The Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings star (with Fred the duck!) is featured in PEOPLE's 2021 Sexiest Man Alive issue
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Simu Liu is a big advocate for animal rescue — and it's a passion that was sparked at a young age.

In PEOPLE's 2021 Sexiest Man Alive issue, the Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings star, 32, recreates one of his favorite childhood photos featuring a duckling the actor "hatched" with his dad at 10 years old.

"We had just moved into our new house in Mississauga, Ontario, and one of the first few months that we were there, my dad comes into the house and is like, 'There's a little duck nest in front of our door!" recalls Liu, who posed with a gorgeous duck named Fred in L.A. last month. "He's like, 'I'm waiting for this duck mother to come back and she's not showing up.'"

Liu and his dad decided to "try to hatch" the ducklings themselves and headed to the library for some assistance.

"I got every book that there was on duck reading. We took an old aquarium and put a heat lamp on top to make it a comfortable, warm environment for the eggs," he recalls. "We had no expectation that the eggs would hatch."

sexiest man alive all grown up
Credit: Peggy Sirota

About a month later, Liu had just arrived home from school when his dad hurried him upstairs. "I got to see the ducks coming out of their shell for the first time," he says. "Since we were the first people — or creatures — that they had met, they thought that we were their mothers."

For more on Simu Liu — and all the hottest guys in Hollywood — click here and pick up this week's issue, on stands Friday, Nov. 12.

"Everywhere we went, they kind of followed us. We would play with them in the backyard and they would watch TV with me on my head," says Liu. "They would just love kind of climbing all over my body. It was the best!"

Twenty-some years later, Liu is still adding furry friends to the family. His latest rescue is a pup named Chopa, who he first met in the Dominican Republic.

"I was shooting a movie about adventure racers that come upon a dog and end up adopting him. It was just this case of life imitating art, imitating life," he says. "I met one of the background dogs on our production and they were being supplied by a wonderful shelter out of Santo Domingo."

simu liu
Credit: Courtesy Simu Liu

Liu asked Chopa's handler if he could foster her for a few days — but ended up keeping her permanently. "Sometimes you just have that special bond right away," he says. "From that moment on, I just never gave her back!"

The star — who is breaking barriers both on screen and off as Marvel's first East Asian superhero — says animals were a constant for him during trying times.

"I've had dogs in my life pretty much from the moment I've been on my own. I was 22 years old, actually, incidentally had just been laid off from my job and I had a dog," he says. "My parents just didn't understand any of it."

Now with Chopa by his side as he navigates superstardom, Liu says he also hopes to help others feel less alone.

"It's been such an incredible ride with ups and downs, but this idea that there is something in the world now that wasn't there before that is meaningful to kids and [touches] people's lives, I think that's really incredible," he says of Shang-Chi. "It's been immensely rewarding [to have] this platform now, and I don't intend to waste it."