Tuesday, April 14, 2015

SUPPLY AND DEMAND: Interview with Simu Liu

Screen shot of Simu Liu from a PSA for Kidney Cancer Canada

As a part of my commitment to illuminating the diversity issue in Hollywood, and also giving the entertainment industry great options for casting, I have been interviewing up and coming minority talent who are deserving of more prominent positions or roles in the industry. Today's interview with Canadian actor Simu Liu not only inspired me, but also really filled me with hope for a better future. Primarily because he articulated so well what I think all people who are endeavoring to change the status quo have been saying. I think Simu has a lot of great things to say, and I won't taint them with too much flowery speech. I'll just let the interview speak for itself. I hope that you enjoy this clear, articulate, powerful, and inspiring interview half as much as I had conducting it. Enjoy!

Simu, How long have you been acting? 
3 years.

What made you transition from Accounting to Acting? 
A series of accidents, honestly. I was laid off from my job in April of 2012, and decided that I'd take some time to just do what I wanted for a while, before I got back on the job hunt. I had always wanted to be an actor, and so began to apply wherever I could to whatever role I could play. I managed to build up a small demo reel after doing a lot of unpaid student work, and paid the bills with my severance package and from being an extra on movie sets. I had never intended on doing this as a career, but I knew that I loved it. On a whim I applied to a small agency that accepted me onto their roster and within a month I had booked a national commercial. As the bookings kept on coming, I slowly realized that I could potentially be a professional actor!

Today, I'm working in the industry, but don't take a moment of it for granted. I never had a theatre school education and so I take as many intensive classes as my funds will allow. Every day I wake up empowered in a way that I never felt as an accountant...I've been tremendously blessed in the industry so far and I can't wait to see what the next three years have in store for me.

Screen shot of Simu Liu in the short film Raider Origins

What was your friends and family's reaction to this choice to change occupations? 
Being an actor or artist of any sort was not an acceptable career path for my family, so I mostly kept everything hidden. The point where I had to sort of 'come out' was when I had a national commercial that I knew was about to air, and I knew that I couldn't keep the secret any longer. Initially, there was a lot of tension between my parents and I, and understandably so because they had invested so much into my education and upbringing. It must have felt like a slap in the face for them, seeing their only child stray from the path that was so carefully carved out for him. They always wanted the best out of me as a kid, and I carry that attitude towards my acting career. My parents may not understand it, but they are a big part of why I have been able to find success in the three years that I've been acting professionally. I'll always be grateful for the way they raised me, even if they do not fully support my career decisions.

Have you ever had a chance to work with anyone you really admire or has influenced you? 
I just wrapped a television series with John L'Ecuyer, who is a director I deeply admire. Once a heroin addict living on the streets, he faced the darkest places of his mind in ways that I am scared to even imagine, and then came out of it as the most kind, generous, nurturing leader. John has taught me an unfathomable amount of what it means to be honest with yourself, and also that it's okay to be broken because everyone is in some way. I consider this education to be hundreds of times more valuable than what I was forced to learn in school.

Screen shot of Simu Liu in the CTV hit series Played

Have you worked with any really big celebrities and if so, what was your experience? 
I actually worked with Nick Cannon just a couple of weeks ago, on a Nickelodeon show called Make it Pop! He was a consummate professional, and there are a couple of things about him that really stood out to me: First, the dude learned his lines instantly. I don't think anyone really understands how busy someone in that position is - Nick had flown in late the night before and hadn't had time to look at his lines. He showed up at rehearsal still looking at the script, and once the cameras were rolling he delivered every line perfectly and in character. Second, he is not the same person as he is on television. I don't mean that in any negative way; it's just that I think we are all used to seeing someone who is slightly goofy and practically bursting with energy, but he really is very mature and professional whenever the cameras are off. He was very friendly and encouraging and I hope I get the chance to work with him again soon.

