NEW YORK (AP) — When little-known actor Simu Liu tweeted in 2014 asking Marvel for an Asian American superhero, he wasn’t vying for a job — he was venting at Hollywood’s status quo.
“I was experiencing just such a frustration turning on the TV and, as a struggling actor, too, just really seeing the limits of what was possible for people that look like me,” said Liu, who has been named one of AP’s Breakthrough Entertainers of the Year. “Fast forward five years, and I’m here.”
Liu starred as Shaun/Shang-Chi in “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” Marvel’s first film led by an Asian superhero. The blockbuster movie obliterated the records for both Labor Day openings and pandemic-era releases on its way to more than $430 million in ticket sales worldwide.
“My goal was always to try to make it out in Hollywood, and for a few years, nothing happened,” said the Chinese-born Canadian actor. “Then in 2019, the craziest thing happened… I’m getting all these incredible opportunities. Most recently it was ‘SNL,’ but it was also getting to go to the Met Gala — so many different things. I had an opportunity to be on ‘Sesame Street.’ I mean, it’s been such a joy and such a privilege to go through.”
While Liu is enjoying the success, he’s always looked at the bigger picture. “Shang-Chi,” which is available now on Disney+ and on Blu-ray/DVD, has allowed audiences of all ages to see a wide array of Asian faces and characters — something he didn’t have himself.
Growing up, Liu admired global icon Will Smith; he remembers being astonished after learning that Smith, a Black man, was at one point Hollywood’s highest grossing actor.
“I just found that to be so incredible because he was an actor of color. And even though he wasn’t Asian, I still felt like there was a part of me that related to him,’ said Liu.
And while Smith is obviously deserving of any young, budding actor’s admiration, Liu’s aspirational choices were also limited.
“Growing up, in terms of people who look like me, there was really only Jackie Chan and Jet Li. And even though I think I enjoyed watching them, there was always a distance as well because we came from just very different backgrounds. And I think the characters that they were forced to play were also very exaggerated versions of what Asian people actually are.”
Liu, whose family immigrated to the Toronto area when he was 5 from China, was previously most recognized for “Kim’s Convenience,” a Canadian comedy centered around a Korean immigrant family who ran a convenience store. The show abruptly ended in controversy after the fifth season when the two co-creators inexplicably exited despite it gaining a cult following after Netflix picked it up. He also starred in “Blood and Water,” a Canadian crime drama with dialogue in English, Mandarin and Cantonese.
Up next for the 32-year-old is “Arthur The King,” starring Mark Wahlberg, which tells the story of a captain of a Swedish adventure racing team who befriends a wounded dog while racing through the Ecuadorian jungle. He’ll also star in “One True Loves,” a romcom with Phillipa Soo and Luke Bracey.
“We need to show Asian Americans in all kind of facets and all sorts of light. So that will be what the next few steps of my career are focused on,” explained Liu. “That, and I think creating opportunities for other creatives of color who are coming up. And stepping into a producorial role and being a self-generator, rather than just somebody who waits for opportunity to come.”
Back to that tweet: Kevin Feige, president of Marvel Studios, told Liu he was completely unaware about the social media message, so it had no influence on him securing the role. For Liu, that signifies a more important lesson.
“I think there’s something to be said for setting a goal or putting a pointer out in the horizon and saying I am headed in that direction,” said Liu. “Give yourself the permission to acknowledge your dreams and your ambitions. Give yourself the permission to vocalize it and to put it out into the universe and then work really, really hard to get there.”
For more on AP’s 2021 class of Breakthrough Entertainers, please visit: https://apnews.com/hub/ap-breakthrough-entertainers
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