From ‘Shang-Chi’ to ‘West Side Story’: Simu Liu and Ariana DeBose on ‘Cultural Authenticity’ in Their Breakout Films

Ariana DeBose (“West Side Story”) and Simu Liu (“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”) sat down for a virtual chat for Variety’s Actors on Actors, presented by Amazon Studios. For more, click here.

Prior to 2021, Ariana DeBose and Simu Liu had certainly worked as actors. DeBose was a Tony nominee (“Summer: The Donna Summer Musical”) who’d appeared in Netflix’s “The Prom” and Apple TV Plus’ “Schmigadoon!” Liu was a former stuntman who’d co-starred on the Canadian sitcom “Kim’s Convenience.”

But after their breakout roles last year — DeBose as Anita in Steven Spielberg’s reimagining of “West Side Story” and Liu as Shang-Chi in Marvel Studios’ superhero blockbuster “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” — they’ve both suddenly become household names.

SIMU LIU: We’ll get to the amazingness that is “West Side Story” and how incredible you are in it. Before we do, I had a different question that maybe goes back a little bit further. You achieved a life dream of mine quite a few years ago. You were on a little show called “So You Think You Can Dance.”

ARIANA DEBOSE: Yes!

LIU: It’s all I’ve ever wanted.

DEBOSE: Really?!

LIU: In my college, I was in a hip-hop competitive dance team. It was right in the heyday of “So You Think You Can Dance” and “America’s Best Dance Crew.” I was all about it. I didn’t study for any of my classes because of it. What was your process auditioning for the show, and what was it actually like to be on it?

DEBOSE: Oh, my gosh. That show was the craziest whirlwind for an 18-year-old. I had known quite a few people that had done it. I grew up dancing with Travis Wall and Martha Nichols. And so, it felt very tangible to me. That is a crazy thing that I just said, but it felt really tangible. And so going into it, it’s what everybody thinks it’s going to be. It’s a little dog-eat-dog. Dancers, we love each other, but we want our spot, you know?

I think the greatest thing I learned is that it is a television show. You think it’s just about dance, right? No, it’s still TV programming. So it is casting and creating storylines and relationships and all this stuff. You definitely don’t know that at such a young age, or at least I didn’t.

I love that you have a dance background, which makes a lot of sense because in your film, “Shang-Chi,” what got me initially was your physicality. I would assume there’s a lot of rehearsal that goes into something like that?

LIU: When I got the part, they asked me about my martial arts background and experience, which of course I exaggerated because I wanted the job really badly.

DEBOSE: You bluffed your way into the part — I love it!

LIU: I had done some work as an on-again, off-again stuntman, but if we’re honest, I think I was more of a dancer than I ever was a martial artist. Pretty much from the moment I was cast, I started working with trainers and learning how to move. I had such awful flexibility. My groin and my tendons were just so stiff. A big part of that early process was just bending my body and trying to rip those legs apart.

But what was great too is it was my first movie, going in…

DEBOSE: Wait, what? Was that your actual first movie?

LIU: It was the first, yeah. Yeah. I’d done TV. But no, that was it.

DEBOSE: I am so blown away. I—

LIU: What a crazy first movie to do, right?

DEBOSE: I love that you talk about just how much work and discipline that goes into this, because I do find that physically-based work, I don’t know that it really gets its due, often. I will say I’ve noticed Brie Larson is very good about talking about all the physical training she has to go through and the physicality of being Captain Marvel. But I don’t know that we really talk about, in the industry, what’s required to execute this type of work.

LIU: That leads me really nicely into “West Side Story” — highly physical movie, highly physical part. How did you come to audition?

DEBOSE: I remember seeing the press release for it: Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner will collaborate on “West Side Story,” their reimagination. I was like, that is awesome! I am not getting that job! I was on Broadway at the time, playing Donna Summer. I just didn’t see that Anita or any character in “West Side Story” really being for me. Most Anitas don’t look like me. Rita Moreno, at least, certainly doesn’t look like me. But I think Steven did himself an incredible service by going out and searching not only for talent authentic to their culture but also triple threats. And that means looking for unknowns. I don’t know that folks in the industry are accustomed to making stars anymore.

LIU: We are a very inertia-driven business where it is easier to kind of attach yourself to something that is already moving, rather than to put something in motion from a static point.