What was the first big set of TV show on which you worked? 
The very first television show I had a speaking role for was Nikita, and that was huge, but I'll never forget the very first set I ever saw. I replied to a Craigslist ad looking for extras for the Guillermo Del Toro movie Pacific Rim, and I got to walk onto a set worth hundreds of millions of dollars. I saw Ron Pearlman stride past me through the set, smoking a cigar and talking casually with Guillermo about his blocking, and all of a sudden I felt like a child again. That pretty much did it for me; I knew I would never want to be anything else as badly as I wanted to be an actor.

Screen shot from the MachinaPrime original web-series Omega

How did you land your role on Nikita
Nikita was like the third thing I ever auditioned for. I had two lines, but I was nervous as all hell. I went in for Tina Gerussi, the casting director, did my take once, and was told "thank you." I think even seasoned actors have trouble hearing the 'thank you' line, so you can imagine how I was killing myself. What did that mean? Why didn't I get a chance to do it again? Was she going to think that I wasn't talented and never bring me back in?!? We got the offer a couple of days later, although it felt like a millions years worth of waiting.

How was your experience working on Nikita
So incredibly nervous. I was watching the crew around me making adjustments and my gut was turning itself inside out and twisting and turning in all sorts of ways. My legs were shaking. I remember everything about that day because I think my body was in a state of hyper awareness, kind of like when you're in a panic. I remember the quinoa salad I had for lunch, the tiny little trailer I got, and of course the constant fear that I was going to mess the whole day up and get fired. I had at one point finally mustered up the courage to introduce myself to Shane West, and after making small talk with him I realized I had never told him my name. I don't beat myself up about it though - I mean, who wouldn't be utterly freaking petrified in that situation? Fortunately things eventually got easier for me, although I remember my two days on Nikita very fondly.

Screen shot from Simu Liu from the episode of Nikita in which he appeared

You have worked on shows like NikitaWarehouse 13, and Beauty & The Beast...are you a comic book or sci-fi fan at all? 
No doubt. HUGE fan. I was an only child and growing up my parents worked extremely hard to provide for me. As a byproduct to that, however, they never really had time to entertain me. I would get dropped off at the cinema early on a Saturday and get picked up at night, after which I would have watched the new X-Men movie three times. I was a bit of a loner in school so I frequently found myself trying to escape into other worlds where the unlikely hero discovers his great destiny and wins the adoration of the people who once overlooked him. I'm into sci-fi now for slightly different reasons - I think science fiction gives us an opportunity to envision societies free from the constraints of the modern day, free of things like poverty or sickness or discrimination. A good story will teach the audience many things about the world we live in today using a world which is completely different.

What kind of things were you into and why? 
Star Wars because X-wings and lightsabers. Star Trek because of how aspirational their portrayal of the human race is, X-Men because of the parallels to civil rights, and because I honestly don't know who the good guys are (Magneto could just as easily be the protagonist, and I'd be much more interested to see that story than another Wolverine movie). Mortal Kombat because Subzero is a certified badass. Halo because I dominate with a battle rifle on Xbox Live. God, I could go on forever. I need to get my butt to San Diego Comic Con stat!

Screen shot of SyFy's Warehouse 13 episode in which Simu Liu appeared 

Do you have any other skills that are under used or specifically do you have skills of which people aren't aware you possess? 
Dude, totally. I am a great singer. I taught myself how to sing at a young age because I was not able to approach girls. I figured if I were a Justin Timberlake or JC Chasez, then girls would finally like me for who I am. Turns out my crippling insecurity actually worked out for the better in this case! In all seriousness, I would love the opportunity to sing onscreen or on stage. I also do a killer British RP and Australian accent, but alas, have never had to break them out.

