Simu Liu is everywhere. In the past year, the CBC star turned Marvel action hero has hosted SNL, ruled Celebrity Jeopardy!, released a bestselling memoir and helped design a luxury condo. But his actual superpower? Using his newly acquired celebrity to make the world a better place
Most of the time, it’s reasonable to assume that what happens in Vegas stays there. But, when you’re Simu Liu, what happens in Vegas gets captured for posterity on dozens of cellphone cameras and uploaded to TikTok and Instagram for the enjoyment of millions of fans. That was the case this past October, when Liu and his two BFFs headed to the city of sin for a quick bros’ trip. It had been an intense stretch for Liu—movie premieres, promotional appearances, hosting gigs, the launch of his memoir, film shoots, guest appearances, a celeb basketball tournament and some heartache. The actor was long overdue for downtime and a getaway with his boys, all pals he’s known since high school. They hung out poolside at VIP resorts, caught Usher’s residency at Caesars Palace (where they belted out every word) and ogled the ersatz Eiffel Tower at Paris Las Vegas.
One night, wowed by Cirque du Soleil’s Michael Jackson–themed extravaganza at Mandalay Bay, Liu joined the cast onstage for an impromptu stunt. He’d hoped to take a quick selfie with the performers after the ovation, but when the curtains drew back, he discovered a sea of faces waiting to meet him. Dressed in jeans, sneakers and a T-shirt, surrounded by acrobats in form-fitting white costumes, natty suits and bedraggled neon, he led the crew on a crisp count of one, two—before he even reached three, Liu and a half-dozen others effortlessly flipped backward into the air, landing in a low crouch on one knee, one arm stretched outward: an archetypal superhero stance.
Liu has been in the spotlight for a while now, ever since he starred as Jung Kim, the prodigal son on the CBC hit Kim’s Convenience. In Toronto coffee shops, a steady stream of fans would approach him, hoping for selfies. During a visit to his old high school, he was mobbed by students outside the auditorium and wound up signing a kid’s forehead. Old Spice deemed him enough of a Canuck icon to dress him in buffalo plaid and hand him an axe for some sandalwood-scented social media sponcon. But he could still, say, make it through a leisurely Lunar New Year meal with his parents at a low-key Chinese restaurant in a Mississauga strip mall. Then he became Shang-Chi, the titular character in Marvel’s first Asian-led superhero blockbuster, in September 2021. Shang-Chi exploded pandemic-era box office expectations, and suddenly Liu’s face was everywhere: endlessly looping YouTube trailers, branded Lego, Instagram and Twitter blasts, a Funko Pop! bobblehead doll, a massive billboard in Times Square. To date, the film has grossed more than $432 million (US) worldwide.
Since then, things have only gotten wilder. In the past year, the ridiculously likable actor—and the Marvel superhero most likely to win the hearts of boomer moms—has become ubiquitous: he hosted Saturday Night Live and Jimmy Kimmel Live, crooned Backstreet Boys tunes alongside Game of Thrones actor Jessica Henwick on Carpool Karaoke, toured houses with reality darling Chrishell Stause on Selling Sunset, won the quarter-finals of Celebrity Jeopardy!—where he nailed an obscure geography question about Vatican City and donated $30,000 to Stop AAPI Hate (his charity of choice)—and extolled the wonders of the Google Pixel 6 as an official brand ambassador, speaking fluent Mandarin with his actual parents in an actually entertaining ad. Time named him one of the year’s 100 most influential people; at the celebratory bash, Liu drank bubble tea with Bill Gates and chatted with one person who mapped the human genome and another who organized the first Amazon workers’ union. He’s even signed on to help design a luxury 69-storey condo near Yonge and Dundas, offering his brand power in exchange for collaborating with the developers and designer Elaine Cecconi on the look and amenities of the project (key points: make it dog friendly, use colour and lighting to add warmth, beef up the gym, and donate to Covenant House).
