By Angie Wiseman
Becoming an actor on a popular new Canadian TV show or a stunt double on a Fall Out Boy music video was not at all on Simu Liu’s radar when he was working as an accountant in Toronto. Until he was laid off – and his world opened up.
“I remember feeling oddly free in that moment. I was without a job, but I thought I can do whatever I want. This is my one chance to really just try something. I owe it to myself to really give it a shot,” said Liu, HBA’11.
This past year, Liu’s acting career has gained momentum, with the success of his roles on CBC’s Kim’s Convenience and NBC’s Taken. Despite his respect for Toronto’s strong film industry, his ultimate goal is to move to Hollywood. On a recent trip there, he met with agents and casting directors in Los Angeles, including doctor-turned actor Ken Jeong (best known for his role in The Hangover) about a possible buddy cop movie that Liu hopes to write.
“I started talking to him (Jeong) on Twitter. When I got to L.A., he said come by the set and we can hang out more. So I ended up spending a lot of time with him. His advice was that you can’t wait. I joked that we should do a buddy cop movie for both of us and he said, ‘If you write it, I’ll be in it,” Liu said.
While there is no formal training to show actors how to network, Liu credits his networking and soft skills courses at Ivey Business School with giving him the tools he needed to push forward in his career and not be afraid to reach out.
“The hard part is to think of it (your career) as a start-up and think of yourself as an entrepreneur rather than an artist that waits for the phone to ring for opportunities,” he said.
“I spent so many years struggling as an actor. Then suddenly, I’m in demand. The only thing actors want to do is work. It was amazing – tiring, brutal and amazing,” he said of his recent schedule shooting two television shows at once.
In a long list of acting credentials Liu also includes stunt man, writer, director and producer – all skills that round out his already full resume.
Following his layoff from his accounting firm, Liu started out by looking at TV and film opportunities on Craigslist. In amongst some of the more unsavory ads was a posting for the movie Pacific Rim by director Guillermo del Toro. The movie was being shot in Toronto and they were looking for extras. The role paid just $10 dollars an hour, but it was the stepping stone Liu needed to start his acting career. As soon as he arrived on set he knew he was home.
“I ended up falling in love with everything I saw. People have careers devoted to the movies. It wasn’t just the actors – the assistant director, the gaffers working the lights – it was everything. It was such a big production.”
While Ivey attracted him to Western, Liu credits one of his first experiences as a frosh with giving him his first taste of fame and one he would reflect on often as he launched his acting career.
“The three sciences do O-Week together. So they had this big talent show where each of the sciences would audition one champion. Then on the final night of O-Week, they compete against each other on stage – and I won,” he said.
Liu used his dance, gymnastics and martial arts skills to put his routine together, all skills he would later draw on to expand his acting offerings.
“I had a very interesting first few months because everyone knew who I was,” he laughed.
While Liu majored in accounting, he was always involved in extracurricular activities that fed his interests and would later act as experience as he built his resume for acting.
“I loved that I could find a group of people that were passionate about the same things as me and when I did graduate and found myself laid off a few months later, it was really great to have those other skills,” he said.
Although he didn’t always recognize acting as his future career, when Liu thinks back to the first spark of interest in acting, he harkens back to his childhood when his parents dropped him off at the movie theatre for the day. “I don’t think I even entertained the thought of bringing that up to them. I was raised by movies, musicals and TV shows. And I loved all of it. Of course, it’s totally natural that I would want to go into that eventually,” Liu said.
Despite his passion for the craft, growing up, Liu didn’t feel comfortable broaching the subject of acting with his parents, Chinese-born immigrants determined to provide the best life for their family in Canada.
“I never really gave myself permission to fully pursue it. For me, my parents, above all else, wanted stability because their life, coming from a different country, had been anything but stable,” he said.
Liu’s drive, determination and his ritual of checking Craigslist every morning enabled him to build his resume and gain experience. Some days he was paid as an extra on a movie or a TV show and some days he worked for free in a music video.
“Looking back through it all, at no point did I say, ‘I’m going to give up or call it quits.’ I was still convinced this was something I loved enough to keep going. It’s not just about getting a degree and conforming to someone else’s idea of success,” he said. “You need to be honest with yourself about what your interests are because if you do have something that you are truly passionate about but don’t pursue then you run the risk of waking up one day and realizing that you don’t actually like your life. Take the time and know yourself.”
This article appeared in the Spring 2017 edition of Western University’s Alumni Gazette. Reprinted with permission.