Simu Liu And 5 Other Big Actors Who've Shared Their Immigrant Experiences

Simu Liu as Shang Chi
(Image credit: Marvel)

Hollywood is an industry that has become synonymous with the American Dream and what would the story of the American dream be without immigrants? The United States is built on generations of people coming in from all over the world to build a country that in many ways is a combination of many cultures from outside America. The immigrant experience is a nearly universal one many Americans can relate to, but one that cannot be defined in one way. In celebration of our immigrants, we’re highlighting some famous actors’ stories, including Shang Chi star Simu Liu

Breaking into the movie industry is not an easy safe to crack, but these actors not only pulled it off, they’ve also used their platforms to bring light to their personal experiences as immigrants or children of immigrants. Let’s take a look: 

Simu Liu as Shang-Chi in bus fight scene

(Image credit: Marvel Studios)

Simu Liu 

Okay, so Simu Liu is Canadian, but the breakout Marvel star has taken a refreshingly candid approach to speaking to his roots having Canadian-Chinese parents. This spring he’s releasing a memoir called We Were Dreamers: An Immigrant Superhero Origin Story to explore his roots ahead of starring in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Liu was born in China in 1989, at a time when his parents were given the opportunity to study in America. Liu was raised by his grandparents until the age of 5, when he was brought to Canada to live with them. 

As Liu recalled in a 2017 column in Maclean’s, he long had a difficult relationship with his parents as their wishes for him were to find a stable 9-to-5 and he got fired from his accounting firm eight months in. It was then that Liu decided to pursue work in the world of movies, beginning with a minimum wage job on a Guillermo del Toro movie. After years of odd jobs, Liu found a steady TV  gig on Kim’s Convinience before nabbing the Marvel hero role. As he’s shared, his relationship with his parents, being the child of immigrants being raised in a Western world, especially where anti-Asian rhetoric can be a concern, was not always easy, but as he grew older, he realized his upbringing helped pave his path, even if it’s much different than they envisioned. 

Salma Hayek in Once Upon a Time in Mexico

(Image credit: Sony Pictures Releasing)

Salma Hayek

Salma Hayek grew up in Mexico as the daughter of immigrants as well, with a Spanish mother and Lebanese father. As a young woman, Hayek quit school to pursue acting and became a telenovela star in her native country, per Biography. However, Hayek was especially ambitious and decided to move to Los Angeles to make it in Hollywood. In a 2003 guest appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Hayek shared her experience: 

They said, ‘There are no parts for Latinas here. What do you want to play, the maid? You were a star in Mexico, why don’t you go back to Mexico?’ And they were not trying to be mean or anything, they were trying to give me good advice that you’ll never get a leading role as a Latina. And this is what truly inspired me.

Hayek’s big break was in Robert Rodriguez’s Desperado alongside Antonio Banderas back in 1995 before becoming a massive Hollywood star, beginning her own production company and becoming the first Latin actress to be nominated for Best Actress at the Oscars. As Hayek recently reflected on The Drew Barrymore Show, when she was rejected early in her incredible career, she couldn’t help but be aware of the untapped market of Latinos Hollywood was ignoring at the time. Nowadays, Hayek is one of the most beloved actors of our time with a great immigrant story about going against the grain. 

Kumail Nanjiani in The Big Sick

(Image credit: Amazon Studios)

Kumail Nanjiani

Another recent Marvel star and Salma Hayek’s fellow Eternals co-star Kumail Nanjiani hails originally from Karachi, Pakistan and was raised as a Muslim. After high school, Nanjiani moved to Iowa where he studied computer science and philosophy before he started doing stand-up comedy in Chicago. Being a young immigrant, Nanjiani’s comedy has often skewed toward his experience as a topic of conversation, such as this observation, per USA Today:  

I really loved American movies and TV shows growing up… I was excited more than anything to see where these movies are from. The one thing (I remember) when I got to America was everyone was so obsessed with peanut butter. And I would eat it and be like, ‘Really, guys? This is disgusting; there's no other thing like it. This texture, I don't know why you like it.’ It’s been over 20 years and really just in the last year, I'm finally like, ‘Alright, I see the appeal of peanut butter now.’