On top of all that, his social life has been dizzying—marking his 33rd birthday on a yacht in Ibiza, chilling with Donatella Versace (who designed his custom lucky-red Atelier Versace tux) at the Vanity Fair Oscars after-party, busting moves to Billie Eilish with America’s Best Dance Crew contenders the Kinjaz—all meticulously documented on Instagram. In November, he was a walking thirst trap on the runway of Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty lingerie fashion show, which aired on Amazon Prime and featured other A-listers like Cara Delevingne and Taraji P. Henson. And, lest you write him off as all style, no substance: Liu defies expectations even on socials, disrupting his aspirational streams with neurotic confessions (the algorithm won’t let him forget about his anxious attachment style), open calls for drop-in volleyball recommendations (attention: greater LA blockers) and impassioned odes to Toronto’s Jamaican patties.
We first met on Zoom while he was in Los Angeles, still buzzing after his Kimmel stint and gearing up to shoot his first villain role, opposite J.Lo, in the Netflix movie Atlas. A couple of days earlier, he’d been in Birmingham, Alabama, attending a gala for KultureCity, a non-profit promoting sensory inclusion (he recently joined the board). Given the hectic timing and the strict instructions I’d received, I expected a crew of handlers to micromanage the call. Instead, Liu logged in on his own, fiddling with a headset in a tranquil, nondescript office tucked somewhere in the boxy, vaguely brutalist five-bedroom Hollywood Hills home he bought last year for $5 million (US)—the listing described the house as “sexy architectural.” At nearly 5,000 square feet, it stands as a monument to what Liu has gained by becoming a superhero. But he confesses that all this success has come at a cost.
On September 3, exactly one year after the release of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Liu shared some sombre reflections with his 2.9 million Instagram followers. He admitted that he’d been “woefully unprepared” to deal with his Marvel-conferred celebrity and that he’d neglected to pay attention to his mental health. After filming four movies—including Greta Gerwig’s super-buzzy Barbie and Arthur the King, a canine-centric caper with Mark Wahlberg—in just a few months, he was feeling wrecked. “I’ve barely had time to breathe because I’ve been so afraid of taking my foot off the gas,” he acknowledged. “I was SO obsessed with the idea of taking up space and representing for my community that I worked myself nearly to exhaustion.” Going forward, he insisted, something had to change. Even his Hollywood friends urged him to take a break. Reflecting on the post, he tells me that he felt utterly burnt out and at his breaking point. What did he need? A breather? A therapy session? A hug?
On the surface, the transformation of an insecure immigrant kid into a real-life superhero seems like a direct arc from “Once upon a time” to “Happily ever after.” But, as Liu can now attest, the real story is much more complicated. The title of his memoir—another recent accomplishment, which he published in May, at the seasoned age of 33—is We Were Dreamers. Taken one way, it’s a nod to his family’s ferocious determination to build a life in North America after immigrating from China. Taken another, it can be read as cautionary: Okay, so we chased a dream. What do we do after that dream comes true? He’s still figuring out how to answer that question.
Even the most ambivalent superhero needs an origin story. Liu was born in Harbin, the chilly capital city of Heilongjiang, a province in northeastern China, on April 19, 1989—nine months after his parents indulged in a date night at the newly opened KFC in Beijing. His mother, Zheng, and his father, Zhenning, met in an engineering program at university in Beijing. After graduating, they decided that his dad would secure a spot in a PhD program in North America and subsequently sponsor his mom. Soon after Liu was born, his dad headed to grad school in Tempe, Arizona. In the spring of 1991, as Liu was about to turn two, Zheng joined her husband and found a job as a dishwasher. By then, Liu’s dad had switched to a program at Queen’s University, in Kingston. The two focused their energy on setting up a life in Ontario while Liu stayed back in Harbin with his paternal grandparents. His parents would come get him when their life in Canada was ready.
That turned out to be in January 1994, when Liu was nearly five. Suddenly, he was living with relative strangers in a place where he didn’t speak the language. For Liu, as for so many first-generation Chinese Canadian kids whose parents made agonizing compromises to chase a better life, that geographical and emotional rupture was formative: it severed his core attachments, created a sense of displacement, and had lasting effects on his relationships with his mother and father.
In Kingston and later in Mississauga, where they moved when Liu was around 12, his parents connected with other Asian families. Their friends’ children became benchmarks by which to gauge their own kid’s relative merits: How seamlessly had he adapted to his new city, his new culture? Was he fluent in English? Did he practise piano with sufficient rigour? Were his math skills on track for an Ivy League future? Liu, a smart kid who relished positive affirmation, did his best to live up to their expectations. But, as he has recounted, he invariably fell short. “If I tripped on my laces, I was clumsy. If I scored below an A, I was stupid. If I wanted to hang out with my friends, I was wasting my time,” he wrote in a 2017 essay for Maclean’s.
