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June 29, 2017

Reluctant accountant changes careers for a better role – as an actor


Guy Dixon / Globe and Mail

Actor Simu Liu is the shining example of using a business degree toward a creative and very unexpected end, not toward a career in accounting.

The rising Canadian actor, most recognizable for his role as the son, Jung, in the CBC-TV sitcom Kim’s Convenience, fell into acting after jettisoning accounting and a corporate path which he had been following without much gumption.

After relocating to Canada from China and growing up in Mississauga, his parents would have liked him to become a doctor, engineer or lawyer, basically anything professionally minded. Accounting fit the bill.

Yet, “I was very unfocused when I was little,” he says.

Mr. Liu attended the University of Toronto Schools, a private secondary school affiliated with the university, and then received an honours business administration (HBA) degree from the University of Western Ontario’s Ivey Business School. The degree allows undergrads to enter the business stream midway through their undergraduate studies.

But then he found himself on a path that wasn’t for him. Not graduating near the top of the class, he felt that the higher rungs of Bay Street weren’t attainable. His marks were “middle/middle-bottom, so my option was basically accounting,” he says. This led to a job working for accounting giant Deloitte in downtown Toronto, but Mr. Liu didn’t feel he was a good fit.

“Evidently they didn’t think I was either. Eight months in, they laid me off. The first round of cuts, and I was right out,” he says. There is no hint of sour grapes in the retelling.

“Something was telling me I should probably take some time and pursue something that I hadn’t before, maybe just to try it. I had been so miserable as an accountant, at least take a few months and do something cool with your life,” he says. “That was the original plan.”

Then, as he remembers it, a new calling arose, wrapped up in a deep interest in film and television. “I was raised as an only child. My parents worked a lot. I was basically raised on TV and movies. They would drop me off at a movie theatre on a Saturday morning and say, ‘Here’s $20, knock yourself out,’” he says. “And so I would often times watch four or five movies every weekend. I had always been curious and enamoured with that whole industry.”

Then came the pivotal point.

On Craigslist, he answered an online call for extras on the set of the big-budget, effects-laden, Earth-in-peril, giant-robots-versus-giant-alien-monsters action epic Pacific Rim, being shot in Toronto and directed by Guillermo del Toro. It was a little different than Bay Street life.

“It was the first time I had ever set foot on a set,” he says. “I’d show up at 4 in the morning, getting paid $11 an hour, significantly less than I was as an accountant.

“But I fell in love with the whole thing. The set was so big and intricate. I was surrounded by not just working actors, but also everybody from the grips to the gaffers to the ADs [assistant directors]. It felt to me like everybody was so passionate about what they were doing, so focused. It was a totally different world.”

He adds: “Guillermo del Toro notoriously pays attention to detail that he puts into a world visually. So, of course, stepping in, I was, oh my god, this is so cool?”

This led to more shoots, a music video here or there, sometimes working for $50 or $100 a day, sometimes free. “The goal was getting that experience, finding my footing in the industry,” Mr. Liu says. “And then I started to realize, as an Asian performer, I was getting a lot of opportunities ahead of my pay grade, ahead of my experience, because the talent pool is not big enough.

“So, I was, like, oh that’s interesting. There’s an opportunity here. It’s not just something I can do because I’m passionate about it.”

Bigger roles came, and more of them, “and all that was missing now was for me to up my skill level. That meant taking acting night classes and building experience that way.”

In retrospect, it wasn’t entirely a new discovery, but a rediscovery of an interest he had blocked himself from pursuing. He hadn’t participated in theatre at school. “I never really gave myself the permission. I couldn’t say I wasn’t interested, but I didn’t know what it would be like broaching the subject with my parents, who were very, ‘Get a technical degree, get a stable job.’ Acting seemed to fly in the face of all of that.”

It only really came to him after he “lost kind of everything,” after leaving an accounting career. Yet the business education helped, Mr. Liu says, with personal skills, networking, all of the soft skills that business people and actors share, plus a later appreciation of how the film industry works business-wise.

Just don’t equate the happiness that Mr. Liu’s character shows on Kim’s Convenience for office work with Mr. Liu’s own career experience.

The chance of returning to accounting is “infinitesimally small. I’m such a different person now. My mind has been opened in so many ways, it would be impossible to pigeonhole me back into that.”