He’s just gotten off a flight in Toronto after hosting Saturday Night Live, and Simu Liu, Marvel’s first Asian superhero, is Ten Rings of exhausted. And exhilarated.
The Mississauga-raised actor had just hit the storied SNL stage at 30 Rock with musical guest Saweetie. He was praised by critics for his impeccable timing, enthusiastic delivery and likability. Prior to hosting in New York, Liu had been filming a movie in Wilmington, N.C.
It’s been awhile since he’s set foot on Canadian soil.
Our conversation, as any respectable interview should, quickly veers towards food. The actor’s first meal back at home? Peking duck and lobster with his parents at Foodie North, a Chinese restaurant in Mississauga. Liu said he’d been craving the dishes that remind him of home for quite some time and that sharing a meal with family and friends is what he looks forward to most nowadays. We talk about our shared love for Fishman Clubhouse, a Scarborough mainstay that serves towering Jenga block platters of crab legs and seafood.
Liu joined me for a Canadian exclusive with the Star to discuss how he handles online trolls, healing his relationship with his parents and how he was once a stunt double for Pete Wentz in a Fallout Boy music video.
Liu has had plenty of roles in his 32 years. He was a star on “Kim’s Convenience,” the beloved CBC series that also streams on Netflix. Liu expressed his frustrations publicly after the show shut down following the departures of its co-creators and showrunners.
The part Liu is perhaps most well-known for is playing the first Asian superhero in a Marvel movie. The movie “Shang-Chi” broke box-office records and grossed more than $431 million (U.S.) in sales worldwide. Liu could be credited for manifesting his own Marvel destiny with a tweet in 2014, years before the Marvel announcement.
So, SNL. It’s what everybody’s talking about. Did you and Lorne bond over your shared Canadian-ness?
Absolutely. It was one of the first things he said to me. It’s kind of a running joke among all the SNL cast that Lorne will always say that he went to the same high school as Drake. He definitely told me that, and then he told me to just kind of relax into it and, you know, trust the process.
I was really nervous coming in, but everybody in the cast and the writing crew did such an amazing job making me feel at home. I mean, it was, it was a lot. By Thursday, we were already rehearsing, I was doing photoshoots and we were on Jimmy Fallon. I just felt myself getting progressively more and more exhausted.
And I remember asking Lorne and Lindsay Shookus, who was my producer on my week, why is it that they loaded so much at the back end. They said, exhaustion is a comedian’s best friend. That’s basically their philosophy, the more tired you are, the less you’re in your head. It’s true.
Your Maclean’s article is the shared story of other children of immigrant parents. The frustration of never living up to their expectations, fear of disappointing them. You’ve accomplished so much since, how has your relationship (with your parents) changed and how do you feel about yourself now?
That’s a really wonderful question. Yeah, I would say that first of all, that Maclean’s article was really the start of a complete revamping of my relationship with my parents. It was always difficult for us to connect, we never really talked.
And they became very kind of self-reflective and in some ways self-aware of what they had done in the past but also realizing that there was a lot of time left to be intentional about our relationship in the future.
When I was screen testing for the Marvel role, I was able to talk to them, and usually trying to talk to your Asian parents about something like that, you wouldn’t expect a lot of emotional support, but they were fantastic. They were so reassuring and very much like ‘look, regardless of whether you get this or not we are so proud of you’ … and after I got the role, they were one of the first people that I called. We got to experience the surrealness of that moment together and they were with me when we premiered the movie in August of this year.
I was so frustrated the other day, because we were trying to book their flights to L.A. because you know, I just bought a house there, I really wanted to show them around the city but we had to do it on their terms, because that’s mom and dad, and so my parents had been scouring the internet for a good deal on Expedia.
I was pulling my hair out because the reason why I work so hard is so we can have the flexibility to say, if you want to travel on this day, you can get that ticket on that day but my parents were like, absolutely not, they adamantly refused. And it’s another one of the things that continue to drive me crazy about them, but, you know, in a very loving way.
