It had been an exhaustingly long day, one that began a little too early for everyone, especially Constance Wu who had been at the centre of everything. The way she slumped down into the couch next to me in a white bathrobe and a snack in hand, more or less summed up the rather enervated mood on set.
“So what do you want to talk about?” she asks, with a slight tilt of the head.
“I guess I want to talk about representation.”
“Well,” Wu continues, as if she had more than expected my line of questioning. “Is a white French person the same as a white American person? Culture is not just physical appearance. That should be obvious. But for some reason, people don’t think that. So they’ll think a white French person is different from a white American person, but they don’t think about the differences between an Asian person from Japan and an Asian person from Singapore.”
It seems like Wu has become the go-to spokesperson for representation in Hollywood. It is a word that has become somewhat synonymous with Wu. After all, she has lead roles in two groundbreaking shows — “Fresh Off the Boat” (the first Asian-American family sitcom in 20 years), and the upcoming film “Crazy Rich Asians” (the first feature in 25 years with a predominantly Asian cast).
“I can’t say why those things took so long. I don’t know the nuts and bolts of the industry. There are so many factors,” Wu says. “But I do think that ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ and the success that came out of it helped ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ get made. It became part of the cultural conversation. People started becoming interested.”
Shanghai Tang coat; Cartier Juste un Clou yellow gold bracelet with diamonds.
Wu had also previously taken to social media to call out Hollywood’s white-washing of roles in the case of Matt Damon in 2016’s “The Great Wall” and Scarlett Johansson in “Ghost in the Shell”, in the following year.
“The truth is I didn’t really think that hard about things like representation and diversity growing up. I just thought about stuff like boys and clothes,” Wu laughs.
It was a statement that took us on a fascinating tangent of lessons learned from past relationships and breakups.
It was because of a “boy” that Wu decided to leave New York where she was pursuing a career in theatre. “I started doing plays when I was 10, and did so every year till I graduated at 21. I was never not in a play. It’s as natural to me as brushing my teeth,” she recalls. “But I got my heart broken by a boy I loved so much. And it was so painful. You know, sometimes when you break up with someone, you get a haircut, or a tattoo or move apartments? I had to move across the country.”
A one-way ticket to Los Angeles later, Wu found herself faced with the gruelling task of breaking into Hollywood. “Making it in entertainment is difficult for anyone who doesn't have parents in the industry," she says. "But was it more difficult given that I’m Asian American? Maybe. But every time I didn’t get something, I didn’t blame the industry. I blamed myself. I thought I was just a shitty actor.”
It was at that point that Wu changed her entire outlook on acting, one that saw her shift focus from a “results-based approach” of going for auditions for the sole purpose of getting the part to that of using auditions as a means to hone her craft. Incidentally, it was a shift that occurred, in part, because of another “boy”.
Céline pantsuits; Chanel sweater; Cartier Juste un Clou yellow gold bracelet and earrings, both with diamonds.
“I was in a really low spot. I was $40,000 in credit card debt. I was broke. I was really far away from home. I had no way of making myself feel better. I mean, I couldn’t afford to go eat a cheesecake,” Wu laughs. “I had to create meaning from within. If you just go into each audition to see how fully rounded and alive you can make this character in the five or 10 minutes you’re in the audition room, then it becomes fun. I realised that if I relied on outside results, someone could take that away from me. But if your validation comes from something you generate, no one can touch that.”
That conviction was what eventually landed Wu — who had not previously dabbled in comedy — the role of Jessica Huang in “Fresh Off the Boat”, a series about a Taiwanese immigrant couple and their all-American kids, based on the memoir by Eddie Huang.
“It was only after I got ‘Fresh Off The Boat’ that I started thinking about representation,” Wu says. “When you think about iconic Asian roles, you think about Mr Yunioshi in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ or Long Duk Dong in ‘Sixteen Candles’.”
Shanghai Tang coat; Cartier Juste un Clou yellow gold bracelet and earring, both with diamonds.
To her, Asian Americans have been cast in supporting roles for such a long time that actors had grown desperate to not let their ethnicity define their careers.
“A lot of Asian actors may have said things like, ‘Oh I don’t want a part just because I’m Asian. I just want it to be a person,’” Wu says. “I actually think that’s kind of insulting to Asians because it implies that Asians aren’t people, and that if there is any bit of their identity or culture in the character, it’s immediately deemed as second rate. How can you say that being Asian has no impact on your identity? I mean even being tall or having tattoos has an influence on your identity because it’s how the outside world perceives you.”
Wu brings up “Fresh Off the Boat” and “Crazy Rich Asians” as steps in the right direction. “There’s a stereotype that Asian Americans are really good at math. Does that mean that an Asian American kid who’s genuinely good at math shouldn’t have a story in which he’s the lead just because someone has perceived him to be a stereotype?” she asks.
“When you centre a story around one person, you get to see all the facets of them besides that one stereotypical quality they’re known for. That’s why I feel that having an Asian American at the centre of a narrative and leading the story is really important.”
Shanghai Tang coat. Cartier Cactus de Cartier yellow gold ring with diamonds and Juste un Clou yellow gold earring with diamonds.
To Wu, representation means playing a role in which your race or ethnicity is not neutralised but rather something to be proud of and take ownership of. “That’s the difference between representation and diversity,” she explains. “Diversity is just putting someone in a role like a token Asian or not even a token Asian — like a token person of colour. There have been so many times where I've auditioned where it's me against a Latina girl and a black girl. Because they just need colour. The lead role's white and then the best friend is described like, "Someone really fun and quirky (only ethnic people)'. So they just want to check off a box."
Ultimately, as audiences in cinemas across the world applaud “Crazy Rich Asians” for its progressiveness, Wu insists that people need to be clear as to where this progression is headed. "The question we need to ask is what kind of representation we need. We need narrative plentitude. We just need more stories centred around the Asian experience,” Wu says. “If I’m a white guy, I could be a Brad Pitt type or a Seth Rogen type or a Martin Short type. For a Caucasian male actor, there is representation for every archetype of their personality. That can only happen if there’s more content. I don’t want to prescribe what kind of content needs to be made. I just think content needs to be made.”
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