When Constance Wu first read the novel “Crazy Rich Asians” some five years ago, she was working as a waitress at Boa Steakhouse in Los Angeles, and the prospects that the book’s lead character Rachel Chu would one day be brought to the screen — and that she would be the one to play her — seemed distant.
“A former agent of mine who is still a dear friend, he thought that this book was sort of taking over,” Wu says late one recent afternoon over the phone from her home in Los Angeles. “He was like, ‘I think you should read this book. I think if they make a movie of this, there’s a part for you.’ And back then, I’m still a waitress and stuff, so I’m reading it, and I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, I could play this part, but I don’t know how to produce or any option or any kind of thing like that.’ So I was like, ‘Ok cool, great book. And when they do — if they do make something — I would love to audition for it.’”
The book, by Kevin Kwan, became an international best-seller and now “Crazy Rich Asians,” the story of a Chinese-American woman who travels to Asia for the first time to meet her boyfriend’s (very) wealthy family, is now a major studio film, the first with an all-Asian cast in Hollywood since 1993’s “The Joy Luck Club.”
The chance to play Rachel Chu almost eclipsed Wu: the book was originally optioned for film with the lead character rewritten for a white actress — yes, really — which Wu says was conceived as a way to make the movie more profitable.
Watch Constance Wu talk personal style and the fashion in “Crazy Rich Asians”:
“Not necessarily because she’s white, but because then they could get someone who’s a white movie star,” Wu says. “We haven’t had an Asian-American movie star who has always been number one in all her films. We have a lot of great, great talented actors who sometimes get to play leads in films, but mostly get to play supporting roles.”
The film eventually found its way to “The Hunger Games” producer Nina Jacobson, who believed in Kwan’s vision to keep the character Asian-American. “It’s really admirable that Kevin stuck to his guns because it’s hard to stick to your values when people are offering you the kinds of things you’ve never had before, you know?” Wu says.
And who is that Asian-American movie star who met Kwan’s vision — an actress who one day might have an IMDb page of leading roles, a string of box-office hits, a celebrity stylist and legions of loyal fans? Meet Constance Wu.
Wu, the daughter of Taiwanese immigrants who was born and raised in Richmond, Va., is until now best known for her role in the ABC sitcom “Fresh Off the Boat,” which is based on the life of food personality Eddie Huang. “Crazy Rich Asians,” which arrives Aug. 15, is one of the summer’s most-anticipated movies — and it also happens to be Wu’s first-ever studio movie. But stress and pressure are par for the course for the actress, and Hollywood critics of all kinds simply background noise.
“I’ve been an actress since I was like 10 or 12, and then I went to drama school. I have a technique, and I have a process that I bring to every role. And I can talk about it, but that kind of makes it less magic, and also when I talk about it, it makes me feel like I’m full of myself,” says the 36-year-old. “And I don’t want to have to do that because I don’t want to judge my own process. Because you know what, a lot of other people in Hollywood make me feel bad for taking my work seriously. They’re like, ‘Oh, she’s a theater girl. Oh, my god, you’re so important.’ And for me it’s just like, ‘No, I just take my work seriously.’ And I don’t want people to make me feel ashamed. So that’s why I also don’t talk about it because I think I’ve been conditioned by a lot of actors in Hollywood to feel like it’s narcissism and snobbery rather than your heart’s true passion. And I don’t like my heart’s true passion being confused as snobbery.”
Her career choices have very much followed her heart’s passions, and the expected success of “Crazy Rich Asians” hasn’t deterred her from taking things as they come.
“Whatever path my career takes, whatever roles I choose to do, I want them to sort of line up with the things that I feel in my heart. And it’s hard to stick to that because, the thing is, hearts change. Right? Like the guy you love when you’re 18, you probably wouldn’t love him now. You love somebody else now. So I think I feel comfortable saying that that’s what I’m trying to do because that’s what gives my life meaning,” Wu says. “And saying something like that is also what permits you to change as you experience more things. Personally, I’m still new to this. I’m the lead in this movie, but not only is this my first lead in a movie, this is my first [studio] movie. Ever. In my life. I don’t think I’ve even been an extra in a studio movie.
“I got into this because I loved theater,” she continues. “That’s what I wanted to do, and I assumed that movies were going to be just like theater. It’s not. I mean, 5 percent of it is the acting part. The connection that you have with another human being, that’s the same. So yeah, that’s where I’m thinking I’m sort of grappling with that in my own head right now. And I think I don’t have an answer. I think I’m trying to just pay attention and have fun, hopefully.”