Still, he kept trying his best to deliver. In Grade 6, along with over a thousand other offspring of zealously ambitious parents, he weathered the entrance exams for University of Toronto Schools, the notoriously rigorous U of T–affiliated “laboratory school” whose alumni include Nobel winners John Polanyi and Michael Spence and former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum. Liu made the cut. With its stately building, British boarding-school vibe, intimate classes, eccentric staff and four-house system—not to mention the fact that he had to take the train from Mississauga every day—UTS struck Liu as an IRL version of Hogwarts.
The school was (and still is) diverse. Many of Liu’s peers shared the experience of being the children of immigrants and could identify with the complexities of navigating parental relationships and expectations across a vast cultural chasm. As at Hogwarts, the school’s unique character could be validating for the members of its student body who felt like outsiders. That ethos and Liu’s deep desire to connect with people who would see and appreciate him for who he was galvanized lasting bonds: his current assistant, Jason Chan, was his high-school best friend. And, to this day, Liu’s Instagram features many of the same faces that appear alongside his own mean-mugging photo in their graduating yearbook. Underneath his neon-studded collection of photos in Vegas, he wrote, “I’ve known these dudes for 21 years, through heartbreak, tragedy, loss, successes and triumphs, and really shitty luck at the blackjack table, our friendship has endured and deepened.” He ended the caption with a heart emoji and a declaration: “Now that’s a fucking love story.”
UTS was also where Liu became attuned to his physicality and love of performing. He joined the basketball, volleyball and football teams, bulked up and formed his own NSYNC knock-off called LX4 (all four members had surnames that started with L). Carole Bernicchia-Freeman, one of the school’s guidance counsellors during Liu’s early-aughts tenure, remembers him as being in constant motion. Liu was also unfailingly polite, even in stilted interactions. Bernicchia-Freeman bore witness to some of his earliest performances, including “For You,” the LX4 crew’s lovelorn contribution to Twig Tape, the school’s annual musical compilation. In the song, Liu, the “self-proclaimed heartthrob” (his words, not mine), croons along with the rest of his crew in a pinched tenor: “I’m just askin’ for a glance. / Smash this shield of mine…Can’t you just take a little time / to push me away?” Swoon.
Still, Liu describes high school as “the worst fucking time of my life.” In theory, he was coming into his own. In practice, his developing sense of self (and its attendant priorities, which didn’t necessarily include getting top marks) caused friction at home. Teen defiance fed his parents’ mounting antagonism. What began as bickering over unsatisfactory grades and a lack of focus escalated into verbal and physical altercations—a smack from his mom for cursing in frustration, a pummelling from his dad for being distracted by a girl. When the relentless fighting wore down Liu’s resolve and left him in tears, his father berated him. Their relationship had become so strained by the time Liu was 16 that he couldn’t bring himself to go home after school.
For nearly a week, he crashed with friends, continuing to attend class. Eventually, his dad tracked him down. “We’ll work it out,” he promised in a brief, contrite phone call. With nowhere else to go and no way of supporting himself, Liu reluctantly returned. He half-heartedly acquiesced to his parents’ vision, boosting his average to buy himself the freedom to cultivate his newfound passions for breakdancing and tricking (a mash-up of martial arts and gymnastics)—and, ultimately, the freedom to escape.
For Liu, that meant enrolling in the business management and organizational studies program at Western University’s prestigious Ivey Business School. He convinced his parents that he was interested in the school’s business pedigree. Truthfully, Liu was more amped about the school’s partying pedigree and the prospect of living two hours away from home. He honed his superfrosh mojo and joined a competitive hip-hop dance troupe. When his middling grades failed to impress potential employers, he relied on brazen charisma (and crashed a summer job fair at Ivey’s rival institution, U of T’s Rotman School of Management). Eventually, he was hired as an accountant at Deloitte. And it was this plum job—or, more accurately, his inevitable failure nine months into the role—that changed the course of Liu’s life.
