‘Shang-Chi’ Star Simu Liu Shares Life-Changing Phone Call with Kevin Feige

In December 2018, Simu Liu let the universe know that he wanted to play Shang-Chi, the eponymous superhero in Marvel Studios’ first Asian-led blockbuster, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Well, seven months later, Liu was officially cast as Shaun/Shang-Chi, but as it turned out, the widely shared tweet had nothing to do with the Canadian actor’s hiring. Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige didn’t even know about the post until well after the fact, and has insisted that Liu’s talent and professionalism was completely responsible for his casting. In any event, Liu still remembers the exact moment when he received the call that would change his life.

“It was July 16th, 2019, about 6:30 p.m., early evening. I had just woken up from a nap, and I was in my underwear, eating shrimp crackers,” Liu tells The Hollywood Reporter. “My dog was napping in my apartment, and I just remember getting a call from an unknown number in Burbank, California. And just hearing Kevin Feige’s beautiful, booming voice on the other end, telling me that my life was going to change forever, was pretty memorable.”

Whether it was the abrupt ending of his sitcom, Kim’s Convenience, or Disney CEO Bob Chapek’s use of the word “experiment,” Liu isn’t afraid to let the world know how he feels, something he attributes to his rebellious youth and being a lead on an Asian-Canadian sitcom.

“We were the first Asian-Canadian network sitcom, and that kind of informed all of the questions that we received during our press junkets and stuff,” Liu explains. “So I think it just opened my eyes to what our fight is in Hollywood and in show business, how hard we have to fight for our opportunities and for representation, and how important it is to continue to speak about those things. I think maybe that has carried through, and I’ve found that the more that I lean in, the more that I talk about these things, rather than not talking about them, the more I hear from people on the street and fans that I’m fortunate enough to interact with, that it’s something that means an incredible amount to them. Knowing that has empowered me to keep going.”

Marvel fans might also be surprised to learn that Shang-Chi is not Liu’s first performance as a Marvel superhero.

“I was a dress-up Spider-Man for kids’ birthday parties for a while,” Liu recalls. “It was early on in my acting career, and I wanted to get my reps in. I wanted to take every possible opportunity that I could to perform, and these superhero parties paid pretty decently. So I started doing that, and of course, after I got physically assaulted by enough kids, eventually, I kind of lost the joy to put on the suit. I thought that was maybe the last time I was going to ever play a superhero, but thankfully, that wasn’t the case.”

In a recent conversation with THR, Liu also discusses Shang-Chi’s future, his musical ambitions, and the bumps and bruises he attained from Shang-Chi‘s ambitious bus sequence. Then he explains how body paint and Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim played a key role in his pursuit of an acting career.

So you wrote a now-famous tweet in 2018. What happened from there?

I wish I knew. It still boggles my mind every single day. I imagine what happened is that some intern running the Marvel Studios Twitter read it and was like, “Who the hell is this guy?” And then just moved on with their life. And then it totally disappeared until half a year later when, all of a sudden, I was cast as Shang-Chi, and then that tweet just kind of resurfaced. It almost felt like I had planned the whole thing, which of course I didn’t. I was just talking about, like, “Oh yeah, wouldn’t it be nice to get the role of Shang-Chi? Wouldn’t it be nice to win the lottery seven times in a row?” It just seemed that far-fetched at that moment in time. So it’s pretty incredible the journey that I’ve been on since then, and I can’t believe we’re at this point now where we’re about to share this movie with the world. I know it’s been a long time coming; that date has moved around quite a bit. But we’re finally here and it’s so incredible just to see the world reacting to it. And to see you reacting to it, having seen it. This is literally my first rodeo, and it’s pretty incredible.

It sounds like Kevin Feige and co. didn’t learn about the tweet until after you were cast.

Yeah, I think so, but I can’t imagine Kevin is constantly looking over the shoulder of whoever was running that Twitter account. So I hope I wasn’t cast because of the tweet; I hope that I was cast because of my acting ability or whatever you want to call it. But I remember that call very, very distinctly, though. It was July 16th, 2019, about 6:30 p.m., early evening. I had just woken up from a nap, and I was in my underwear, eating shrimp crackers. (Laughs.) My dog was napping in my apartment, and I just remember getting a call from an unknown number in Burbank, California. And just hearing Kevin Feige’s beautiful, booming voice on the other end, telling me that my life was going to change forever, was pretty memorable.

