TORONTO — Once upon a time, Simu Liu was a Toronto accountant.
But he secretly dreamt of being an actor, and just a few years after leaving Bay Street, Liu is on the brink of movie stardom thanks to being cast as the first Asian superhero to lead a Marvel film.
Marvel Studios announced the news to thousands of fans at San Diego Comic-Con over the weekend, when Liu took the stage to introduce himself as the kung-fu master in “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.”
“This is just the craziest, craziest dream,” Liu says in video taken at the event, which also revealed roles for Hong Kong actor Tony Leung and “Crazy Rich Asians” star Awkwafina.
Chatter around the cast has exploded online, with much of the focus on the relatively unknown Canadian. Marvel promises that Liu will soon become a household name, but until then, here’s a primer on Canada’s rising star.
WHO IS SIMU LIU?
Liu was born in northern China where he was raised by his grandparents while his parents attended Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., he told The Canadian Press back in 2015.
His father returned to China to bring him to Canada when he was five years old: “I remember meeting my father for the first time, and then my mother after I landed at Toronto.”
From there, the family bounced around the Greater Toronto Area, spending time in communities including Etobicoke and Mississauga, Ont.
When he grew older, Liu says his parents pushed him to attend the Ivey School of Business at Western University, even though he really wanted to pursue the arts.
After graduating, Liu got a job on Bay Street but was laid off in 2012 at age 23. He took that as an opportunity to switch gears: “That kind of spiralled into a bunch of happy accidents that allowed me to have opportunities to be an actor.”
WHO IS SHANG-CHI AND WHAT ARE THE TEN RINGS?
Marvel.com describes Shang-Chi as “the undisputed Master of Kung Fu.”
He’s a martial arts expert and the son of a criminal mastermind but grew up unaware of his own father’s villainy, according to the comics.
Shang-Chi was raised in a hidden, ancient fortress in China, where he was trained in several martial arts and became proficient in all forms of fighting — but especially kung fu and bare-handed battle.
He also mastered philosophical disciplines, and could manifest a sense of calm so pronounced that he was able to dodge bullets, adds the site, an exhaustive summary of the comics source material.
The Ten Rings, meanwhile, is a reference to 10 magical rings that were discovered in the wreckage of an alien spaceship by the Mandarin, a power-hungry villain who becomes an archrival to Iron Man.
In the big-screen Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Mandarin leads a global terrorist organization known as the Ten Rings, and its members have appeared in the Iron Man films as well as “Ant-Man.”
Marvel said that character will be played by Leung, who is a veteran star in China but also new to Hollywood.
WHERE HAVE I SEEN LIU BEFORE?
Liu plays the athletic and charismatic son Jung in CBC-TV’s hit sitcom “Kim’s Convenience,” which is also available on Netflix in the United States.
His Korean-Canadian character works at a car-rental company but harbours a rebellious past, and because of that he doesn’t get along with his father, Appa.
Liu’s first major role was in the half-hour OMNI drama “Blood and Water,” a unique noir that featured an all-Chinese ensemble with dialogue in English, Mandarin and Cantonese.
Back when the show premiered in November 2015, he touted the project for putting Asian talent in the spotlight.
“As an Asian Canadian I find it’s really hard to find content in the media that is relatable,” said Liu, whose role included lines in both Mandarin and English.
Before that, Liu logged bit parts in several TV series including “Nikita,” “Warehouse 13,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Taken.”
LIU DIDN’T START OUT ACTING
Like all the big superheroes, Liu forged a secret identity, of sorts — Liu says he pursued acting for months without telling his parents.
“My parents were very, very, not OK with me pursuing the arts and I feel like that’s a very common mindset for parents who are immigrants themselves and who value that kind of stability above everything else,” he said in 2015.
“To throw away a career, a perfectly good career to pursue the arts seems so counter-intuitive to them, which is understandable.”
Liu’s entry into show business came amid an industry-wide push for more racial diversity on the big and small screens, with successes including “Master of None” and “Fresh Off the Boat” offering exciting possibilities for marginalized performers.
Still, Liu pointed to family pressures that made it difficult for him to even consider acting.
“When I booked my first national commercial, the day before it was about to come out I was like, ‘Listen, you’re going to start seeing my face on television, I don’t want you to freak out but this is what I decided to do with my life.'”
LIU HAS CHAMPIONED ASIAN ROLES
Liu has also produced and directed a short film, and worked as a writer on the second season of “Blood and Water.”
“In order for this whole diversity thing to fly, we not only need diverse performers but we do need those writers as well,” he said back in 2015.
And when the Singapore-set feature “Crazy Rich Asians” came out last summer, Liu urged his Twitter followers to join him at a weekend screening to support the romantic comedy.
“It’s the first movie with an all-Asian cast in 25 years and that means something,” said Liu, who did not appear in the film but believed a strong box-office would push Hollywood to make more films with Asian talent.
“I can’t overstate the importance of us showing up as a community, as a crowd.”
Just as Marvel’s “Black Panther” furthered conversations about diversity in big-budget filmmaking, Liu said he believed “Crazy Rich Asians” could highlight the demand and power of Asian audiences.
“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is set to hit theatres Feb. 12, 2021.
— With files from Victoria Ahearn
Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press