Emigrating to Toronto when he was five years old, his parents, both aeronautical engineers, encouraged him to work hard and study for a good job.
He thought he’d done everything right when he was suddenly laid off from his job at a high-profile consulting firm.
Suddenly unemployed, Liu was forced to ask himself what he really wanted to do with his life, having long suppressed his dreams of becoming an actor.
After scoring a part as an extra in 2013 sci-fi flick Pacific Rim by answering a Craigslist ad, he went on to land several small roles, even featuring opposite Liam Neeson in 2017 action film, Taken. In his spare time, he worked on his fighting and acrobatic stunt skills, before landing the lead role in popular Canadian TV comedy, Kim’s Convenience, about a Korean family that runs a convenience store.
When he learned that Shang-Chi was casting, he immediately tweeted his interest to MCU boss Kevin Feige.
Today, we find him starring as the titular Shang-Chi, aka Shaun, working as a hotel valet parking attendant in San Francisco with his best friend Katy (Awkwafina).
We chat with Liu, Awkwafina and Shang-Chi director Destin Daniel Cretton.
You must feel on top of the world, breaking ground as the first Asian superhero in the MCU?
SIMU: “Yeah, although it feels like imposter syndrome every single day. Making this film was truly such a treat and, it was all I could do just not to mess it up. When I was first cast, I did my final screen test with Nora [Awkwafina], and she did such a wonderful job of putting me at ease. But my nerves were sky high. I was an actor from Toronto, and I really had never allowed myself to imagine being a part of the MCU. I mean, it’s the craziest dream that someone can possibly dream. But Nora really helped by being in the moment with me and we had such a beautiful chemistry. We turned into this bickery old couple chemistry right from the get-go.
AWKWAFINA: “Yeah, we slipped into that very quickly.”
SIMU: “And then as more cast members showed up on set like Michelle Yeoh, Tony Leung and Sir Ben Kingsley, every day it was like waking up to another dream. And then we were all in Sydney. It was just beautiful.”
The friendship between Shang-Chi and Katy is something we rarely see in movies, platonic relationships. Were the characters played out as best friends, or did you have the characters kind of be potential love interests?
AWKWAFINA: “I’m gonna let Destin answer that one because I don’t even know what to say.
DESTIN: “I mean aren’t all friendships potential love interests?”
SIMU: “Don’t tell my wife.”
DESTIN: “When I was creating the relationship with one of our co-writers, Dave Callahan, we actually have a lot of friends who are not the same gender as us, and it is strictly platonic but also very intimate, caring, and we haven’t seen a lot of that on screen, and we’re really excited to create that relationship between Shang-Chi and Katy. It also just naturally felt like the only way to go with this movie because Shang-Chi is so deep in his own inner struggle. I don’t think there’s emotional space for anything else.”
AWKWAFINA: “Yeah, I don’t think he has room in his life, right? I think he has too much going on to have a neurotic girlfriend.”
SIMU: “I just have a lot going on right now. I’m just not really emotionally available right now. It’s just not the right time for us.”
AWKWAFINA: “Like, is there a couple’s therapist because you’ve been distant, and I don’t understand!”
SIMU: “It’s not you, it’s me.”
AWKWAFINA: “That’s exactly what it is. Yeah, exactly.”
Is it true you got the job by tweeting at Marvel Studios in the beginning?
SIMU: “I don’t actually know because you think when you tweet at Marvel, you think it’s going to some 19-year-old intern with acne and it’s…”
AWKWAFINA: “If even.”
SIMU: “No one’s gonna read that. No one cares what I have to say. But maybe, you know, maybe they did.”
DESTIN: “In his audition, Simu did a backflip; the exact backflip pose that’s made fun of in Black Widow. He did a backflip into the Black Widow kneel pose hair flip up, looking straight into the camera, as the closer to his first audition.”
AWKWAFINA: “And you ended all of your auditions with the pose?”
SIMU: “I mean, I thought it was like a good signature, a nice little calling card. I thought it couldn’t hurt. I was auditioning for a Marvel movie which is a superhero franchise.”
AWKWAFINA: “I did a somersault. I did a really slow somersault at the end of mine.”