DEBOSE: The dancing, you know, Justin Peck, our choreographer, he created essentially a new vocabulary. You have to be a technician and someone who can just truly let go and be pedestrian. That’s actually very hard. Sometimes dancers look showy and performative, and that’s not necessarily of service to every piece.

LIU: Making it appear as if it is not over-choreographed was equally important for our movie. We worked with an incredible action director in Brad Allan who sadly passed away last year. He came from the Jackie Chan stunt team and has such an awareness of fighting in a way that is dance-like. He played such a big role, alongside our fight choreographers, in making each action sequence feel like a living, breathing thing.

DEBOSE: Your director, Destin Daniel Cretton, and screenwriter David Callaham, they are of Asian descent. I would wager that adds to cultural authenticity in regards to your film.

LIU: I would 100% agree with that. When I learned that [Destin] was going to direct “Shang-Chi,” the feeling that I had was relief. I don’t know if you experience this — I think in my community, we call it “rep sweats.”

DEBOSE: Ohhh, yeah.

LIU: Whenever a project is announced with an Asian cast, the feeling that you get at first is not necessarily elation or joy. It’s nervousness. Are they going to get this right, or is it going to be the other thing? We’ve seen a lot of the other thing, so it’s quite natural to be cynical. If you had just looked at those comic books that were written in the 1970s by white people, and you were to say, “Adapt that into a movie,” I think there’s just so many ways that it could have gone wrong.

DEBOSE: I understand. Some would say I overstand. Our stories need to become timeless in their own time because we relate to each other. That’s what makes me excited.

LIU: So how does a director like Steven Spielberg like to work?

DEBOSE: He’s really collaborative, which I was shocked by a little bit because I got the sense that he had his film in his head and he knew what he wanted out of every moment. I went in prepared to say, “What do you need, and I will deliver.” And I actually walked into a partnership. He wanted our input. He wanted to know if what he initially blocked felt authentic. If it didn’t, he changed it. He wanted us to follow our instincts. He gave us autonomy over our jobs, our characters, our experience. And I think our film is all the better for it. Did you feel that kind of support on your set?

LIU: Similar to you, I went in expecting, with a machine like Marvel, that I was just going to be a tiny little cog in the wheel. So I was surprised by how much I was asked to provide feedback, at kind of every opportunity. And then you get used to it and you show up and you’re like, “I have ideas. Let’s get ready to work.” For an actor, there’s nothing more fulfilling.

DEBOSE: We love to hear it!

LIU: You hosted a little show called “SNL.”

DEBOSE: Yeah. And also, let me just take this opportunity to say people sleep on that show, because … Oh, wait a second. Simu, I believe you are a fellow “SNL” host, sir.

LIU: Yeah. I feel like there’s a lot to talk about.

DEBOSE: There’s so much. You’re making wigs in real time. You’re picking not only looks for us, but for every cast member, every rep player. Writing in real time. You start out with 40 sketches and then you narrow it down to 20. That’s in less than 24 hours. And then you only end up with what, seven or eight sketches that make it to air? That’s every week. It is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

LIU: It’s crazy. You start on the Monday, you have a kickoff call. And they’re just like, “Great. Do you have any ideas?” And I was like, “Oh, I think I’ve got a couple.” And then Tuesday is also pretty slow. You go in, you meet some people. The writers tell you what they’re thinking. You’re like, “Okay, great. Sounds good.” And then you show up on Wednesday, and then there’s like a stack of papers about this thick.

DEBOSE: 40 scripts.

LIU: And then you’re like, “Oh, I have to go table read this in, like, 20 minutes.” And Lorne is sitting right next to you. You’re basically sight-reading at this point, you’re rapid firing through 40 scripts. And then Thursday rolls around, and before you know it, you went from a Monday meeting that was, for me, like 15 minutes to a 17 hour day. And then Friday is a whole other beast, because you’re doing pre-tapes. And then you’re getting shuttled back to set. And you’re finishing at like 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning.

DEBOSE: It’s one of the most humbling experiences I’ve ever had. I got big old crushes on everybody. Talent crushes, crush crushes, I love them.

LIU: And then you have the support staff. The amazing woman that leads you by the hand to where you need to go.

DEBOSE: Donna!

LIU: Donna [Richards] is fantastic. Before you know it, you’re in a different wig, and a completely different outfit, in like 30 seconds.

