Simu Liu discussed the importance of representation, and his work with UNICEF Canada at the TIME100 Talks on Jan. 29, 2021. Credit - UNICEF Canada
A Chinese-Canadian actor as the face of a Marvel superhero franchise? That’s not the world Simu Liu grew up in.
But that’s the world Liu is making this year. “I can be someone I didn’t have as a kid,” the actor tells TIME100 Talks He’s talking about the upcoming Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, the first Marvel Cinematic Universe movie starring a hero of Asian descent, due out in July. The Kim’s Convenience actor will play the titular character, Shang-Chi. And—as his comment suggests—it’s been a long time coming.
“I loved comics as a kid, I loved superheroes, but I really didn’t see myself represented in that space,” he says. “I really hope with this movie, kids who are like me, who grew up similarly, can have that. That’s really the power of representation: seeing yourself on screen and feeling like you’re a part of this world, which for Asian children who have grown up in the West hasn’t always been the case.”
Liu’s leading-man status was not always guaranteed. He got his first film role by answering a Craigslist ad to play an extra in the “deep, deep background” of Pacific Rim when it was shooting in Toronto. Since then, he’s worked hard to develop a place for himself onscreen, never waiting around for a big break.
“If I’ve learned anything, it’s that good things come to those who do,” he says. “I’ve always, from day one, wondered if there was any more that I could do. If a door wasn’t open for me, I was going to build a door, or build a battering ram to barge my way in.”
That tactic seems to have worked: Kim’s Convenience, the critically-acclaimed sitcom about a Korean immigrant family in Canada, just premiered its fifth season on CBC. And Shang-Chi promises to be one of the summer’s marquee blockbuster events, no matter if theaters are open are not.
Friday’s TIME100 Talks also featured conversations with Trip.com Group CEO Jane Soon and Green Monday and OmniFoods founder and CEO David Yeung— along with a performance from K-pop sensation TWICE.
Liu also credits a changing tide in Hollywood for helping open up new opportunities. In particular, 2018’s Black Panther marked a “watershed moment,” he says, especially in conjunction with the success of Crazy Rich Asians the same year. “It was such a great statement to the powers that be in Hollywood to say: ‘We’re here, and we’ve been here, and we love watching movies that represent us, that represent our faces and our stories and our lives,'” he says. “Without the success of Black Panther, I wouldn’t have a job today.”
And although he was once shy about his role as a leader in the push for more representation in Hollywood, that’s changed. “As time went on I felt the need to really take up space, to show people it was OK to be proud of where you came from and to be open about it,” he says. “I don’t do it perfectly, certainly, but I’ve really come to embrace it as a part of my platform.”
Recently, he also started working with UNICEF supporting Canadian youth programs. Because even if Hollywood is making progress now towards improving in diversity, inclusion and representation, especially with movies like The Farewell and Minari showing new sides of the immigrant experience, he is confident that the next generation will have even more to say. “There are no better people that are qualified to reimagine the world than those about to inherit it,” he says. “Can you believe TikTokkers and Gen Z thwarted President Trump? That’s the absolute indicator of what that generation is capable of.”
This article is part of #TIME100Talks, a special series featuring leaders across different fields encouraging action toward a better world. Want more? Sign up for access to more virtual events, including live conversations with influential newsmakers.