An armchair psychologist might note that Liu achieved his first real breakthrough by playing a conflicted son. This was in 2014, when he was cast as Paul Xie, the scion of an astronomically wealthy real-estate developer, in the Omni.2 murder drama Blood and Water. That show was crucial for many reasons: Liu’s character was fluently bilingual, which required the actor to brush up on his childhood Mandarin—which spurred him, at 25, to start the slow process of repairing his relationship with his parents after a decade of tumult. (The fact that Blood and Water was an ongoing paid gig helped matters.) By the second season, he was invited to participate in the writer’s room, which cemented his desire to shape stories behind the camera. That same year, he performed in a Factory Theatre production of Banana Boys, the all-Asian ensemble play based on Terry Woo’s 1998 novel of the same name, which remains a vital and rare deconstruction of the tropes around Asian masculinity.
Finally, Liu could start thinking about his acting career with an intentionality he couldn’t afford when he was desperately combing through classified ads in search of auditions. It was around this time, too, that he experienced a kind of creative awakening when he saw a Soulpepper production of Ins Choi’s play Kim’s Convenience, in 2015. For the first time, he was watching his own lived experience: his father’s anger, their shared disappointment, their struggle to connect, the weight of his parents’ expectations. He sat, stunned, after the curtain call. When he later found out that the CBC was turning the play into a sitcom, he leaped at the chance to audition. And, when he got the offer to join the cast, he wept. The opportunity proved transformative. Over five seasons, the role provided a vehicle to process some of his own father-son dynamics, and the massive popularity of the show made him a star. By 2018, he and fellow Kim’s actor Andrew Phung were able to rally fans to help sell out an opening-weekend screening of Crazy Rich Asians, the first modern movie to feature an all-Asian cast since The Joy Luck Club, at the Yonge-Dundas Square Cineplex. The two arrived to a chorus of cheers—though neither was actually in the movie—and hung out with the crowd for hours afterward.
As Liu spent more time inhabiting his character and engaging with the show’s enthusiastic fandom, he became more attuned to the nuances of representation—and to how the show seemed to be drifting away from the ethos of Choi’s play. By the third season, in 2019, he and his castmates were travelling across the country. On promotional tours, as they fielded questions about diversity, he recognized that he had an opportunity to engage in a kind of advocacy and that the stories they were telling in the show were a vital part of this project. When Kim’s abruptly ended following its fifth season, Liu let loose on Facebook, sounding off on pay inequity (the cast was paid “absolute horsepoop”
compared with that of Schitt’s Creek), culturally ignorant writing and white gatekeepers.
Liu tells me he wrestled with the decision to speak up. He didn’t want to be vindictive, but he found the circumstances of Kim’s cancellation to be so upsetting—and so representative of broader diversity issues within the entertainment industry—that he couldn’t keep quiet, even if it invited backlash. After the Globe and Mail’s John Doyle accused Liu of “mean-spirited drive-by insults,” many of his castmates backed Liu up. Even the CBC seemed hard-pressed to refute the fact that the show had suffered from a dearth of Asian voices in the writers’ room. The whole thing made Liu vow that, whatever his next project was, he would push for a formal seat at the decision-making table. He would use whatever power afforded by his stardom, however ephemeral that might be, to ensure that the roles he committed to felt authentic.
As it turned out, his next big breakthrough was as a magic-rings-wielding superhero who, in his original ’70s iteration, spoke in a stilted syntax and battled his evil dad, Fu Manchu. When Liu first considered the character, he was totally turned off: “It just felt kind of reductive and, you know, not true to life and not anything that I could relate to.” But Marvel Studios promised to reinvent Shang-Chi, to directly address its own history of anti-Asian stereotypes, and to put the franchise in the hands of an Asian American writer and director.
There’s a scene in Shang-Chi that epitomizes how this kind of input results in subtle but crucial change. It has nothing to do with the martial arts choreography or the Chinese mythology that informs the hero’s origin story. The scene happens early on, when Liu’s Shang-Chi swings by to have breakfast with his best bud (played by Awkwafina), whose cramped apartment is home to three generations of family. The telling detail isn’t that Liu’s character removes his shoes before entering—it’s the way he patiently listens and engages, shifting between Mandarin and English, as his friend’s waipo (grandmother) describes her plans for the Day of the Dead. In real life, Liu’s grandparents died after contracting Covid in 2021. He had planned to take them to the movie’s premiere, to hold their hands as they watched him on the big screen for the first time. He tears up as he tries to pinpoint what’s happening in the scene. “It’s so deeply ingrained: our elders are everything. I was raised by my grandparents—I always…” For a moment, he trails off. “I always coveted them.”
