If his recurring role on Canadian sitcom Kim’s Convenience didn’t already make it clear, Simu Liu is a star – and there’s no better showcase for his myriad skills than Marvel’s Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings. As the MCU’s brand new hero, he proves seriously charming, majorly skilled in the action arena, and will have audiences ready to see much more of Shang-Chi in future Marvel movies.
But for now, you can get your extra Simu Liu fix in the Empire Podcast’s interview with the man himself – a fun, freewheeling conversation taking in awkward family holiday photos, parental secrets, the incredible talents of late fight scene choreographer Brad Allan, and the Good Will Hunting scenes that he performed in his Marvel audition. Read the interview below (edited for length and clarity), or listen to it on the Empire Podcast – subscribe here.
EMPIRE: Have you had a chance to get out and about yet?
Simu Liu: I did a little bit of walking around. We're in a pretty central place in London, right by the Thames, which is great. I haven't been to London in like 17 years. I last came with my mother when I was 15 and very rebellious, and we spent half the trip not talking to each other. So that was not a great London trip. I don't have the greatest memories. But this is a beautiful city, I'm very happy to be here.
When you look back at photos – “That's us in front of Buckingham Palace, that's us in front of 10 Downing Street” – and you're just scowling.
Yeah, I had one expression – this kind of half smile, always trying to seem like I was too cool for all of it. Which was so dumb. I was just an idiot. I wish I just accepted that trip and appreciated it for what it was, which was my mother giving me a free trip to Europe and just wanting to connect with me. I was not having any of it. I was like, ‘I hate you, mom! I just want to be with my friends, god!’
But you didn't take drastic steps, right? You didn't suddenly just leave and then change your name and become a parking valet? You didn’t do that – that’s what Shang-Chi does in this movie.
No, what he does is a little bit extreme. And it's also because he was raised under very extreme circumstances. I mean, I wasn't trained to be an assassin from an early age, so I guess I can't really fault him from taking extreme measures to get out of that situation.
Your parents aren't crime lords.
Not that we know of. Although, you know, my dad has a tendency to disappear into the basement for long periods of time. So maybe he is running a secret syndicate that I'm not aware of. But you know, we'll see. He's smiling all the time, so jovial, so harmless looking, but that is exactly the recipe for a crime-lord.
Have you been down to the basement recently, Simu?
Yeah – he recently put a ping pong table down there, actually. We do spend quite a bit of time down there playing each other. It's one of our favourite things to do. My dad is amazing. He has, like, ancient Chinese skills. I feel like he holds it in a specific way. He's got such amazing technique with a ping pong paddle, and I feel like I've inherited none of it. I also feel like he taught me just enough to be okay, but never enough to best him. He's always withheld those secrets from me. And so I'm just in a place where I'm perpetually losing to him. Even though he's 62 years old, he's whoopin’ my ass every time we play.
It feels in a very low key way that you have been almost prepping your entire life for everything Shang-Chi goes through in this movie.
If I just track Shang-Chi’s journey in the context of table tennis in my life, it actually fits perfectly, and that's why I was able to sink into the character so, so seamlessly. It's funny, but I actually do obviously connect with the character quite a bit, you know, least of all being he is Asian-American. I'm Asian-Canadian. We both grew up feeling the weight of our parents’ expectations on our shoulders. My parents were electrical engineers, immigrants from China, and we were always just in a state of struggle, building our life. Their expectation was for me to follow in their footsteps – to achieve academic success, because that was one of the only ways to ensure a stable job and in turn a stable life.
And so that’s obviously very different from running the Ten Rings organisation, but still I found myself wanting other things from my life. I found myself at odds with them, going from a place of being very argumentative with them and not being able to connect to them, to then getting older and learning to accept that as a part of my life – not only to accept, but to be grateful and to love has been a part of my personal journey. It's very similar, I think, to the journey that Shaun goes through over the course of the film.
Brad [Allan] was such an incredible physical guy. He was such a gymnast, such a martial artist.
The action sequences are absolutely phenomenal, and obviously a large part of that is down to Brad Allan. This movie feels like a great tribute to him, and these action sequences are a great tribute to him.
Thank you. Well, Brad is a very talented man with such a vision, and we're still so deeply shocked and saddened by his loss. And I think you're right, it is something that I hope he'd be proud of. He put every bit of himself into this movie and into the action sequences. He assembled a group of incredibly talented stuntmen and, you know, he was a part of the Jackie Chan stunt team. Those guys are top notch man, they're world class. I feel like I'm on full display in our bus fight sequence, which is so incredible, and we really just use every square inch of that bus. There's a lot of homage to Jackie in there, and that's also a testament to Brad – he really loved the genre of kung fu, of martial arts, of wuxia, and really built in so many different homages and references throughout all the fights in the movie.
