His debut blockbuster, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, is coming this year
You were in the middle of filming the new Marvel movie, Shang-Chi, in Australia when the pandemic hit. What was it like to quarantine down under?
We shut down for four months, but Sydney felt safe. Once we started filming again, it was an amazing experience.
Is there a moment that sticks out?
The first time I tried on Shang-Chi’s superhero suit. Marvel has never had an Asian lead, so that was such a rare and impactful moment, for me as an actor but also for people who look like me. I nearly cried. It was so emotional. And then of course by the fifth day, I was like, Oh my god, I hate this thing, why are there so many zippers?
True or false: you got the gig as Shang-Chi by tweeting at Marvel?
Ha! Well, I can see how it looks that way. In December of 2018, I was coming off my third season of Kim’s Convenience, where I play Jung, and I was thinking I was all hot stuff. The news had just dropped that Marvel was casting for Shang-Chi, and I facetiously tweeted at them, “Hey, are we going to talk or what?” I didn’t have any expectations. With these giant movies, the casting call goes out to hundreds if not thousands all over the world.
Any idea on what clinched it?
Honestly, I think it was having spent four seasons, at that point, on a comedy. Before Kim’s I had booked mostly one-off gigs. Having a regular role meant being able to grow through repetition.
When Kim’s premiered in the fall of 2016, it was the first Canadian show to feature a predominantly Asian cast. Four years later, are we doing any better on diversity?
I think with the success of Crazy Rich Asians and The Farewell, we’re getting to the point where it’s normalizing. People often describe Kim’s as “groundbreaking,” which it is, but at the same time, can you imagine what it’s like for an Asian person to constantly be told you’re groundbreaking just for existing? It just goes to show how deprived we were of that representation before. I hope we’re getting to the point where it’s no longer groundbreaking just to be on screen—it’s groundbreaking to be a solid and talented performer.
A lot of TV actors book the big movie and leave their old gig in the dust. Was that something you considered?
My schedule definitely looks a lot different now than it did a few years ago, but I’m very aware that Kim’s is the reason I got the movie. The experience and the mentors I’ve had over the five seasons have been incredible, and I still think there’s a lot to do with my character, so my hope is to be able to continue.
You grew up in Mississauga, and later worked as an accountant at Deloitte. Now you’re famous. What’s been your most Hollywood experience so far?
I had dinner with Angelina Jolie at Comic-Con in San Diego, which was pretty cool. It was at a Marvel event—she was there for an announcement about her movie, Eternals. She came in with her kids and her team, but there was nowhere to sit except at my table. We had a great conversation. I don’t think my life has ever gotten more Hollywood than that. Moments like that are of course wonderful—I feel like I’m reaping the benefits of all these years of hard work and late nights of intense frustration—but I’m not focused on that stuff so much as I am on thinking about this huge platform that I have and how I can help amplify other voices.
You’ve said that taking your shirt off can be a political act. How so?
Asians have never been portrayed as the romantic lead. We’re always the dorky sidekick. These are really harmful depictions, so I want to fly in the face of that and challenge people to update their thinking about what Asian people look like, what we sound like and what we can do. If that means taking my shirt off every once in a while…
So be it! In a Marvel smackdown between Shang-Chi, Iron Man, the Incredible Hulk and the Black Widow, who wins?
I win! Shang-Chi. I could debate this as a fan for hours, but now that I’ve got some skin in the game, I have to think I could take any of these guys on. Shang-Chi can definitely throw a punch. As for his other skills and powers, you’ll have to wait and see.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.