Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings feels like a refreshing entry into the MCU, and that’s testament to the film’s brilliant creative team and those fronting it. For Australian-Malaysian actor and comedian Ronny Chieng, who stars in the film as “Jon Jon”, the experience was a masterclass on acting.
“You literally have the greatest [actors] on the planet: Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Michelle Yeoh, Ben Kingsley, Simu [Liu], Awkwafina,” Chieng told Supanova in the lead up to the film’s release.
“Everybody holds their own, and I didn’t want to be the weakest link, so for me, on set, it was always a constant learning process from other people; how they do things – if I see something I like, I try to incorporate it.”
The affable comic, who lived in Australia for 10 years honing his craft before moving to the US in 2015, said that, while he learnt a lot working with legends of screen, his main takeaway from the production was “an appreciation for making stuff”.
The COVID outbreak in Australia in March of 2020 forced the Sydney-based production to grind to a halt.
“It was at the peak of uncertainty,” Chieng said.
“We didn’t know if it would start back up, we didn’t know if anything would ever start back up, there was like two weeks in March 2020 where nobody knew what was going on.
“The biggest thing I took away from this project, more than the acting experience and it being a cool Marvel movie, which is super cool, was an appreciation for self-expression and appreciation for the kind of good moments in life.
“They can be rare and they can be fleeting, so appreciating being on set, appreciating being at the premiere, appreciating being around fun people; that kind of stuff is really what I took away from it all, just an appreciation of the present and what you do have.”
Even before being cast, Chieng was invested in Shang-Chi, Marvel’s first Asian superhero on the big screen.
Back in 2019, he tweeted about the film to Marvel:
Hey @MarvelStudios a humble suggestion: please don’t refer to Shang-Chi as “Rising Spirit” (上氣) as is currently written in the comics because 上氣 isn’t what you think it means. It reads as “Upper air” – not a great superhero name. Instead I suggest calling him 神奇 (Shen Qi)
— Ronny Chieng (@ronnychieng) July 10, 2019
Click on the tweet to view the entire thread.
“I’m a Marvel comic book nerd, so I knew of the character, but I can’t say I knew too much about the ins and outs of it, and when I tweeted about it, it was more just coming from love, like, even if I’m not part of this project, I’m going to get behind this idea,” Chieng said.
“It’s cool; it’s kind of subversive, this underground Marvel Asian superhero that nobody knows about, so we can make it whatever we want it to be; there’s no baggage attached to it.
“Like, Captain America has baggage attached, he’s going to be Captain America – Iron Man, the same thing, but Shang-Chi, ‘What is this?’ We can make this anything.
“I just wanted to get behind something that had authenticity and the original Chinese name of the character, in my opinion, didn’t really make sense. There was an ease fix to it, and I’m glad they independently took my suggestions.”
Chieng noted that one of the “coolest things about Marvel is that they bring lesser-known characters into the fold”.
“Guardians of the Galaxy, who knew that? Even the Avengers,” he said.
“I don’t know if you remember it, when we were kids, X-Men were the prime team, and so that’s a credit to Marvel, they bring lesser-known characters to the forefront and tell awesome stories with them.
“With Shang-Chi, I can’t say it was on my radar in terms of comic book characters, but all the more reason to tell that story, because we don’t have that character, we don’t have that Asian superhero character.”
A week prior to Supanova sitting down with him, Chieng was hosting a global press conference with cast and crew ahead of the film’s premiere, “due to my rapport with the cast and for cost-cutting reasons”, he joked during the event.
“It’s mostly the second one,” Liu, who plays Shang-Chi, added, highlighting the fun energy between everyone involved with the film.
The decision to enlist Chieng as the event’s moderator, given he’s not only in the film but a comedian, was brilliant, making it what might be one of the most hilarious MCU press conferences to date.
“Uh, so, Awkwafina, uh, I got a question for you… do you mind if we compare contracts after this? ‘Cause I just wanna see my reps are doing their job,” Chieng joked.
“So, in this movie, you are like shooting arrows, you were drifting cars, I think at one point, spoiler alert, you get your head slammed into a bus seat… so, this was a pretty physical movie. What do you feel was more physically demanding, this movie or SpongeBob?”
“You know, much to be said about voice acting,” Awkwafina laughed.
