Why It Was Important That Shang-Chi Wasn't a 'Broody, Quiet Asian Character' (Exclusive)

Marvel Studios

Director Destin Daniel Cretton talks to ET about casting Marvel's newest superheroes.

Much has already been said of the action in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Marvel's new joint ushering the Master of Kung Fu from the comics into the MCU: Of the months of training star Simu Liu took on to master those martial arts and look the part of a Marvel superhero. Of the long weeks spent shooting even one of the set pieces, with much of the stunt work done by the cast themselves. Of tai chi and Wing Chun and wizard-on-Abomination cage matches.

Shang-Chi, both the character and the movie, is also very, very funny. That's due to Liu, who is action hero and comedic relief in one movie star package, and by design. Director Destin Daniel Cretton, better known for character dramas like Short Term 12 and Just Mercy, knew he didn't want to just introduce Marvel's first Asian lead, but a new type of Asian hero altogether. That meant he had to make as many jokes as asses he kicked.

Ahead of Shang-Chi's release, Cretton spoke with me about casting Liu and why Awkwafina is so good at playing the bestie. (And check back next week for the spoiler-filled second part of our interview.)

ET: I'm such a big fan of Short Term 12. It's so crazy looking back where that cast has gone. Brie and Rami and LaKeith to the Oscars, and Kaitlyn is about to have Dear Evan Hansen. Are you able to feel a sense of pride about having them all in your movie and then them going on to such great things?

Destin Daniel Cretton: Yeah, for sure. I feel a lot of pride. It's not like the pride of a shepherd sending his sheep out. It's actually like we're all sheep who all made this thing together when we felt like we were just starting out. But it's the pride you feel when a friend is being seen in the way that you see them. So, I feel very lucky to have been able to make that movie with that talented group.

You've said the story of Shang-Chi was personal for you. What was it that reached out from the page and touched your soul? And what did you think or hope to bring to this that was uniquely Destin?

When I started on the project, it was before there was anything to read on the page. And what I pitched to them was a family drama with a lead character, Shang-Chi, who was learning to deal with the pain of his past, that he has been running from his entire life. And that simple journey was something that really clicked with me and brought down the enormity of the superhero story into an emotional through line that I could really connect with and got me very excited to be a part of the project.

We've heard from Simu about the process of getting cast in this. What was that experience from your side of the table? And at what point did you find out about his tweets campaigning for the role?

[Laughs] I honestly didn't know about the tweets until, I don't know, when it first started coming out in headlines, which was well after he was cast. I mean, our version of the story -- the reality -- is maybe a bit less fairy-tale like, and a little more practical. We did a very big search and we saw a lot of really great actors for this role. And Simu was the best. He just really connected to the character in a very special way and was able to show both strength and vulnerability and the natural charisma that we wanted for a character that would be very relatable to people.

Destin Daniel Cretton directing Simu Liu on set of 'Shang-Chi.' (Marvel Studios)

And Simu is so damn charming. And Shang is very funny in the movie. Was the intention that he would always be written that way? Or is that something that evolved and developed with Simu in the mix?

The voice of Shang-Chi was definitely something in that vein, which is what we were looking for. We didn't want a broody, quiet Asian character. We wanted a character who looks like me or Simu to surprise people with charisma and with a more outgoing personality, which we just don't see very much of, particularly in this genre. So, that was something that we were looking for and Simu really fit that box.

Do you remember the first time he put on the superhero costume?

Yeah, it was really cool. It was in Sydney and he did the first screen-- I mean, the very first, first time you see it, it's actually not that cool, because it's not the full suit. It's like a cloth version of the suit and it looks like a really bad Halloween costume, like, because it's not fitted. [Laughs] But once he put on the first version of the fitted, real suit, it was very exciting.

This is maybe my favorite Awkwafina performance yet. Because there isn't any comic book counterpart at all, how much of Katy was on the page and how much was it molded by you and Awkwafina getting in there and finding her together?

It's definitely a combo, particularly with an actor like Awkwafina. She's really good at improvisation, and so it would be not a good call to at least not try for some surprises. And there's a lot! Some of the best moments in the movie were just explorations in that moment, including the moment that she started singing "Hotel California" on the side of the [building] while clinging to the bamboo scaffolding. But to me, the special thing about Awkwafina isn't just her ability to be genuinely funny. She can equally go between comedy and drama in such a flawless, very, very authentic way -- she can somehow transition between the two -- and there's also something about her character that is, you just don't see characters who really, really care about their friends. Who really support and have a deep care for them. And that was something that came very naturally to Awkwafina, while also taking her character on a journey of her own.

I love Katy's family -- her mother (Jodi Long), her little brother (Dallas Liu) and her waipo (Tsai Chin). Because this is a movie that is so much about family, are there any deleted scenes we'll get to see with them? Or should we cross our fingers for more of the Chens in future Shang-Chi adventures?

I'm not sure if there are any deleted scenes with them that will be released, but I'm sure we will be seeing more of them.

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