Simu Liu sits down to talk to GLORY about representation in the world of entertainment and sport, his friendship with Raptors point guard Jeremy Lin, and his status as Old Spice Canada’s newest ambassador.
Wearing a red leather jacket layered over a white tee, the breakout star of CBC’s Kim’s Convenience, Simu Liu, exudes charm, style, and a down to earth nature when we meet at a downtown Toronto office. Liu’s journey so far has been a very relatable story of soul-searching. Not too long ago, he was an accountant in one of the five dozen towers that surround us now. At our meeting, he has just returned from a Starbucks run downstairs where the barista was freaking out over meeting him — a now daily occurrence that is still surreal to him.
Kim’s Convenience is a game changer for Canadian television too with a majority Asian Canadian cast, and having grown in popularity even more after being released on Netflix in July of 2018.
“Everybody belongs, and especially in a country like Canada, I think that’s really quintessential to our identity, this feeling of everybody belongs, no matter where they come from,” said Liu.
Last year, the month of August was referred to as “Asian August” by publications like HuffPost, Variety, and more because of the number of projects that showcased diverse Asian talent including Crazy Rich Asians, To all the Boys I’ve Loved Before, and John Cho’s Searching.
“This was the first time collectively, that Asian-Americans and Asian-Canadians, we felt like we were gaining steam, before that there were mostly loose conversations around diversity, nobody was really ever doing anything, to rally behind it,” said Liu.
“Not just in the entertainment industry, but at large. We’ve been dying to be represented for a long time now. It’s kind of feeling like finally it’s the moment,” said Liu.
Prior to acting, Liu worked as an accountant on Bay Street. But after being let go from his job and doing some soul searching, including a stint as an extra on Guillermo Del Toro’s blockbuster hit Pacific Rim, Liu was swept away by the energy of the entertainment industry and decided to pursue acting full-time.
The career change seems to have worked out just fine. Liu had started filming the fourth season of Kim’s Convenience when we spoke. The show centres around a Korean family and their Convenience store in Toronto, with Liu playing the prodigal son, Jung Kim. Jung’s rebellious teenage years led to him having a strained relationship with his father, their relationship gradually strengthens as the show progresses.
After seeing the play that the show is based on and reading the part, Liu was decidedly moved by the character. Jung’s relationship with his father reminded Liu of the inter-generational conflict he had struggled with his whole life. There were shades of Jung’s relationship with his father that he could relate to. Liu decided if given the opportunity, it was a story he wanted to tell.
“We’ve all never had the opportunity to excel in TV and film, and that’s for a variety of reasons. A part of it is that there haven’t been that many roles written for us. All shooting, showing up, we were all so nervous because we knew what an incredible opportunity it was and how lucky we were. We didn’t want to mess it up,” said Liu.
When the first billboards promoting the show went up around Toronto, Liu admits it was a surreal experience, having never been on a show of this profile before.
“Kim’s Convenience does a really good job of showing life as it is and burying any sort of political message, it’s not very on the nose, we’re not trying to beat anyone over the head, by telling people we’re diverse, we’re different, really it’s about being the same,” said Liu.
Jeremy Lin and Asian Representation
I sit down with Liu coming off the Raptors game with the buzzer beater ending by Kawhi Leonard. Liu who was in the building at the time of the game, described the game as electric.
After multiple playoff attempts over the years by Toronto teams, Liu admits that it’s tough being a Toronto sports fan. The shot that fell for Kawhi, was in particular a sweet moment for a lot of Toronto Raptors fans since Vince Carter’s heartbreaking missed fade away in the 2001 playoffs against the 76ers.
Liu has been a Raptors fan since the Carter days.
Now, he’s friends with Raptors point guard, Jeremy Lin — who Liu met at an event held by the Canadian Chinese Youth Athletic Organization. Lin at the time still played for the Atlanta Hawks and was in town to play the Raptors. Most recently, Liu posted to social media with Lin from atop a double decker bus in the Raptors Championship parade.
The pair participated in a roundtable discussion about what it meant to be an Asian in North America and what it feels like to have that spotlight and responsibility. “We sat down over the course of half an hour and we talked about these issues. It was really enlightening to hear his perspective and how far it had come when he was first in the league,” said Liu.
Lin, who has been the only Asian-American player in the NBA since Rex Walters, would shy away when being asked about being Asian early in his career, wanting to instead shift focus to his merits as a basketball player, but during and following Linsanity (the media furor when he led a winning turnaround for the Knicks in 2012) , the questions weren’t going away.
Lin was recently stopped by security when trying to board his own team’s bus when the Raptors played the Bucks in game two of the Eastern Conference Finals in Milwaukee.The security guard not believing that he played for the Raptors and demanding to see his players pass.
As Liu puts it, “It’s because the world, just isn’t ready to see an Asian-American basketball player, on that stage and stepping into that spotlight.”
Eventually instead of viewing the questions negatively, Lin began to embrace it and use it as a platform. “For the millions of us who live in the Western countries who don’t feel like we’re seen or heard, I guess he kind of saw what an opportunity it was to step into that role rather than see it as a burden or a responsibility,” said Liu.
Representation in television and film is a topic Liu is visibly passionate about. “Can you tell?,” he smiles.
Hearing the way Lin has handled the questions surrounding being the only Asian-American player in the NBA has helped Liu identify his own role within the Asian community. “That was very eye opening for me.It definitely solidified what I needed to do, which is be an ambassador for the community and a real champion of our issues,” said Liu.
As the Raptors claw their way through the championship finals, Liu continues to support his friend.
Old Spice, New Face
Following in the iconic footsteps of Isaiah Mustafa and Terry Crews, Liu is the newest face of Old Spice in Canada. An exciting change, and a positive move by the brand to fight stereotypes that Asian males can’t be sex symbols and leading men.
“When you look around on the streets there’s a lot of really buff, really active Asian dudes walking around,” said Liu.
“I do kind of take pride in being one of the more athletic guys in the room, I think it was at odds with what a lot of people think an Asian person should be.”
If you look at Liu’s Instagram account, he’s got abs for days. In Liu’s eyes, the partnership is the perfect marriage of brand and personality. Old Spice, whose ads typically showcase the notorious shirtless man, speaking about manhood in a humorous way was appealing for Liu.
“I’m glad that we’re finally getting a spotlight on us, and I’m known to enjoy the occasional shirtless selfie because I think we need more of that in the world, more representation of that,” said Liu.
Real freshness, forged from real sandalwood, crammed into 15 seconds. Enjoy. @OldSpice #LumberjackFresh #FresherCollection #SponsoredObviously— Simu Liu (@SimuLiu) May 9, 2019
TO ORDER: https://t.co/xhNXJQ0P6v pic.twitter.com/UUidtkwSEz
“Today, I’m really happy because I am breaking stereotypes as an Asian male, and our show is breaking stereotypes and changing the conversations around diversity and inclusion,” said Liu.
When I ask Liu if he had any final words, the actor couldn’t resist showing some more love for the Raptors, “We The North,” he laughs.