Editor’s Letter: What does it mean to have influence?
Many factors go into our annual list of the most influential Torontonians. But, as Simu Liu (No. 1) demonstrates, the most important thing about influence is how you use it
Simu Liu, the actor best known for portraying the Marvel superhero Shang-Chi, is talented, charming, handsome and ubiquitous. But, in an era of financial instability, medical uncertainty and existential unease, is he really the most influential Torontonian of the year? On its face, the idea may seem preposterous. And, were he just a guy in spandex on a sound stage, I’d agree. But consider what Liu represents.
As Sarah Liss writes in her terrific profile, Liu came to Canada as a young boy. He spoke no English and knew very little about the world he’d just entered. Growing up, he felt isolated and underrepresented—an outsider in a society where pretty much every leading man and lady was white. Then, in 2015, Liu saw a Soulpepper production of Ins Choi’s play Kim’s Convenience. It was the story of an Asian Canadian family grappling with race, culture and belonging. In effect, it was his story, reflected back at him. He sat in stunned silence after the performance. A year later, the play became a TV show, with Liu starring as the prodigal son. A prime-time program featuring an all-Asian cast was a breakthrough, but Liu had even bigger ambitions. In a now-famous tweet aimed at Marvel, he suggested they cast an Asian American as their next superhero, and the rest is history. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings has grossed more than $432 million worldwide.
Box office success certainly doesn’t hurt Liu’s case, but it’s not what we think of when we consider his influence. When it comes to compiling these lists, influence can mean different things, and none of them are mutually exclusive.
Sometimes influence is about leadership. Whether you’re ideologically aligned with them or not, Tiff Macklem (No. 2), Doug Ford (3), Chrystia Freeland (4) and John Tory (6) have the power to make big decisions. Sometimes it’s about speaking up (like Lisa LaFlamme, No. 8). Sometimes it’s a function of one’s ability to inspire (like Sarah Polley, director of Women Talking and No. 30) or to effect change (Rick Westhead, 22, and Robyn Doolittle, 43). And sometimes influence is about the size of one’s following, as in the case of Drake (5), Matty Matheson (11) and Scottie Barnes (25).
Liu is our number one because he does all of the above plus a little more. He is a leader in Hollywood, proudly fighting for more Asian representation. He inspires others to act: countless young Asian Canadians will follow his path into the arts. Almost without trying, he entertains and delights wherever he goes (see his hosting of SNL, Jimmy Kimmel Live and the Junos). He’s got a huge heart (see his various charitable endeavours). And he’s now becoming a producer, securing a seat at the table where he can make big decisions about content, budgets and who gets hired.
There’s more: for all of his accomplishments, Liu has shown the world what it means to be imperfect. In between hilarious tweets, he has spoken candidly about the legacy of his tumultuous upbringing, about his overbearing parents with sky-high standards and the pressure he still feels to be an overachiever. He has talked about the burden of representation and the anxiety that comes with being the poster boy for an entire culture. He told the world that he recently had his heart broken and that he’s in therapy.
It’s hard enough to go through adversity in private, never mind on the public stage, and Liu has done it all with grace. When superheroes confess their weaknesses, it sends a powerful message. That’s the kind of influence we can get behind.
Malcolm Johnston is the editor of Toronto Life. He can be found on Twitter at @malcjohnston