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Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) in Marvel Studios’ SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS.
Courtesy of Jasin Boland/Marvel Studios

I really appreciate how direct you are on Twitter and in life. You aren’t afraid to say what you want or how you feel. Where does this trait come from in your estimation?

Oh my God, I’m sure if you asked my parents, it came from years and years of rebelling against them. I had the privilege of working on a show called Kim’s Convenience for a number of years, and similar to this movie, we were hailed from the very beginning as this “groundbreaking show for diversity.” We were the first Asian-Canadian network sitcom, and that kind of informed all of the questions that we received during our press junkets and stuff. So I think it just opened my eyes to what our fight is in Hollywood and in show business, how hard we have to fight for our opportunities and for representation, and how important it is to continue to speak about those things. I think maybe that has carried through, and I’ve found that the more that I lean in, the more that I talk about these things, rather than not talking about them, the more I hear from people on the street and fans that I’m fortunate enough to interact with, that it’s something that means an incredible amount to them. Knowing that has empowered me to keep going.

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Katy (Awkwafina) and Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) in Marvel Studios’ SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS.
Courtesy of Marvel Studios

I thought Bob Odenkirk had the best bus fight of the year until Shang-Chi‘s bus sequence came along. Please tell me everything about putting that together because it’s extraordinary.

First of all, I’m very glad you liked it because I’m pretty sure I banged my shin on every possible part of that bus. I now know the San Francisco buses intimately well, and have injured myself so many times. And by the way, my scene partner in that whole sequence, Florian Munteanu, who plays Razor Fist, is, to put it bluntly, large. He’s a giant of a man, if you will. For the two of us to be fighting in that confined space meant that both of us were just getting constantly injured. And the poor guy, I saw him bang his head. He could barely stand up straight without hitting his head on the ceiling. So it was a rough go for the both of us. We shot the bus scene over four weeks. It was one of the first fight sequences that we ever shot, and just an incredible amount of care and dedication. We used every square inch of that bus. I don’t want to spoil too much, but inside, outside, on top. We really got creative with it, and it is one of my favorite sequences in the movie. And we’ve got some pretty incredible action sequences.

That sequence is also a proof of concept for a new take on Speed starring you and Awkwafina. It’s all there.

Yeah, yeah, it’s kind of like Speed meets maybe Superbad. It’s like if two total slackers all of a sudden got themselves wrapped up in this heist attempt or whatever.

Disney now owns 20th Century Fox’s Speed, so you never know.

It could happen. It could happen, for sure.

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Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) in Marvel Studios’ SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS.
Courtesy of Jasin Boland/Marvel Studios

Shang-Chi’s father, Wenwu (Tony Leung), places some rather unrelenting expectations on him. Is that something you can relate to on some level?

Yeah, definitely. My parents are two academics that came to Canada to pursue academic opportunities. My dad, PHD in electrical engineering; my mom, a masters in electrical engineering. I hope their ears are burning right now. Academic success, studying and all of that were so critical to their path that I feel like they saw it as the only way to achieve success. And in success, you achieve upward social mobility. So I think they passed a lot of that on to me, and I think that that’s something that a lot of immigrant families do to their kids. I was very, very encouraged from a very young age to follow in their footsteps and become either an engineer or a doctor, and failing all of those things, maybe a lawyer or some sort of businessman. When you say unrelenting, I think that was definitely true. I remember doing 5th grade math when I was like seven years old. My parents just constantly pushed me, in a good way, to always demand excellence in everything that I did. And of course, as I got older and I developed hormones and I wanted to do things other than just study and go to class all day, that kind of led to a lot of tension in our family. But seeing how everything has come full circle since then is really incredible. We’ve got such an incredible and loving relationship today. My mom — who was in the car with me right before I stepped out onto the red carpet — it was so great hearing my mom say, “Hey, you seem really stressed out. Are you okay? Please don’t work too hard.” It was a really nice and tender moment.

How have you prepared yourself for what’s coming your way? Is it even possible to prepare oneself for this kind of launch?

