How Simu Liu Went From Struggling Actor to Marvel Superhero

The ’Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’ star is at once a trailblazing Asian superhero and a bro who loves Good Will Hunting and beach volleyball

Seven years ago, when Simu Liu was a struggling actor in Toronto, he tweeted at Marvel: “Now how about an Asian American hero?” He meant it as an offhand joke—“That tweet was just the ramblings of somebody who was very frustrated,” he says. But the cosmos took it more seriously: the 32-year-old is starring in the first Marvel flick headlined by an Asian actor, playing the titular character in the hotly anticipated Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (in theaters September 3).

“Honestly, I felt like there was no way I was not going to get the role,” says Liu, who was born in Harbin, China, and raised in Ontario, Canada. “Every fiber of my being was dedicated to doing whatever needed to be done.”

Since that fateful tweet, Liu has become famous, starring in the Canadian sitcom Kim’s Convenience. Still, he’s currently preparing for a new level of stardom. “Once September 3rd happens,” he says, “that’ll be an overnight moment—the point of no return.”

What was the casting process like with Marvel and Disney?

In early 2019, my manager told me that I was on a shortlist of Asian American performers who Disney and Marvel wanted to see for Shang-Chi. We got the official request to put in an audition tape. I had zero expectations. I remember very clearly it was two scenes from Good Will Hunting, which is one of my favorite movies. Within a couple weeks, I was told by my manager that I should go down to L.A. and meet the director, Destin Daniel Cretton. I was in the room for almost an hour, and when I left, I felt like I wanted to throw up; it was the first time I thought I had an actual shot at booking the role. When you send in the tapes—I had done hundreds at that point, for Crazy Rich Asians, Mortal Kombat, all those movies I thought would be life-changing if I got them—you learn that the odds are not in your favor.

Why did they have you read Good Will Hunting?

I spoke to Destin about it. Good Will Hunting is also about a character who’s doing everything he can to run away from who he really is, from family, from ideas of destiny, and the greatness within him.

What’s been your funniest fan encounter so far?

I was at the Santa Monica Pier a month ago, trying to get a game of beach volleyball going. But we just didn’t have the people. I was like, “I’m gonna put out an Instagram blast for people to join us.” What I’d hoped for was a bunch of volleyball fans . . .

What were you thinking?

I just wanted to play volleyball so badly. And, of course, what ended up happening was a bunch of people showed up who didn’t play volleyball. I think everybody who’s ever done a comic book or Marvel movie knows this, but once you give up your location, there’s this network of highly organized autograph-seekers. There was a group of maybe seven or eight people who came with, like, 40 Marvel figurines and ten full-size posters. And they were very clever; they came up to me at first and said, “We’d love to play some beach volleyball,” and they actually played with us for about an hour before they finally asked for autographs. By that point, I was like, “You’ve earned it.” Nobody was good at volleyball.

Do you have any casting horror stories from when you were coming up?

Yeah, I’m ashamed of one. Not only because of the role itself, but because of the way I reacted to it. I was 22 years old and just so desperately wanted to make it. One of the first roles I auditioned for was this short film where I played this Japanese mob boss. And the role was so offensive: the writer didn’t want the character to speak Japanese—he wanted the character to speak in gibberish that sounded vaguely Japanese. He literally said “Japanese-y.” I pray to God no one ever sees that tape, because I probably gave the most offensive audition ever. And I remember the director absolutely guffawing in the corner. And in that moment I felt so validated in what I was doing. It so speaks to where we were back in . . . I think it was 2012, when I did that audition. As a community, we were just happy to be considered at all in a system that was so not designed for our inclusion.

“Growing up as an Asian man, you’re taught the way the world sees you is that you’re the sidekick, the dork, the undesirable guy.”

Now, you’re considered an internet hottie. How does that feel?

Growing up as an Asian man, you’re taught the way the world sees you, the way you’re portrayed on TV and in movies, is that you’re the sidekick, the dork, the undesirable guy. I watched One Tree Hill and Gossip Girl and wanted to be the guy who was, for lack of a better term, “the hottie.” I craved that attention but never quite got it. So now it’s nice, but it’s a little embarrassing. I can’t imagine how my parents feel about it. But I’ll continue to take care of my body and try to be in shape and try to be the best version of myself.

Tony Leung, who plays your father, is the icon of Chinese acting icons. Were you terrified playing opposite him?

I was very, very terrified. I grew up watching his movies.He’s absolutely incredible in Infernal Affairs. Tony’s whole thing is he’s able to say so much doing so little. When you look into his eyes, there’s such a well of emotional depth, I wasn’t sure I could measure up. But he’s such a kind and humble and soft-spoken person, and we got along right away. There was no ego.

Did you guys have any special moments on the set?

I learned he’s a massive adrenaline junkie. He has a place in Japan and goes snowboarding. I love sports and snowboarding. So it really fostered a deeper relationship. Unfortunately, COVID threw a wrench in plans of us hitting the slopes together, but once the world opens up, I’ll be on the slopes with him. I’m sure he’ll be way better than I am.

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