SIMU: “You know, if I could show them that I could pull off the superhero pose, I thought maybe that would help.”
There’s a lot of use of “Chinglish” in the film which we don’t often see?
SIMU: “What I really loved is that moment where Awkwafina’s character is in Macau and doesn’t speak any Chinese and she’s talking to someone who says like ‘no worries, I speak ABC’.”
AWKWAFINA: “That was really a big moment because I think, culturally, you just never see that referred to.”
SIMU: “So, they called it out and ABC, of course, means American born Chinese, but it’s just the first time that you really see in a movie, someone calling it out as a lived experience.”
At what point did the film become less about the franchise and just putting Shang-Chi in the MCU and more about the culture, the Asian experience?
DESTIN: “I think what is extra relevant to the culture is that this is a Marvel film. And if we were not putting Shang-Chi shoulder to shoulder with all the amazing other Marvel superheroes that we’ve come to love in the past, that would be, to me, a big disservice to the culture and the character. So, both, I think, are equally important.”
What was it about Shang-Chi the character and just the world around him that really grabbed you and made you wanna tell this story?
DESTIN: “I really, personally connect with Shang-Chi’s journey. I love that this is a superhero that doesn’t get splashed with chemicals to get his superpower. That it is a journey of self-discovery, of growing up, of learning how to finally deal with pain that he’s been running away from his entire life. And that when he is finally able to look inside into his past and embrace good, bad, the joy, the pain, and accept it all as a part of himself, that’s when he finally steps into his big boy shoes. And I think that’s kind of what we’re all doing as humans in some way or another, so I really connect with that.”
Were you at all intimidated to be stepping into the MCU? I know you’re friends with Ryan Coogler, and I was wondering if he had any advice for you about entering the MCU?
DESTIN: “I did have a giant personal fear of stepping into a movie like this. When I pitched to Kevin, I told myself I’m just gonna be myself. I have a tendency to be pressured to not be myself, and I was like, I’m just gonna be myself in this pitch and walk out feeling good that I did that. The last thing that I admitted was they asked me had I always wanted to do a big Marvel movie? And I was like, should I tell them? And I was like, okay, well, the truth was: it was a few weeks before they announced that they were looking for directors for this movie that I made a very real decision and called my agent and said ‘Don’t ever let me do a Marvel movie’. And I said this to Kevin in the pitch – and then explained to them when they made the announcement for Shang-Chi that something sparked in me that made me have to go in and just take a meeting and that turned into this.
“When I was in the elevator going down, leaving that meeting, I thought I was an idiot for saying that final thing. But when it came down to it, I did have a conversation with Ryan Coogler and I was really scared of stepping into a big studio movie like this and scared of what it might do to me, what will the pressure be like? Will I cave? I had a lot of fears.”
Did Ryan have some good advice?
DESTIN: “The thing that Ryan said to me, which really eased my mind, was the pressure is hard. It’ll be the hardest thing potentially that you have done up to this point, but none of that pressure or none of those complications come from the people that you’re working with or for. And that’s what I found. This is like a very special place to work where, not to toot Kevin’s horn, but there is an environment of curiosity, of exploration that comes from the top down. There is no fear-based mentality at this studio which has really allowed us to take risks and chances and be able to instill that same fearless exploration with everybody involved in this film and I think that’s a huge reason that the movie turned out the way that it did.”
How did your own experiences, both as a former child welfare worker, and also being raised in Hawaii, inform your view of the characters?
DESTIN: “The complications of the relationship between Shang-Chi and Wenwu was what really interested me. What moved me from the comics was this complex relationship of a dad who trained his son to be a killer, and now his son is grown up, and he has to face him. That was really exciting to me, and it was the basis of the pitch that I gave them. Growing up, my friends were mainly Filipino, Chinese, Japanese, Okinawan, In Hawaii, you’re part of the majority if you are Asian. When I went to mainland USA for the first time, it was the first time that I felt out of place. It was the first time that somebody at a bar came up to me and called me Bruce Lee. I realised, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m different here’.”
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is in cinemas September 2. VIC/NSW/ACT September 16