Wu was always the first choice to play Rachel Chu, says the film’s director, Jon M. Chu, but obligations with her “Fresh Off the Boat” contract prevented her from being part of the initial filming schedule.
“I wrote him an email because, I was like, as somebody who has gone through the process of carrying a TV show as a novice — because when I was in that TV show, I had never done a network show, really. I went from being a waitress to being one of the stars of an ABC sitcom, and I really learned how to navigate both the artistic side of how to carry a story with humor but also depth and complexity, and also how to handle the press side and how to make sure that people are being heard,” Wu says. “So in that sense, I kind of felt called to do this.”
“Fresh Off the Boat,” not unlike “Crazy Rich Asians,” has been groundbreaking for representation of Asian-Americans in Hollywood. The series is the first network television show to focus on Asian-Americans since the 1994 sitcom “All-American Girl,” starring Margaret Cho.
“In the United States, it was historic — it had never happened in over 20 years, which is kind of like déjà vu in my life right now,” Wu says. “Going into our fifth season right now, we’re going to be the first show that’s ever had an Asian-American lead that’s going to be syndicated. And syndication is a huge deal for TV actors.”
The success of “Fresh Off the Boat” was fuel to be more outspoken in Hollywood both for Wu and for the mass audiences who called out the long overdue nature of a show like “Fresh Off the Boat,” and the need for more inclusivity in the film industry.
“I think people started being a little more vocal. I know I started being more… I wasn’t more vocal than I was before, but [I used] my same amplified voice that I already had. And I think that sort of fired up Jon to realize, ‘This [‘Crazy Rich Asians’] is an important story that I know how to tell and that I want to tell — that’s important to me to tell.’”
Wu was an active voice in the #whitewashedout movement on social media in 2016, a backlash against the whitewashing of many Asian roles in Hollywood movies and the general lack of representation on screen. Wu’s activism came back to Jon M. Chu when it came time to thinking about casting “Crazy Rich Asians.”
“In a way, she’s the one who woke me up, on her social media, to doing things that dealt with my own ethnicity which I didn’t do before,” Chu says. “I was kind of scared to. But her advocacy made me look at myself and what I was doing in Hollywood to help.
“It made me very excited that she could be a huge role model for young women and men, Asian or not Asian. She just has a strength and a confidence about her,” Chu continues. “When you watch our movie, I think the confidence is contagious. It sends a message beyond the movie, which is that we come in all shapes, colors, sizes, types, and that alone is a powerful message to the world: that we’re not just one giant blob of Asian.”
When asked of how she views her role as an advocate in Hollywood, Wu pauses for a beat, and then another, and just when the possibility of the call being dropped seems very real, she begins.
“My passion for equality — when it comes to gender, race, class — that is a foundation of who I am and what I value. So when I got back to that core, everything kind of springs from it,” she says. “I mean, if I’m a person who really wants a nice car or nice clothes or fame, those are the things that you’re chasing; you keep chasing, chasing. But I found that if you go to your core and try to build your values and your character, that’s a type of wealth that can’t be taken away from you because it’s self-generated, and it’s a wealth of spirit and it’s a wealth of compassion. And I think Rachel has that inherently, because she comes from a single mother, working class, and everything she has, she has earned and everything she does is rooted a lot in love. Right? And I think, in America, we value that. We value when somebody fights for love, right? We value when somebody is from a blue-collar family. We’re proud of our working-class roots in America. That’s a very American thing. But then when Rachel goes to Asia, specifically to Singapore, and specifically in this book where wealth is something that is to be desired and almost to the point that it’s unattainable…Because these are people that are so rich, they control the market. And you would want to use money to hide your working-class roots.
“You know, my mom used to say that Chinese people don’t like to have dark skin because that’s synonymous with working in the field and being working class; it’s not a beauty thing, it actually has to do with being working class,” she continues. “And that was always very interesting to me because as an American, that’s my nationality; I’m like, ‘But the people I know are proud to be working class.’ We’re proud of the things we build with our hands. So Rachel grew up in an environment that had those similar values. She ends up thrown into another one, and when you get thrown into anything different, it sort of tests you. Do you get distracted? Do you change? And I think she does in some ways get distracted and changes, but only in order to come back with a firmer sense of her own belief.
“But Rachel finishes her story. I think personally, I’m in the middle of my story.”
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