Have you produced or directed your own projects? (If so, what were they and why did you do them?)
I think any actor today would be foolish not to learn how to create their own content. I believe the days of waiting by the phone to get your big break are over. Instead we are seeing Hollywood ruled by people who can write stories and create their own opportunities. I recently wrote and directed a short film called Crimson Defender vs. the Slightly Racist Family, about an Asian superhero who rescues a family who turns out to be a little bit racist. I wrote the film because Asian males are not portrayed fairly in media today, instead commonly being cast as comic relief, the butt of a joke or a supporting character at best. I wanted to show the world that we can be superheroes as well. The film played at the ReelWorld Festival in Toronto and will screen in Washington DC and in Ithaca NY in a couple of weeks in a couple of film festivals! As long as I'm acting, I'll be making films as well.

Screen Shot from the Crimson Defender Vs. the Slightly Racist Family by Simu Liu

As an actor, what is something that you don't get to do very often? 
Go on vacation!

Do you have a problem with typecasting?
I don't have a problem with typecasting - what I do have a problem with is stereotyping. There's no doubt that some people just fit more looks than others - as you've mentioned before I tend to get cast in military roles, and that's fine. A good friend of mine (Owen) is so sinister looking it's hard not to imagine him in a villainous role. Typecasting is amazing because if you are being typecast you are getting work in the industry! However, I do feel that sometimes Asian males are stereotyped, meaning the roles that are available to us are caricatures based on racial stereotypes perpetuated by North American society.

Photograph of Simu Liu on the set of Open Gym, which he also wrote & directed

How do you see diversity happening in the film and entertainment industry? 
Hollywood is starving for more diverse stories and perspectives. I truly believe that audiences are beginning to tire of watching the same thing onscreen over and over again. We need to see more Asian, South Asian, Latino, Black, and Native voices in writing rooms and in director chairs, and in order for that to happen our parents need to see the value in allowing their kids to pursue careers in media and show business. Families of all ethnicities have a wealth of stories to share, but they can only be put onscreen by qualified writers, only be brought to life by good directors and only be performed by skilled actors. Our talent pool is shallow right now because there are just so few of us - I dream of a future where careers in the entertainment industry are seen as important and vital to the preservation of the many cultures that represent our great countries. Then, we will have South Asian writers telling amazing stories. We will have Native directors countries who will craft films in new and exciting ways. We will have Asian actors who are highly skilled. All because they were encouraged to foster their interests form an early age.

What do you think are steps which need to happen in order to improve diversity in Hollywood? 
I think it's important to realize that Hollywood operates like any professional industry - it's bound to the demand of the people who consume it's product. If Hollywood is going to become more diverse, it is the audiences that must show their support. If we are paying money to watch the next Transformers in theaters with all white leads, guess what we are gonna keep getting? We have to put our money where our mouth is if we truly want the landscape of Hollywood to change. Shows like Blackish and Fresh off the Boat have to be rewarded for taking casting risks, and movies like Exodus: Gods and Kings and Cloud Atlas, in which characters which are clearly ethnic characters being played by white actors, must be punished. Studio executives are not stupid people - they're not going to keep casting white people in non-white roles if it doesn't pay off. On the flip side, there's no incentive for them to cast with racial accuracy if Christian Bale (or any other famous white actor) will guarantee them more profit in their pocket.

Screen shot of Simu Liu as Paul Xie from Blood and Water 

Are you working on anything right now for which we can keep a look? 
Yes! I just wrapped a lead role on a show called Blood and Water, which has been an incredibly special experience. Aside from being my first lead role on a show, it's the first Canadian show with an all-Asian cast and dialogue which is over 50% in a language other than English (Mandarin). I think the fact that we have a show like this is indicative of a paradigm shift in Hollywood and in show-business in general.

How do you see yourself empowering others to realize their dreams and aspirations? 
I hope that I can use my life as an example to teach a couple of important lessons - first, that you should never live your life chasing someone else's idea of success, and second, that your dreams become a reality the moment you begin to work towards them. Dreams are great to have, but to get to the place you dream of, you need to set specific goals, and you need to work your butt off!

Thank you, Simu. I think that everyone is already benefiting from your professional example and I look forward to seeing a lot more about your endeavors in the future.

Brian J. Patterson is an actor, writer and producer who splits his time between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

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