How Simu Liu Went From 'Pacific Rim' Background Extra to Star of 'Shang-Chi' (Exclusive)

Plus, how he stayed in Marvel hero shape during the pandemic shutdown.

Simu Liu couldn't have a bigger entrée into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as the historic leading man of its latest globe-trotting, world-saving blockbuster, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. But his first time stepping foot onset of a major Hollywood franchise film actually came years prior, as an aspiring actor working as an extra on the superhero-adjacent Pacific Rim.

That, however, came after a short-lived stint as an accountant. Having graduated from college with a degree in business administration, Liu found himself working at Deloitte in his early 20s. "I was miserable and stuck in an office every day and just, like, not great at my job," he tells ET's Lauren Zima. "I was actually laid off, like, eight months after I started. So, I was 22 years old, I was unemployed, and I decided on a whim, Why not try being a background extra in a movie in Toronto?"

The movie was 2013's Pacific Rim from director Guillermo del Toro, which starred Idris Elba as a Kaiju-fighting future soldier. (By this point, Elba himself had starred in two Thor movies.) "Talk about big blockbuster," Liu recalls. "I was on massive soundstages not dissimilar from this movie, except I was, like, way, way, way in the back."

"I watched [Idris] from afar when I was, like, a minimum wage extra," he adds," and I was just so drawn in by his magnetism, and he's just an attractive man. I just fell in love with the whole world of movies, partially because of him."

Marvel Studios

Liu tweeted at Marvel for the first time in 2014. "Hey @Marvel, great job with Cpt America and Thor," he wrote. "Now how about an Asian American hero?" In the meantime, he was cast in what would become his breakout role on the Canadian sitcom Kim's Convenience. In 2018, he fired off another missive at Marvel, tweeting: "OK @Marvel, are we gonna talk or what #ShangChi." Reader, they talked.

"It makes me comes off as like a Nostradamus-level future predictor, which I wish was the case," Liu reflects. "Obviously, I didn't send the tweet thinking that anything would come of it. It was like, do you want to win the lottery? Do you want a million dollars for free? And I was like, sure!"

Then the hard work began. Introduced in the comics as a Master of Kung Fu, Shang-Chi was always going to be Liu's most physically demanding role to date. "It was like doing a marathon," he says. The extensive training and endless workouts he did leading up to filming became that much more grueling when production was forced to shut down for four months amid the pandemic.

"I was like in the greatest shape of my life, and I was like, what am I supposed to do?" Liu remembers. "Am I supposed to keep working out? Because I don't know when we're starting back up again. I kind of really miss carbs. I kept it up for a while and then eventually loosed up. I was just like, 'I'm going to Korean BBQ, guys. I can't take this anymore.' And then, of course, they're like, 'We are coming back! You've got to get back into shape.' I had to put down the BBQ. One can never fully put down the BBQ."

He knew, after all, that he would be joining the likes of Chris Evans and Chris Hemsworth, Paul Rudd and Chadwick Boseman, all of whom showed off their physiques with obligatory shirtless scenes in their MCU debuts. "There's an expectation, I think, for Marvel heroes when they enter the universe that you've got to do the no carbs thing, at least a little bit," Liu laughs. "I don't want to watch these movies back and, like, hate myself."

Now, Liu is officially in the MCU and you can't tell him nothing. Bring on Hemsworth. Bring on Chris Pratt. Shang-Chi will take 'em all on. "A while back, I said, 'I could beat up The Hulk,' like as a joke," Liu exclaims. "And I got the most amount of backlash I'd ever witnessed in my life, of people being like, 'Are you joking me? The Hulk would freaking crush you!'" I was like, 'Yeah, I know that.' Like, what do you want me to say? It's called trying to put your best foot forward and really, if you can't believe in yourself, who's going to believe in you, right?"

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is in theaters on Sept. 3.