That’s a great question. I don’t think it is. I definitely remember that car turning onto Hollywood Boulevard and seeing just thousands upon thousands of fans, and hearing their cheers and screams, and seeing our poster on top of the El Capitan Theatre and on top of the TCL Chinese Theatre. It was just something that in my wildest dreams, I never could’ve imagined experiencing. In terms of what’s next, I know what’s on my mind is the same as what’s on everybody else’s mind, and hopefully, there’s an Avengers in the future, somewhere. Obviously, I don’t know anything about that, but being such a big fan of the whole franchise, I know that that’s the gold star. All of the media frenzy that surrounds one of those properties is going to be a whole beast unto itself, so it’s certainly what I hope for. Do I know how to prepare for it? Absolutely not.

Do you have some idea of when you’re playing Shang-Chi again? Have you perhaps already played him again?

I’ve got nothing. I’ve got absolutely nothing. I think we’re just so focused on pushing this movie out to the world and making sure people watch it. And when it releases in theaters September 3rd, wherever it’s safe for people to do so, that they come out and experience the mind-blowing action and the incredible story that this movie has.

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Awkwafina and Simu Liu
Jasin Boland/Marvel Studios

Shaun is a valet at the start of the film, and while there’s certainly nothing wrong with that, what was your version of that job until your career took off?

It’s a bit of a roundabout journey for me. I studied finance and accounting in college, and I worked at a massive accounting firm out of graduation. I really hated it, and it definitely showed in my work. And I was kind of let go from my job less than a year in. So I was unemployed and just kind of decided on a whim to apply to be a movie extra. I loved movies and I didn’t really know how to get in them, but I knew that Toronto had productions that came in from time to time and you could apply to be an extra. So I wound up on the set of Pacific Rim in 2012 as this minimum wage background actor, and I remember showing up on set at 4:30 in the morning. It was an insanely early call time. I had to get my entire body spray-painted this metallic blue that you couldn’t wash off with normal soap. So they had to send us home with canisters of shaving cream because that was the only thing that would actually get it off your skin. But it was the best experience of my life. It was incredible, and I totally fell in love with the magic of movies. I just wanted to do anything I could to get back on a set after that. In those years of struggle that followed, I did whatever odd jobs I could: music video appearances, background extra stuff, other people’s short films, movies, TV shows and whatnot, until I was finally able to get an agent. I was a dress-up Spider-Man for kids’ birthday parties for a while.

Wow.

Yeah, over the course of one summer, I gave up all of my weekends, and I just decided… It was early on in my acting career, and I wanted to get my reps in. I wanted to take every possible opportunity that I could to perform, and these superhero parties paid pretty decently. So I started doing that, and of course, after I got physically assaulted by enough kids, eventually, I kind of lost the joy to put on the suit. I thought that was maybe the last time I was going to ever play a superhero, but thankfully, that wasn’t the case.

Is there video evidence of these Spider-Man engagements?

Oh my God, I wish that there was. I can tell you that it was not a movie-quality costume. It was less MCU and more Walmart, if you get what I mean. So I really don’t blame a lot of the children for not believing that I was the real Spider-Man and just doing everything that they could to prove that I was not the real Spider-Man, including but not limited to: punching, kicking, grabbing and trying to rip the suit. There are still a lot of very traumatic memories from that time. (Laughs.)

I’m going to close on my worst question. Since karaoke is a component of this movie, what’s your go-to karaoke song?

Amazing. That is not a worst question at all. I’ve got a couple. You can’t go wrong with Disney. So I’ve got The Lion King. (Liu starts singing “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King”.) “I’m gonna be a mighty king, so enemies beware. Well, I’ve never seen a king or beast with quite so little hair.” I like to do both parts because it’s karaoke; there’s no rules. I like “A Whole New World.” (Liu starts singing “A Whole New World.”) “I can show you the world. Shiny, shimmering splendid.” Can you tell that I want Shang-Chi to be a musical? If we are lucky enough to make a sequel, I would like it to have musical elements. And then you’ve got John Legend, something a little bit more soulful. (Liu starts singing “All of Me.) “What would I do without your smart mouth? Drawing me in, and you kicking me out.” Et cetera, et cetera. Thank you for indulging me. I haven’t been to karaoke in a really long time, and I needed that.

You have my permission to use this interview as your next self-tape.

Excellent, excellent.

Simu Liu, welcome to the circus.

(Laughs.) Thank you. I’ll never get tired of hearing that.

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Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings opens exclusively in theaters on Aug. 3rd. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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