To Liu, it was essential that the character didn’t come across as some crazy grandma in the corner, communing with imaginary ghosts and providing comic relief for the audience. He wanted them to instead see how such women hold the wisdom of a Chinese family’s collective generations, how they are the guardians of tradition. “I needed the audience to see me fully present with her and to feel that reverence,” he says. He needed them to see how special that love could be.
Since May 17, a pinned post has crowned the top of Liu’s Twitter feed. It’s a photo triptych: in one shot, his mom, masked, stands outside a bookstore, holding aloft a copy of his memoir; the two other pictures show her pointing to the book on the Indigo bestseller shelves. The caption—“Guys I think I finally made her proud”—is equal parts funny and true. It’s not that Liu’s parents don’t recognize the magnitude of Shang-Chi (and at least some of their son’s other IMDb credits). But a bestselling book holds far more weight with his parents—as it does with him. We Were Dreamers speaks to a drive that has become more central in his life and work.
In the book, Liu draws the connection between his familial discord and his parents’ experiences coming of age in post-Mao China—finding both empathy and forgiveness by viewing his own trauma through the lens of their complex histories. He’s also sanguine about the role he played in their fraught dynamic. Even so, Liu unflinchingly and candidly discusses the abuse his parents inflicted on him, particularly during his teens. He decided to interview them about the family’s painful past, bracing himself for some tough conversations. His parents, dismayed by Liu’s insistence on airing their dirty laundry, fretted that he was portraying them as monsters. Liu, meanwhile, was surprised by how little they were able to recall.
“When the trauma is being inflicted on you, it’s so visceral,” he says. “You remember the exact words that were said; you remember the hotness on your face after someone strikes you. For my parents, I think they had been caught up in the heat of the moment, and then it was gone.” They initially challenged his recollections and fought against the notion that they had been abusive. “Their whole thing was like, We did 99 per cent good and one per cent bad. How can you use the one per cent to negate the time and the effort and the love that we put into you?” he says. “This is not the perfect
analogy, but I was like, Murderers only commit murder 0.0001 per cent of the time, but that act of murder makes them a murderer.”
Listening to Liu reflect on his family’s story in such matter-of-fact terms is bracing. It’s hard to imagine many other stars—particularly male stars, notably ones who made their mark in a Marvel superhero movie, especially at this point in their careers—talking with such candour about abuse, emotional trauma and therapy. The upshot is that, in recent years, Liu has also been able to offer unvarnished glimpses of his family’s newfound closeness: in May, he flew his folks to London, England, as a kind of do-over of a miserable trip they’d taken in his teens; in September, he hooked them up with a brand new Tesla. He periodically trolls them online, claiming that they read his tweets more often than they talk to him.
This kind of openness—be it discussing the slow healing after abuse or sharing a pic of the swanky cream interior of his parents’ new “Tessie”—is an essential part of Liu’s broader mission: to see the Asian community seize control of its own narratives. His argument is that, over time, people of Asian and Pacific Island heritage have been scapegoated. Think of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the internment of Japanese Canadians, the stigma first of SARS and now of Covid. One of the ways to fix that, he believes, is to stop shying away from politics, public platforms and personal stories. “We need to peel back the stereotypes and generalizations to get to the core of who we really are,” he says. “Vulnerability begets vulnerability.”
Over the past two years, Liu’s life has taken so many surreal turns that he’s been thinking a lot about how to harness this huge momentum. In November 2021, while hosting Saturday Night Live, he had what he describes as an out-of-body experience. On the tiny stage, he heard the announcer rattle off cast members. “And then I heard, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Simu Liu,’” he recalls. “I transcended the universe in that moment.” That same month, he cozied up with Big Bird to introduce Ji-Young, the very first Asian American Muppet on Sesame Street. He visited the Rockies in subzero temperatures with rugged icon Bear Grylls, who somehow convinced him to lick a frozen maggot. (Liu’s task was to resuscitate it; he succeeded.) In May, he did a passable Shawn Mendes impersonation while hosting the Juno Awards. Thanks to his two-episode arc on Selling Sunset, he’s officially a recurring character—an opportunity that came about after he answered Chrishell Stause’s tweet asking how to gently reject a guy, then added that he might be in the market to buy. The thing he’s most excited about, though, may be his executive producer credit on Seven Wonders, the Indiana Jones–meets–Da Vinci Code series he’s also starring in and developing for Amazon Prime. It’s that elusive seat at the table.