I love that fiscal responsibility will never not be a thing with Asian parents, no matter where you are in your success.
I still have to fight them for the bill. I’ll always kind of be their little boy. It’s hard for them to accept me pulling out the credit card at the end of the meal. So, it’s always been a battle.
You’ve been so outspoken about anti-Asian sentiment and inclusion and some of the challenges that we face. Are you exhausted by that role? Are you embracing the responsibility or are you just tired of having to be that voice?
I think I’m exhausted for variety of reasons, and I think that might be part of it. But at the same time, I think the more time I’ve been in Hollywood and in the inner circles of Hollywood, which I guess I’ve now gotten some seat at the table, I realize how much work there is to be done.
My objective is to show other Asian people, other Asian Americans, Asian Canadians, first generation children, what it means to take up space, what it means to be unapologetic because those are qualities that I don’t believe that we’ve been raised with.
I think a lot of a lot of Asian people see that and appreciate that you’re kind of speaking out at a time when I think a lot of people are still hesitant because it goes against how we were raised culturally.
I will read criticisms in the community like, ‘why is he always so outspoken? Why is he so loud about it?’ And I mean, I think it’s valid, and I certainly understand why it might seem that way. But really, I guess I feel so disproportionately underrepresented that I feel like I have to really project my voice to compensate in a lot of ways for the silence. The last thing I want is for the world to forget that there were hate crimes committed against our people, to forget that Asian people are a part of the fabric of Canadian and American society.
You tweeted a few days ago about caring too much about the opinions of strangers in the internet. So if you, Simu Liu, a bonafide movie star hanging in the inner circle of Hollywood, host of SNL, if you can’t not sweat social media trolls, how is the average person suppose to do it?
It’s really hard. I came up in a social media world. And I will say that for “Kim’s Convenience,” logging onto social media every day was a joy when I was a part of that show. When your profile raises to a global level, there’s so much space for the negativity to come in and I think what’s been really key for me is realizing that what happens online and offline are completely different. I could be experiencing the worst days of my life online, or so I thought, and then when I leave the door, and I walk out on the street, somebody will recognize me and say, ‘oh my gosh, thank you so much for what you do for Asian representation.’
So you’re teaming up with Google for their new Pixel 6 smartphone, with technology that better highlights skin tone. Tell us about that.
It gives me hope that companies like Google are participating in campaigns and projects, and even incorporating elements of diversity and inclusivity into their product design, which is kind of what really drew me to the Pixel 6. This idea that this is the most inclusive camera that that has ever existed. I’m sure you’ve read the same articles of cameras failing to capture people with darker skin, it’s things like that, an auto translate that’s highly advanced, you don’t need to be connected to wifi to use it, you can live translate in (different) languages.
Were you really Pete Wentz’s stunt double for a Fallout Boy music video?
Yes, I was. When they hired me, I had short black hair and it was thought that Pete Wentz also had short black hair. It was in Kingston, Ont., in this chapel and we shot a music video. On the first day, it was just the stunt doubles, and the second day the band came in. And when Pete shows up, he’s got platinum blonde hair and we were like ‘what happened?’ and Pete said ‘oh yeah, I decided to dye my hair yesterday.’ And so because of that, a lot of the footage of me was unfortunately unusable. But if you look in the “Centuries” music video, there are actually a couple of frames that you can clearly tell that is me because I have black hair.
We’ve gotten to the end of our interview. Liu’s voice is quieter and more reserved than it was during the interview. Maybe the intensity of the last few weeks has caught up with him. Maybe it’s the mention of his childhood and parents that has him feeling introspective.
The conversation has left me optimistic about the number of Asians and people of colour who continue breaking barriers in film and media, and the trickle-down effect on representation this may have in other industries and in our lives as a whole. We still have a long way to go, but having more seats at the table is never a bad thing.
I remind myself to call my mom, to tell her I love her and appreciate her sacrifice as a single immigrant parent who moved three kids halfway around the world to start new in another country because it gave us a chance at a better life.
I google the closest location for Peking duck.