Unapologetically Asian: Simu Liu, Marvel's latest superhero, on his fight for representation

Throughout Simu Liu's career, representation has been a regular theme he's championed. Now, he'll get a massive new platform after being tapped to lead Marvel's first ever film centred on an Asian superhero.

Beyond 'normalizing Asianness,' actor seeks to 'turn it into something to be proud of'

Canadian actor Simu Liu has long been a vocal advocate for Asian onscreen representation in North America. Now, the Kim's Convenience star has been tapped to play Marvel superhero Shang-Chi in the studio giant's first film centred on an Asian character. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

When Marvel's Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings arrives at the cinema in 2021, its star Simu Liu will have — in about a decade — gone from a Craigslist-sourced movie extra to star of the studio's first-ever film centred on an Asian superhero.

Pretty cool for a former Bay Street accountant.

Little more than a week ago, Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige called Liu to say he'd landed the role that he'd just screen-tested for the weekend prior — and to invite him to San Diego Comic-Con for the public announcement in four days' time.

It was "surreal" to be heading to his Comic-Con debut surrounded by "a who's-who of all the Marvel movies I grew up watching or been watching the last few years," Liu said in Toronto on Wednesday.

Landing a massive role in the anticipated next chapter of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a dream for the Ivey Business School-educated accountant-turned-actor, writer and producer.

In an interview with CBC News, he said walking on stage at Comic-Con last weekend "felt like a Cinderella moment: a totally ordinary guy was plucked out of his life and dropped onto the biggest stage in the world." 

Shang-Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings director Destin Daniel Cretton, left, and Simu Liu appear at San Diego Comic-Con on Saturday. (Chris Pizzello/Invision/The Associated Press)

It wasn't so long ago that Liu got his start. Eight months after being laid off from an accounting job on Bay Street, he answered an ad seeking extras for the Toronto-shot, 2013 blockbuster Pacific Rim. He's packed his schedule with projects on multiple stages ever since.

Liu, most familiar to TV audiences as the charismatic son Jung on CBC-TV's sitcom Kim's Convenience, has also appeared on The Expanse, Orphan Black and American shows like Taken and Fresh Off the Boat.

His breakout was in the Canadian crime series Blood and Water. He's also worked as a stunt performer, a stock photo model and been a regular face in short films and shows for digital content studio Wong Fu Productions. In recent years, Canadian theatregoing audiences might have caught him onstage starring in Banana Boys at Toronto's Factory Theatre or Vietgone at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre in Winnipeg. 

'Normalizing Asianness'

Throughout his rise to fame, representation has been a regular theme championed by Liu, who was born in China and joined his parents in Canada at the age of five. They had studied here. 

An avid user of social media, the 30-year-old is an upbeat cheerleader of Asian-Canadian and Asian-American performers, pop culture figures and projects. He regularly gives props to the likes of NBA player Jeremy Lin or fellow actors like Sandra OhKen Jeong, Daniel Dae Kim or Ming Na

"We need more public figures [who] are more unapologetically Asian: People who are willing to wear that ethnicity or cultural identity proudly. It's something that I struggled with a lot as a kid growing up, because we were constantly made fun of for being different," Liu said.

"What I think has been happening in the last few years — and [Kim's Convenience] is playing a huge part in this as well — is normalizing Asianness. Not just normalizing it, but turning it into something positive, something to be proud of."

Liu also doesn't hesitate to call out white-washing and stereotypical portrayals or perceptions of Asians, especially negative depictions of Asian masculinity.

"For me, my journey in this industry has always been about fighting for representation, fighting for the right to belong," he said.

'It's a decisive victory for us:' Simu Liu on being cast as a Marvel superhero

4 years ago
Duration 1:47
Canadian actor Simu Liu talks to The National's Andrew Chang about the importance of his upcoming lead role in an upcoming Marvel Studios film.

A turning point for Hollywood?

Successfully telling stories centred on Asian characters is a work in progress for Hollywood, but Liu is hopeful that recent movies like the hit 2018 rom-com Crazy Rich Asians mark a turning point.

In particular, Hollywood has been slow to realize that, for instance, movie-goers watching global blockbusters in Asia are a totally different audience than Asians in North America. Movie-makers are still "wrapping their heads around the fact that we want different things."

"With Crazy Rich Asians, we saw the very first time that a studio was able to look at Asians that were raised in the West — in Canada and America — and treat them as a separate group," Liu said. 

"That was a pretty key moment that swayed a lot of studio executives and kind of started a paradigm shifts to get us to where we are now. And hopefully it's just a start."

Meet Marvel's first Chinese superhero

4 years ago
Duration 2:01
Simu Liu, known for his role as Jung Kim on the CBC sitcom Kim's Convenience, will star in Marvel’s highly-anticipated superhero film Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.

Though he's set to embark on a superheroic journey with Shang-Chi ("I'm really excited to be getting into the training," noted Liu, who has a background in martial arts as well as gymnastics), he also had some reassuring words for fans of Kim's Convenience and #JungChee, his onscreen bromance with co-star Andrew Phung. 

"[The] producers and our whole team over here has been so amazingly supportive," Liu said from the show's Toronto set, where filming of the fourth season is set to wrap this week.

"I have a feeling if we come back for season five, you'll be seeing Jung as well."

Watch Andrew Chang's full interview with Simu Liu:

Kim’s Convenience star Simu Liu to be Marvel’s first Asian lead actor

4 years ago
Duration 9:00
From a Canadian sitcom to a major Marvel movie release, Simu Liu’s career is about to take a massive step forward. He talks to Andrew Chang about what it means for him, and for the representation of Asians in film.

With files from Andrew Chang and Nicole Brewster