In Liu’s grad blurb, that collection of painstakingly curated bon mots meant to summarize a person’s essence in their final high school yearbook, there’s a curious bit of wisdom from advice columnist Ann Landers wedged between quotes from Star Trek: The Next Generation and Mark Twain. “If you have love in your life, it can make up for a great many things you lack,” the line reads. “If you don’t have it, no matter what else there is, it’s not enough.” Right now, it seems, Liu is still searching. He may hold court with millions on social media, but that’s not enough. After years of determined communication and repair, he has a strong relationship with his parents. The newest love of his life is his dog, Chopa, a tawny mutt with soulful eyes whom he adopted while filming Arthur the King in the Dominican Republic. And he’s deeply committed to his friends—especially the ones who have known him since his days as a high school boy-band wannabe. He works hard to maintain those relationships, keenly aware that anyone who meets him now is meeting a different, but not necessarily better, version.
Other relationships, like the one he has with himself, are more tenuous. In one revealing tweet from October 8, he asks, in his typical vulnerable fashion, “Wouldn’t it be great if in high school instead of the quadratic equation I had learned to love myself instead?” For all the doors it’s opened, fame has been isolating and jarring for Liu. When he was young, he says, he felt invisible and anonymous and yearned to be seen. Now, he wishes, not always but sometimes, for the option of passing through life unnoticed. Every so often, he says, he gets a look from a fan—or gets tailed by merciless autograph hounds after a book reading—and he’s reminded that he no longer fully belongs to himself. Becoming a human action figure can do a lot, but it doesn’t solve everything. “He has fears and doubts, just like anyone,” says Meng’er Zhang, who played Shang-Chi’s sister Xu Xialing and has become the equivalent of a sibling IRL.
Therapy, which Liu was excited to start at the end of August, is helping. He goes weekly to talk about whatever’s on his mind. “Quite honestly pretty incredible that I get to force someone to listen to my problems once a week and occasionally provide input??” he tweeted shortly after starting. A week later, he elaborated, half-joking: “You guys realize your life doesn’t have to be on the verge of total collapse to be in therapy right? Like you can literally talk about whatever you want. Like I can spend a session talking about my one friend who borrows way too much money. He knows who he is.”
In his September post marking the anniversary of Shang-Chi’s release, Liu touched on his revamped priorities. “I’m healing,” he offered, adding that he’s on his way to becoming something more than a superhero. This journey involves figuring out how to become what he described as a “good and decent man.” If his earlier projects gravitated toward exploring complex Asian family dynamics, his newer ones tend to defy stereotypes about Asian men—namely that they’re dorks as opposed to sexy, well-rounded love interests. To that end, he also transformed himself into a literal Asian Ken doll. When we speak, he’s still coming off the high of working on the Barbie movie. He refuses to shatter the near-mythic aura of mystery around the film but offers this: “I love the messaging. Something like whoever you are, you can be the best version of whatever that is.”
It isn’t lost on Liu that he’s still working out how to be the best version of himself. He’s still fighting against the anxiety of imposter syndrome and against his own upbringing, which taught him to keep his head down, do the work and not tweet things like “Between my childhood traumas, random Star Wars trivia and me caring way too much about the opinions of strangers on the internet, real estate in my brain is going fast!! Secure your spot with a dehumanizing tweet TODAY! I’ll be thinking about it for way longer than I should!” He’s still figuring out what it means to use his voice and what he wants to do with all his fame. And he’s still trying to overcome the feeling that, if he doesn’t keep saying yes to every big opportunity, if he doesn’t exhaust himself with 5 a.m. call times, 16-plus-hour days and punishing workouts, his star could dim and the offers could disappear. For most of his life, Liu has been reacting against opposing forces. But he’s finally ready to discover what it feels like to follow his gut and just act.