honestly almost brought me to tears. So I’m really happy about the intro for our movie. It really sets the stage for this story and where Shang-Chi fits it into all of it.
I know there are a lot of expectations and pressure that comes with being the “first.” It’s a lot to put on a person, it’s a lot to put on a movie. How have you been dealing with that, especially as we get closer to release day?
It’s definitely something I’m acutely aware of, but I just know that I have to continue to carry the torch—and then to eventually pass it off. That’s the most important thing for me. Creating an environment where there’s not a first and only a first, but a second and a third and a fourth. That’s honestly the only thing that’s on my mind. I try not to think of it in terms of individual pressure.
It really is a privilege and a joy to be debuting this movie to the world. We had a lot of fun making it. There was no talk of the pressures that we all faced when we were laughing on set, when Awkwafina and I were doing our scenes and playing just two best friends growing up in San Francisco. It really was just a fun, loose and collaborative environment. I think, just, it’s so important to emphasize that there can’t just be one. So, for me, I may have been [first]… that may have fallen onto me, but I think the door is open for others.
You mentioned putting on the suit for the first time. Are you prepared for seeing kids dress up as you for Halloween this year? That seems pretty wild.
Definitely. I mean, at the LA premiere, I think I saw the first-ever Shang-Chi cosplayers. And they’re so good because they’ll take it frame-by-frame, they’ll look at the material that the movie suit was [made of] and they’ll replicate it. Some of these costumes looked incredible. And yeah, it just… it made me feel some type of way.
I was immensely proud, and I hope that kids watching the movie today – some of whom have never seen themselves reflected in that way – will develop that special connection to this character, to Shang-Chi. And that Shang-Chi will show them that they belong and they deserve to feel proud of their origins and their background as well.
Marvel Studios’ “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” opens in theatres on September 3.
Lead image by Ryan Emberley/Getty Images for Disney