When they first met to discuss casting what would become the latest Marvel movie, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, producer Jonathan Schwartz asked the film’s director, Destin Daniel Cretton, who his dream choice was to play their villain. Wenwu, the estranged father of the film’s hero, was many things—a stylish underworld boss, an ancient Chinese warrior, and a high-powered modern man—so Cretton needed someone with range. Immediately, he thought of one of his favorite actors. “Tony Leung,” he said, “but he’ll never do it.” Schwartz replied, “Let’s try.”
The preeminent Hong Kong actor of his generation and one of international cinema’s greatest stars, Tony Leung Chiu Wai, now 59, moves with the smoldering, understated charm of an old-world matinee idol. His performances often make his films feel like their own genre, whether they’re kung fu sagas, police dramas, or film noir love stories. And over the past four decades, he’s been a muse to some of Asia’s greatest directors, among them Ang Lee, John Woo, Andy Lau, and his friend and frequent collaborator Wong Kar Wai. Wong’s films, in particular, set the tone for Leung’s career; the pencil mustache and debonair personality he cultivated for a role in the filmmaker’s surreal epic 2046 earned him a nickname that tried to translate his charm for Western audiences: Asia’s Clark Gable.
Leung had always wanted to make a Hollywood movie—he dreamed of working with Martin Scorsese, or starring in an adaptation of a Lawrence Block crime novel. But he’d never been presented with the right opportunity. American film has traditionally had little to offer any Asian leading man, and Leung didn’t think there would ever be a role in a big-budget American movie for a Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong Chinese actor of his stature.
Cretton, the first Asian-American filmmaker to direct a Marvel movie, brought a different approach. “If we are going after an actor like that,” he says, “the character needs to be worthy of that ask. So using Tony as our guiding light, before he even said yes, lit a fire under us to create a character that’s worthy of him entertaining the idea.”
How many superhero films cast their villains first? In doing so, Cretton hoped to solve a uniquely Asian-American problem with the source material. Marvel Comics had created the character Shang-Chi in the early ’70s as the son of a perhaps irredeemably stereotypical Asian villain: Fu Manchu. Half a century later, Marvel no longer had the rights to Fu Manchu and didn’t want them, either, meaning Cretton and his team needed an entirely new character.
Enter Wenwu, a father with an ancient criminal past now at the helm of a modern terrorist organization. As Leung recalls, when he first met with Cretton about the role, the director told him, “Although you’re not a superhero, your character has many layers.” Intrigued by the villain’s complexity and Cretton’s open, forthright style, Leung said yes, and then spent the two months before filming preparing for the part.
“Frankly, I couldn’t imagine someone in the real world with superpowers,” he says over Zoom one recent evening from his home in Hong Kong. “But I can imagine someone like him who is an underdog, who is a failure of a father.” At ease in a white T-shirt, a slender golden chain visible underneath, he has the ready and easy smile of a boy, a collection of elegant porcelain urns and vases arranged on a shelf behind him. He says he understood that Wenwu was ultimately driven not by evil but by a love for his children, which lent him a touch of humanity. “On the one hand,” Leung says, “he’s a bad father, but on the other, I just see him as someone who loves his family deeply.” And, he adds, “I don’t think he knows how to love himself.”
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