My favourite personal Brad story is one of my first days of training. Brad is such a wonderful guy and can come off serious if you don't know him very well, but he's got such a sharp sense of humour. I was stretching, goofing off with some of the other trainers and stuff. He comes up to me and he's very – you know, Brad's Australia, he's very soft spoken – and he said, “Hey, Simu, can you do this?” And he bends down and puts his hands flat to the ground with straight legs, and I'm like, “Oh, yeah, no, that's pretty hard. But I think I've been training pretty hard. I think I could do that.” And I do it. And I'm so happy, like, “Look, Brad, look, I'm doing it!” And Brad's like, “Great. Can you do this?” And he then literally just goes up into a perfect handstand. Like, the top part of his body doesn't even move. His feet literally just lifted as if they were being picked up, his body just effortlessly inverts into this handstand. And I was like, “No, Brad, I can't do that.” And he gives me this “Tsk tsk”, shakes his head and says, “So many muscles, and you can't even control your body.” And he just walks away with a little smirk on his face.
I mean, Brad was such an incredible physical guy. He was such a gymnast, such a martial artist. Even at the age of 50, he was in incredible shape, and it was just the beginning of our amazing relationship. I was dumbfounded. I was like, “What did he- How dare- What?!” I loved it, and I loved every minute of working with him. I miss him so much. I really do.
These fight scenes are testaments to his inventiveness and his passion – you were so impressive in them. Was there a moment while shooting the movie where it felt like it clicked?
Yeah, I actually very viscerally remember that moment. Unfortunately, it was the last action day that we had. Like 11 months in, we had done all of our fight sequences already. I was doing the death dealer fight scene that we’d saved until the very end, and I was like, “Oh, I feel like I'm finally getting the hang of this.” And we were literally wrapping the next week. But you know, I'm never gonna be fully satisfied. I was always the annoying guy behind the monitor that was like, “Can we do one more? Because I feel like if I just did that one part slightly differently...” I'd have Destin [Daniel Cretton, director] and Jonathan [Schwartz, producer] over this shoulder, being like, “It's good, stop it, we're moving on.” And me being like, “No, but if you could just let me do one more.” I was definitely very, very self critical, very picky. And I knew I had to, right? I knew that, first of all, I wasn't anywhere near the martial artist that Jackie was, that Jet [was], that Brad was. And so I was, in a lot of ways, trying to live up to that legacy.
That death dealer fight was so great, because it was an intricate one-on-one. There's lots of hand-to-hand choreography, it's really fast. And I just remember doing a couple of those shots – I even remember which one it was, it's the one where I knock one of his daggers out of his hands and I grab it out of the air – I just remember being so happy watching it in the monitor, being like, "Oh, I finally got it! It's nice!" But yeah, very, very late in the process.
"Guys, we're gonna have to go back and reshoot the entire film! You know how you set aside two weeks to do some additional shooting and some pickups? Can we make that two months instead?"
"Can we get another...?" Yeah, it does happen for some movies. Thankfully for us, I feel like- Maybe it was because we shut down for four months in the middle of our shoot as well, I feel like we really took those four months, and Destin was really honing the script and making it even better. And by the time we came back in July, we had a script with a very different ending than the one that we had initially. Everything had tightened, and the beats were there. It actually ended up really benefiting our movie to have had that little bit of extra time. When the reshoots came around, it was actually very simple stuff, just tweaking little story beats here and there, and filling in little gaps. But for the most part, what we shot was phenomenal.
Your audition process involved two scenes from Good Will Hunting. What were the scenes?
One was Will and Minnie Driver's character at the racetrack. They're dating, and she's just like, "I don't know how your mind works, you're so smart." And he's goofing off, talking about how he has thirteen brothers. Because she's also wondering, why haven't I met your family yet? And Will – if you know anything about that character, he's had a very, very contentious relationship with his dad, he's not really in touch with his family – and he just deflects, deflects, deflects. He's someone who's constantly running away from his past. Ooh, spoiler! Is that what this character is doing? Are we sensing a parallel? So he's like, “Oh, yeah, I got eleven brothers, I got Marty, Ricky, Bobby, Jerry, Jeffy...” He's listing them off.
The second one is a bit more serious of a scene, where it's him and that same character played by Minnie Driver, breaking up. When she says, "Tell me you don't love me, and I'll stop caring!" And he says, "I don't love you." Even though we know, the audience knows, he loves her deeply. It's such a beautiful scene, and much more dramatic and intense. Really great scenes, one of my favourite movies, impossible to do without a without a Bostonian accent. Impossible. Especially when he's listing off the names. So I couldn't help but deliver the lines with a tiny bit of Matt Damon affectation, which you're not supposed to do as an actor. In class, if you're doing scenes from a movie that's already out, the most unoriginal thing you can do is copy everything that the actor did, right? But it's so hard, especially if you love a movie, and the delivery of certain lines have been seared into your brain. You just get it.
Well you know what, Simu? It's not your fault. It's not your fault. It's not your fault.
Ugh! Don't eff with me!
See, this is why they didn't put us in same room, because right now we'd be hugging.
We'd be hugging.
And they don't want that in a pandemic.
I feel it. I felt the hug. I felt you getting closer to me as you were saying it, and I appreciate that.
Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings is out now in UK cinemas. New episodes of the Empire Podcast arrive weekly on Fridays – read more here.