Marvel Star Simu Liu Is Still a Toronto Kid at Heart

"It really is such a wonderfully comforting feeling driving down the Gardiner, going toward the city, seeing the CN Tower pop up on the horizon"

BY Rachel HoPublished Sep 3, 2021

Simu Liu's path to Hollywood isn't a typical actor's journey. A former accountant at one of the biggest accounting firms in the world before he was laid off, Liu was on track to follow the path his parents desperately wanted from him: get good grades and get a secure job.

"I just remember so much wanting to be the kind of kid that my parents wanted and that made them proud," Liu tells Exclaim!. "And for a long time, I played the part really well. I was a gifted student, and then after sixth grade I got into a school called UTS [University of Toronto Schools], a very academically inclined school in downtown Toronto. So my parents made the decision to send me and I agreed. I wanted them to be proud of me, I wanted them to be happy."

Liu's story isn't one unfamiliar to immigrant families. The weight of moving and adapting to a new country in search of a better life for themselves and their children is placed firmly on the shoulders of the younger generation. And while Liu "played the part" for much of his life, after being laid off, he knew he was destined for something more.

"That was the moment I finally had to make peace with the fact that I couldn't do it. I was not that person. But what I could be was perhaps something more, something better," recalls Liu. "All I needed to do was embrace who I truly was, start acting in my interests, start making decisions for me, [and] to start thinking about the path that I wanted to take."

Following this moment of clarity, Liu left the corporate grind and pursued his passion of acting. After taking some background parts and supporting roles in local productions, Liu eventually broke out with the role of Jung in Kim's Convenience. And now, Liu can add "superhero" to his resume.

In Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, directed by Destin Daniel Cretton, Liu plays the titular character, also known as Shaun, who goes on a similar journey of discovery and self-realization. The name "Shang-Chi" loosely translates to "noble energy," and for Liu, the meaning behind the name is important to the character and the story as a whole: "I feel like the whole movie is about Shaun's relationship to that name — to the idea that he could be something noble, or indeed heroic. When we meet him he is anything but [that]."

While Liu's own Chinese name doesn't impose upon him lofty expectations of nobility, he can relate to Shang-Chi in deriving great meaning from his name. Liu's name derives from two concepts: "si" (thoughtfulness or introspection) and "mu" (envy or longing). The latter in particular holds great meaning for Liu.

"I was named that [because] my parents knew that they would be leaving the country [China]. They were going to immigrate to Canada to pursue postgraduate studies and they knew that I would always grow up longing for my parents," explains Liu. "Longing for a mother and a father that I most likely would not meet until much later on in life. It ended up being four and a half years until I actually lucidly met them."

He continues, "How [the name has] translated for me is this longing for a better life. This longing to pursue your dreams and your ambitions. And jealousy whenever I see somebody who is uniquely 100 percent themselves, and unapologetically pursuing what they want. It's a very meaningful word for me and it's something that really connects me with my parents."

While Liu's gamble on himself in pursuit of something more in life has so far paid off — playing a lead role in a Marvel movie isn't too shabby for a relative Hollywood newcomer — this is hopefully just the beginning for him. One thing is certain: no matter how bright Liu's star shines, he's a Toronto kid at heart.

"I know each and every street of the city so intimately well. And it's so rare that you can have knowledge of a city like that and that kind of close relationship. Toronto will always be home," says Liu. "It really is such a wonderfully comforting feeling driving down the Gardiner, going toward the city, seeing the CN Tower pop up on the horizon. I know we don't often speak well of the Gardiner, but I will say, in this case [coming home], it is truly just such a comforting sight."

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