“I’d say this was slightly more physically demanding… when I fall, my neck kind of gives out. I just don’t have the kind of willpower to lift it up. So, that’s where I’m at physically.”
Liu, whose on-screen chemistry with Awkwafina is excellent, joked that “it was a really compelling performance, though”.
Liu said he felt like he had “imposter syndrome every single day” working alongside icons such as Awkwafina, Leung, Yeoh, Kingsley and more.
“Truly, it was such a such a treat and it was all I could do just not to mess it up, you know,” he said.
“When I was first cast, I did my final screen test with Nora [a.k.a. Awkwafina], and she did such a wonderful job of putting me at ease.
“My nerves were sky-high. I was an actor from Toronto, and I really had never allowed myself to imagine being a part of the MCU. I mean, it’s the craziest dream that someone can possibly dream. And Nora did such a great job of putting me at ease and just being in the moment with me and we had such a beautiful chemistry.”
Back in 2018, Liu tweeted at Marvel that he wanted to talk to them about the film, and Kevin Feige was asked during the press conference if that started conversations that led him to eventually being cast in the role.
“I did not see that,” Feige revealed.
“Unfortunately, Simu, it was not your tweeting, it was your acting ability, your constant professionalism, and then multiple reads and meetings that you did that got you the job,” he said.
“I do think the universe saw that,” director Destin Daniel Cretton added.
Much like Chieng and Liu, Meng’er Zhang (a “baby faced assassin and Disney World addict”, according to Chieng), who portrays Xialing, also took every opportunity to soak up knowledge from the wealth of talented creatives around her.
“This is my very first film experience and I am so lucky to work with all of them and Sir Ben, I asked him a lot of questions on set,” Zhang said, discussing transitioning her skills as a theatre trained actress to a Marvel film.
“I asked [Sir Ben] that question and he said so beautifully, ‘When we are on stage, we are landscape artists. And when we are in front of a camera, we are portrait artists.’
“I think that just gave me a very clear image and I just learnt so much. I literally took notes every time when I talked to Sir Ben.”
Kinsley added: “I remember you were taking notes… I thought you were correcting my spelling.”
Chieng asked Cretton about his role as a childcare worker at a group home for at-risk teenagers, a position he held for two years before going to film school and something that influenced Shang-Chi in a big way.
“I mean, that job affected my entire life, my world view,” Cretton explained.
“I feel like the stories that I am drawn to are a combination of humour and optimism but also not shying away from the very real darkness and pain that we all experience as humans.
“I think this movie really does encapsulate a lot of the things that I really believe in.”
Kingsley, who reprises his role of Trevor Slattery following Iron Man 3, reiterated that “you know that [Destin’s] motives behind telling this story are pure, crystal clear, lucid, pure motives”.
“They are life-enhancing and they’re not patronising because they do introduce in a beautiful way memory, ancestry, loss and families torn apart and reunited and reconfigured,” Kingsley said.
“All this is from Destin’s heart and Kevin [Feige]’s heart and the writer’s heart. And if your motives are pure as a storyteller, the angels will come to assist you with that story. To quote a great author, whom I admire greatly, ‘To tell a story is to heal.’
“And I think that this story, because it’s so beautifully told and so rich, will ultimately be healing because it’s not propaganda. It’s just a really beautiful story.”
Feige noted that Shang-Chi was always just as much about culture and “the Asian experience” as the MCU franchise.
“My producing partner on this film, Jonathan Schwartz, who for some reason is hiding in the background here today, has worked on this movie for a long time,” he said.
“We wanted to do it for both of those reasons; to bring this specific character into the MCU, but just as importantly to bring representation of another kind to this film.
“And that was really what Destin brought in his pitch, which was yeah, action, cool, Marvel, but it was really the story of this father and son. Someday you should put that [pitch] out into the world because it was as beautiful as the final film.”
Cretton added: “I think what is extra relevant to the culture is that this is a Marvel film. And if we were not putting Shang-Chi shoulder to shoulder with all the amazing other Marvel superheroes that we’ve come to love in the past, that would be, to me, a big disservice to the culture and the character. So, both, I think, are equally important.”
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LEAD IMAGE: Katy (Awkwafina), Jon Jon (Ronny Chieng) and Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) in Marvel Studios’ ‘SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS’. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.