In 2014, the actor Simu Liu was dismayed that Marvel had yet to introduce a major Asian American superhero on-screen, so decided to take matters into his own hands. He tweeted.
“Hey @Marvel, great job with Cpt America and Thor. Now how about an Asian American hero?” Four years later, when Marvel announced that “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the 10 Rings” was in production, Liu took to Twitter again with another request.
“OK @Marvel, are we gonna talk or what #ShangChi.” A year later, one day after Liu was announced as the film’s lead at Comic-Con, he revisited his first tweet with a telltale “LOL.”
“The narrative sounds really nice and tied up if that were actually to be the case, but I don’t think it had anything to do with it,” says Liu, asked if his tweeting swayed his chances of getting cast. “I mean, we all know that the Marvel Studios social media is not run by the people who make those decisions. As much as I think people want to believe that I got the role because of a tweet, obviously it’s much more complicated than that. What I really was doing was shouting into the ether and saying, ‘wouldn’t it be nice?’ If I were to be honest, I think that visualization exercise was helpful for me. Being a Marvel superhero has always been a dream of mine. And so I think every choice that I made in my career, every step that I took, brought me to that point.”
Liu also has a compelling personal narrative, and it’s one that he’ll share in detail with the world in the spring with the release of his memoir “They Were Dreamers.” Originally on the corporate-business track, he began his career as an accountant at Deloitte. When he was laid off, he decided to try his luck down in Hollywood.
The 32-year-old actor is the first Asian actor to front a Marvel superhero film, which premieres with a theater-first release on Sept. 3. When Liu first watched the final cut of the film, with visual effects and sound added, “it took my breath away,” he says. “I think people are going to really love the movie — and not just for the Marvel-ness of it all, but also for the intimacy of its storytelling. I think people will be surprised at how deeply it resonates with them.”
Growing up, Liu was used to seeing the 2D depictions of martial arts films, and while he was a fan, he also yearned for a greater degree of emotional depth. What resonated for him was the complexity of Shang-Chi; the character is portrayed as more than just a superhero or master of martial arts. Liu found the character’s relationship with his father, played by iconic Hong Kong actor Tony Leung, particularly compelling. “It was just so emotionally raw and so true,” adds Liu.
The “Kim’s Convenience” actor submitted his Marvel audition tape while he was in Toronto filming the sitcom. While Marvel films are typically shrouded in secrecy in the early stages of production, Liu and his team knew exactly what the role was for. Soon after, he flew out to L.A. to meet with director Destin Daniel Cretton, whose resume includes renowned indie films like “Short Term 12” and “Just Mercy.”
Liu quickly felt a strong working chemistry with the director. “Not every director can always rise to the challenge of all of a sudden having $200 million thrown at them,” says Liu. “And I watched [Cretton] do it just so graciously and effortlessly,” he adds. “We were both kind of just fighting our good fight, and experiencing this new and incredible — but also very anxiety-inducing — thing, where we knew the pressure that was associated with the budget and the scale, and just the profile of the studio, the reputation. And he was such a great partner to have going through the whole process.”
For Liu, part of the pressure was realistically embodying the physicality of Shang. “As you’ve seen from his posters, he doesn’t wear a mask. There’s no suit of armor. What you see is what you get with him; there’s not a lot to hide behind,” says Liu, who worked with martial arts instructors in Toronto before ramping up his training in Los Angeles. “My training was twofold. It was getting my martial arts skills to the point where I could reasonably be portrayed as a quote-unquote master of kung-fu,” he says. “But then also, because you’re a Marvel superhero, you want to look the part, too.”
Liu met his costar, Awkwafina, during his screen test in New York. After his casting was announced and before they began filming, Awkwafina extended a gesture of solidarity by offering him a cameo on her series “Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens.” Liu stars in a flashback episode as Garbage Boy, a swoony love interest.
“I think it was very apparent from the first moment that we appeared on camera together that we had this undeniable best friend chemistry that was just absolutely perfect for the movie,” he says. “We bonded in a very real way about what it means to be Asian American actors in this day and age. And I think she’s somebody who has handled her fame and success beautifully, and also she knows the importance of using that platform to uplift voices that haven’t yet been heard.”
Early reviews for the film have been overwhelmingly positive. The real test, though, will be in how audiences receive the film. So far, it looks promising. “I tend to spend way more time than I should on social media,” says Liu. “And so I’ve been pretty ear-to-the-ground on the fan response. And I would say [it’s been] overwhelmingly positive, very excited to see the movie,” he says.
While he’s been busy with press and the obligations that go hand-in-hand with leading a big budget Marvel film, in his downtime Liu has been finishing up his memoir, which will be out in May. Similar to “Shang-Chi,” the book is rooted in an exploration of family.
“It’s a story of not only my life and my journey growing up in Canada and getting into show business and coming down to Hollywood, and trying to make it down here,” he says. “But also a story of my parents, and their trials and tribulations growing up in China in the ’60s and ’70s, and how they decided to immigrate to Canada for a better life,” Liu continues. “It’s a story of our two generations. Of how we both had a dream, and decided to risk everything in pursuit of that dream.”
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