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Interview: Simu Liu Talks ‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’

September 3, 2021Ben MK

Chadwick Boseman has proven to be an icon both on and off the screen, but it's his role as T'Challa in Marvel Studios' Black Panther that has garnered the late actor a loyal worldwide following. Now, with Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Canada's own Simu Liu is poised to follow in Boseman's footsteps — and with the entire Asian moviegoing community rooting for him, you can bet that the TV-star-turned-big-screen-action-hero isn't taking the responsibility of fronting the MCU's latest blockbuster lightly.

I sat down for a virtual roundtable with Simu Liu to chat about Shang-Chi and what this important moment for Asian representation means to him. The following is an edited version of that conversation.

You've spoken in the past about your experience growing up as an immigrant and the struggle of trying to prove yourself to others. But how did you channel that very personal experience into your role as Shang-Chi, and how did you maybe use it to fuel your portrayal?

Liu: I think I always carried a certain amount of anger with me, and I couldn't always quite put a finger on why I was angry. But maybe I was angry at the world, I was angry at my parents for not understanding me, I was angry that when I turned on the TV I couldn't see any positive portrayal of Asian people — and certainly, Asian men. And I feel like that general sense of anger is what I remember, and [it's] definitely a shade of what I brought to the Shaun character — the sense of kind of being a little lost and being in a state of running away from who he really is.

I think that was all a part of my experience growing up. You talk about juggling the expectations of your parents, trying to balance that with the path that you want to carve out for yourself. That's all a part of the story of what it means to be a diasporic Asian growing up in places like Canada and the U.S. So I think there was just a lot that I could relate to in the character of Shaun, and I brought that as much as I could.

Was there one moment when you were on-set filming Shang-Chi that really felt like your superhero moment?

Liu: There's one stunt that I did that I actually posted a rehearsal [of] on my Instagram, where I baseball slide off the top of a bus, I swing around on the side mirror, and then I face-plant into the side. And it was all me, it was not a stunt double shot. I kind of insisted on doing it because I knew it was something that I could do and make really, really good. And I think the first time I did that and I watched the playback, I was like, "Oh, I am a frigging Marvel superhero. This is incredible."

We had so many more days like that that followed, and obviously a lot of action days on set, cuz there are so many action sequences in our movie. But that day definitely stuck out for me. It was one of my favorite stunts to do in the film. And just a really good confidence-booster for me, knowing that I could do that.

Speaking of stunts, can you talk a bit about filming that set-piece action sequence on the bus?

Liu: That sequence took four weeks to shoot. But I think just focusing on that undermines how much time it actually took to prep that entire sequence. Before we even landed in Australia, we started to prep that sequence in L.A. We knew the buses that we were working with, and we had an amazing choreographer in Andy Cheng, who came to us from the Jackie Chan stunt team. So we knew right from the beginning that this was going to be a very Hong Kong action-influenced fight.

And what I mean by that is that it was going to be very kinetic, it was going to be very fast, it was going to be very intricate. And it was going to be creative in the way that it interacts with the environment, in the classic way that Jackie Chan films often do. It's more than just about choreographing the kicks, the blocks, the punches. It's also about choreographing the camera and how it works with all of those things. We bumped and scraped our knees and shins on pretty much every single part of that bus, and we're very proud of how it all came out.

Of course, Tony Leung plays your father, Wenwu, in the movie. What was it like working with him, and what did you perhaps learn from him?

Liu: I was a big fan of Tony's movies, from Infernal Affairs to Hero, Chungking Express, In the Mood for Love and The Grandmaster. The list goes on and on. He is the A-lister of A-listers in Asian cinema, and it really was such a privilege working with him. I think what Tony really taught me was the art of stillness, which is something that he's mastered — the art of a single glance or a single expression that, without saying any words, conveys just a well of emotion, can break your heart, can shift massive tectonic plates of story, and can just move you and compel you.

It just feels like when you watch him, he is just so comfortable in his element, he is so at peace. And in a way that is so poignant and so meaningful, [he] is able to ground himself in a scene and just be still. It's something that, for me, as a newer actor, was always more difficult to grasp. Because I had a lot of anxiety coming into the role [that] would manifest in different ways. And what he was so good at was just pulling me into a more grounded and more present place with him. That's something that I definitely take with me.

Now that you're done filming the movie and are out promoting it, what has that experience been like?

Liu: It's a lot. I have not slept properly in a very long time. But then there's also the sense that if I am doing all of this and doing all the interviews and meeting the fans, it really means that people care about this movie. People believe in its importance. And that's really the fuel or the battery recharge that's keeping me going right now — is that this movie really can and will have an impact.

It is truly incredible because I've fought for representation for the better part of my career, and always, always wished that I had a platform or a stage that was big enough to really shout it to the world. And with Marvel, we have. It is the biggest platform there possibly could be. And I just think that's such an amazing, amazing thing, to get to show this movie — which is a celebration of our culture, our values, our language, our customs — to the whole world. So for those within our community, it can be very empowering, and then for those outside of our community, I think it's a moment of education and a moment of sharing.

Last but not least, there are many amazing actors that are a part of the MCU. How have they — and the Asian community, in general — been there for you?

Liu: I've been really, really encompassed by such a lovely MCU community of people, who have reached out and said, "Hey, you're in the middle of a massive storm now. But let's talk. Whatever you need, whenever you feel overwhelmed. It is a crazy, crazy life that you're about to embark on." And I don't take those moments for granted. These are incredibly busy people in their own right, and just the fact that they're willing to reach [out] and uplift someone who is totally new at this, who is totally in way over his head sometimes is really, really great.

But before all of that, before Shang-Chi, before Marvel, I had a really amazing community in the Asian American community, in people who just collaborated with one another, uplifted each other, and just were so incredibly supportive. That's the community that I came from before I was cast in this role, that's the community that I'm happy to represent. And that's the community that I'm talking about when I talk about building your roots out, finding like-minded people, and making them your people, your team and your community.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is in theatres now.

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