DEBOSE: I loved the quick changes, because I felt like I was on Broadway again. This show does such a good job of making sure that no matter who their host is, or what their background is, that they feel comfortable.

Okay, let’s talk about the movies! Tony Leung? I said it right?

LIU: I think so.

DEBOSE: I don’t want to disrespect him, because dear lord, he’s incredible.

LIU: He’s the GOAT.

DEBOSE: And for that matter, Michelle Yeoh. “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” was one of the most beautiful performances I have ever seen, personally, in my opinion. And also, I love that she was a Bond girl in her own way. What was it like working with them?

LIU: Very different people, but an aura of warmth and friendliness. Tony is famously shy, and very, very soft spoken. You would never know his stature and his fame just by looking at him, because he is just such a well-mannered individual. And then the camera rolls, and then you see the intensity in his eyes, and you’re like, “Holy crap. I’m literally watching mastery unfold.” Tony is such a master of the art of stillness, of these tiny changes, that it almost doesn’t even feel like he’s doing anything. But then you look at the monitor and you’re like, “Holy, this guy is breaking my heart.”

DEBOSE: Just a force, an absolute force.

LIU: It was just even incredible just being able to sit next to him in between takes, and to be like, “What do you do in your spare time?” And it turns out our boy Tony is a little bit of an adrenaline junkie. Tony Leung loves snowboarding, loves water sports, slalom skiing, wakeboarding. He just loves it. And I kind of love that.

DEBOSE: It kind of tracks though.

LIU: It does. Michelle, too, really surprised me with how goofy she is, because she plays these bad asses that don’t take crap from anyone, they’re very serious. But then you meet her, and — first of all, she’s every bit as badass in real life. But she’s also kind of a goofball. We’ll be rolling camera, and then she’ll just be like [waves hands at the camera] — she’ll just make a funny face, or she’ll be like, “Boop, boop, boop, boop.” It was her wonderful way of telling me to relax and just settle in and be every bit as free flowing and as goofy and just normal and natural as she was.

DEBOSE: It makes me happy when legends are every ounce of not only who you think they are, but who you hope them to be. When I first met Steven, of course I was sweating, but there was a part of me that was able to look at him and say, “He’s a human speaking complete sentences and treat him with respect and everything is fine.” I had to keep doing that over and over again, because I wasn’t just walking into a room with him, I was walking into a room with [screenwriter] Tony Kushner, who I think is arguably one of the greatest writers of our time.

And Rita Moreno. That was its own experience because she’s Rita Moreno and she won an Oscar and I believe just about every other award you could win for her portrayal of Anita. I knew those were big shoes to follow. She constantly surprised me with the stories that she would just whip out about her experiences in the industry. Talk about someone who won an Oscar and then couldn’t get work?!

LIU: Mmmhmm.

DEBOSE: Especially with someone who has a skillset, a talent that is so expansive. And then you look at someone like Steven. And you’re just like, “Wow, you’re 72. You’re choosing to make a musical now.” He’s so joyful every day coming to work, but he’s nervous, and you can see it. Steven Spielberg gets nervous.

LIU: I feel like I spent so much of my life as a regular person, if that makes sense. And then I crossed over into this world of show business and agents and directors and award shows and all of that stuff. I’m wondering, when did that change happen for you? Because I mean like you said, you were in the national limelight by the time you were 18.

DEBOSE: I think that’s the misconception of potentially what my career has been. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had incredible opportunities. But I don’t have a college degree. So I felt like I had a lot up against me. And to be honest, “So You Think You Can Dance” was not helpful in getting me into the room. So I felt like I’ve constantly had to reinvent myself. I realized very quickly I couldn’t just rely on my dance abilities and I had to learn how to sing. There are these moments where you’re just constantly sweating because you’re like, “Just how do I get a job? How do I get a job?”

LIU: Oh my God. The nights that I would keep myself up until 3 or 4 in the morning. I would just scream out into the universe. I would just be like, “Tell me what to do! If there was something I could do, I will do it every hour of every day from the moment I wake up to the moment I sleep, but I just need to know.”

DEBOSE: Everybody comes to their experience of that differently. There’s so much more to it than people see. We just scratched the surface of it in this conversation. But that’s why we do these Actors on Actors. I learned so much about you.

LIU: Likewise. What an enlightening conversation! I enjoyed every second of it.