When I first heard about Canadian Asian actor Simu Liu it was the same time I saw an article about Kim’s Convenience premiering on Canada’s CBC network. And as many of you would know as soon as I see a show starring Asians, I start to pop with excitement because it is another opportunity to be represented and be visible – Kim’s Convenience delivered just that as the story revolves around a Canadian Korean family who owns a convenience store in downtown Toronto. Simu plays “Jung” the eldest son of the Kim clan who has been estranged from his father “Appa” Kim due to stealing some money as a youth, so “Jung” works as a co-manager of a car rental company. However, he has a relationship with his mom “Amma” Kim and his younger sister “Janet”.
Anyways, I had the opportunity to speak with Simu over Skype a month ago, and I must say what a humble guy he is, understating all his achievements thus far. Not only is he easy on the eyes (yes you all know I would notice it), but he is incredible in terms of how fast he has progressed in his acting career and how being able to fluently speak Mandarin has provided him with ample opportunities. So without further adieu, here is my interview with Simu Liu.
How did you get into acting? And when was your big break?
Before I got into acting I did what any stereotypical Chinese son would do – I became an accountant, even though I have always wanted to try acting. At the time I was laid off and unemployed and thought it was either now or never with regards to trying acting. So I browsed through Craigslist for any work as extras and an ad for extras in Toronto for film Pacific Rim caught my eye so I applied and was successful in getting the part as an extra. Even though I was only an extra, the entire experience blew me away and I decided after that experience that I would be serious in pursuing an acting career. I started by checking various sites every day (including Craigslist) for any opportunities that I could audition for, and did enough work (all small parts) to build my acting portfolio which led to my big break in series “Blood and Water”.
Blood and Water was filmed in Toronto and I stood out to the casting directors for the series because I spoke fluent mandarin (as it was geared towards a Canadian Chinese audience). So really, my big break started with my skills in being bilingual as well as a lot of luck – and a year later I got the role as “Jung Kim” in Kim’s Convenience.
Blood and Water is more of a serious show where Kim’s Convenience touches on identity/family issues but is essentially a drama, how do you prepare for the different extreme of genres?
It wasn’t too difficult for me because my character “Jung” in Kim’s Convenience is very similar to who I am and who I was growing up as an Asian kid in Canada. What I mean is basically my character grew up in the idea of a world which was separate to the one of his parents – this is also exactly the same as my own experience. So essentially I played my role with not too many difficulties due to its similarities to myself. As a kid growing up I had an extremely tumultuous relationship with my own parents and like my character Jung was not able to find a place of belonging. In high school I ran away from home for a week, and where this is nothing compared to how Jung is estranged from his father, I can’t help but see the similarities.
On the other hand, Blood and Water was a very dark and serious role. I played the character of a paedophile who molested his younger brother as a kid, and these scars are brought up to the surface, and this makes my character struggle with the “paedophile” condition. For me to even act as this character, I had to do quite a bit of research and had to understand some of the hard wiring issues of paedophiles and how many who have the condition need to keep it secret. I am not excusing it because clearly it’s extremely terrible, but for me to be able to effectively play this type of character I really had to delve into dark research in this area.
Does Canada have a diversity issue?
Good question. I would say yes it does, however it is not as glaring as say how it is in the US. In Canada, film and TV will tend to go the safe route and are extremely risk averse. It is extremely difficult to give new talent or an “Asian” show a chance. They tend to replicate the same/safe themes and most of the time that does not include us Asians or people of colour. That is why its such great progress to see how well Kim’s Convenience has done as well as Blood and Water.
How have Canadian audiences taken to the show since it aired last year? How has Asian Canadian audiences responded?
Extremely positive, and before I go on, I need to say that in Canada, Asians are the #1 visible group in the country, unlike the US where it is the black and Latino communities. The show has received great ratings and this is expected to replicate when season 2 airs. The other interesting fact is that it is not only the Canadian Asian story, but it is also the Canadian immigrant story and so our audience base was much more broader than just the Asian community. All immigrants share the same intergenerational issues, and this is why Kim’s Convenience has managed to pull excellent ratings. With regards to Canadian Asian audiences, for the most part it has been positive and a lot of that is due to the great promotions done by the CBC Network, particularly during the Toronto International Film Festival where you couldn’t go past a subway without seeing an ad for the show.
So let’s talk a bit about your role in NBC’s Taken, and how have you “taken” to that role (no pun intended)?
I actually auditioned for the role in Toronto, and I play the character of Faaron, an ex CIA agent whose job is to act quickly in support of the team on the ground, so I am more of a tech analyst. Unfortunately I do not get to be in any of the action scenes or hold a weapon, but I enjoy every bit of my character. I am also the only Canadian actor in the series and most of my scenes were filmed in Toronto. When I started acting in Taken I was just finishing filming Blood and Water, which you would think is ok, but I was also still shooting Kim’s Convenience so between the 2 it was a 6 week overlap period.
Where do you see yourself in 5 – 10 years’ time?
I tend to capitalise on the moment, but in short I see myself as the first Canadian Asian actor to make it in Hollywood and represent diversity as well as break the negative stereotypes of Asian men in Hollywood.
What would your advice be to the younger generations of Asian Canadians on how they can pursue a career in film and TV considering it is a difficult industry to get into.
It is actually a great time to pursue a career in this field as Asians, as we can do many roles which can’t be done by white people, and this is a huge difference between Canada and the US. Also there will be an increase demand for our faces to be more visible. Also I would say not to shy away from our own Asian communities and try to understand your own culture and identity. Go and seek out a mentor, that helps a lot, and I was lucky to be able to spend time with Ken Jeong whilst in LA who gave me so much advice and I definitely see him as a mentor in many ways. Also being in film and TV is not just about being an actor so I would suggest going out and learning about screen and script writing and other areas of this industry.