Nanjiani got his big break with a role in Silicon Valley, but when he and his wife Emily Gordon adapted their love story into 2017’s critically-acclaimed The Big Sick, Nanjiani’s immigrant story was given a larger stage. Since then, Nanjiani has become an A-list star, but continues to make his roots part of his storytelling, such as with his Little America series, which can be viewed with an AppleTV+ subscription, and has become the first South Asian superhero in Eternals

Mila Kunis in Black Swan

(Image credit: Fox Searchlight)

Mila Kunis

That ‘70s Show actress Mila Kunis was born in Ukraine and then moved to United States when she was seven, in the ‘80s, after the fall of the Soviet Union. The actress once told Glamour about her family’s immigrant story: 

My parents went through hell and back. They came to America with suitcases and a family of seven and $250, and that’s it. My parents, for years, worked full-time and went to college full-time. They would go to night school to learn English. My mom started working at Thrifty in Culver City as a box lady. That’s what she did until she learned English; then she became a cashier. My dad worked—fuck if I know—seven jobs? He painted a house. He would deliver toilets. He drove a cab, delivered pizzas. Whatever he could do, he did.

As Kunis shared, her parents ultimately found their way in the U.S, with her father owning cabs and her mother working her way up to be a manager at Rite-Aid. Even though they had treacherous immigration beginnings, Kunis felt like she “never missed out on anything” because they did such a “beautiful job” of not making her feel poor. These days, Kunis is an accomplished actress and wife to Ashton Kutcher, who she has two kids with. 

jane confused on doom patrol season 3

(Image credit: HBO Max)

Diane Guerrero

Diane Guerrero was a breakout star in Netflix’s award-winning series Orange is the New Black for numerous seasons before also being part of Jane the Virgin, the DC universe for Doom Patrol and in Disney’s latest hit Encanto, as the voice of Isabela. Guerrero is a New Jersey-born American actress, but grew up as the only member in her immediate family with U.S. citizenship, her parents being immigrants from Colombia. As Guerrero shared to NPR, when she was 14 she experienced her parents getting deported. In her words: 

So I was walking home from school. I went inside. My parents' cars were outside. And food was on the stove, but it wasn't done. Lights were on. My mom's sweater was on the chair, and - but they were gone. And then a neighbor came and told me that immigration services had come and taken them. And the first thing I did was just go under the bed and cry and cry and feel - you know, feeling of loss and like my parents had disappeared, like they were kidnapped or something.

Diane Guerrero ended up being taken in by her friend’s family for the school year and visiting her parents in prison. She also recalls being “looked as less” as an American citizen with undocumented parents. Guerrero has used her platform to be a big advocate for immigration reform since her experience. 

Vanessa Hudgens in the trailer for Tick Tick Boom.

(Image credit: Netflix)

Vanessa Hudgens 

Vanessa Hudgens is also an American-born actress, with her father being a native of the U.S. whereas her Filipina mother’s native country is Manila. Following the actress’ success in High School Musical, a number of Netflix holiday films and the recent Oscar-nominated movie Tick, Tick… Boom!, Hudgens has shared that she wants to make a movie about her mother’s immigration story. She said this: 

As an immigrant, coming into the States and not knowing anyone, I can’t even imagine how difficult and challenging that is and what challenges she faced as a woman. And my father was a firefighter, so he was gone for a week and home for a week. I feel like that’s such a relatable story to so many women all over the world. The more that we can share, the more we can lift each other up.

There are many forms of immigration stories and the millions of people living in America and other countries after making the difficult adjustment is an important thing for people with big platforms like these actors to continue to discuss. 

Sarah El-Mahmoud
Staff Writer

Sarah El-Mahmoud has been with CinemaBlend since 2018 after graduating from Cal State Fullerton with a degree in Journalism. In college, she was the Managing Editor of the award-winning college paper, The Daily Titan, where she specialized in writing/editing long-form features, profiles and arts & entertainment coverage, including her first run-in with movie reporting, with a phone interview with Guillermo del Toro for Best Picture winner, The Shape of Water. Now she's into covering YA television and movies, and plenty of horror. Word webslinger. All her writing should be read in Sarah Connor’s Terminator 2 voice over.