With leading roles in both Fresh Off the Boat and Crazy Rich Asians, Constance Wu is bringing Asian-American stories to the forefront of pop culture. Here, she discusses diversity in Hollywood, the price of outspokenness, and the love of her life—a brown bunny named Lida Rose
On the day Constance Wu and I meet to chat at Blue Bottle Coffee in L.A.’s eclectic Echo Park neighborhood, ABC has just announced that Wu’s series, Fresh Off the Boat, will be renewed for a fifth season. The 36-year-old actor is all smiles when I congratulate her on the news. “I’m really looking forward to working with the cast and crew again,” she says. “We have such a peaceful set. It’s really a great time.” Decked out in a black leather jacket, a well-worn NY Yankees hat, a white top with black splotches, a thick gold chain necklace, and blond highlights, Wu looks less like her TV alter-ego—the ultra-frugal, horror-movie-loving Jessica Huang on Fresh Off the Boat—and more like any other Angeleno.
But she’s not just any Angeleno. Wu is the romantic lead of Crazy Rich Asians (premiering August 15), a fun, flirty rom-com that’s been getting major buzz. Based on the hugely successful book series by Kevin Kwan about an Asian-American woman’s attempts to fit in with her boyfriend’s over-the-top family in Singapore, Crazy Rich Asians is the first big-budget Hollywood film with an all-Asian cast since The Joy Luck Club, which premiered 25 years ago. The movie is being heralded by some as “a historic moment for Asian Americans,” and Wu is picture perfect in the splashy film, shot on location in Singapore. Before she got top billing in a high-profile movie, Wu was already using her elevated platform as the star of Fresh Off the Boat to speak out about sexism and blatant white washing in her industry, tweeting her outrage and name-checking Asian roles that had been cast with non-Asian actors in multiple interviews. “We have to stop perpetuating the racist myth that only a white man can save the world,” she tweeted in 2016 after Matt Damon’s casting in The Great Wall was announced. But this brand of brazenness isn’t new to Wu, who has been an activist since she was a teenager growing up in Richmond, Virginia. “You can ask people in my high school. I’ve always cared about standing up for people. I’ve always cared about human stories,” she says. “I just have a louder microphone now than I did when I was younger.”
“I’ve always cared about human stories, I just have a louder microphone now than I did when I was younger.”
As a kid, however, Wu’s politics were quite different than what they are today. In sixth grade she penned a letter to the editor of the Richmond Times Dispatch about being pro-life, a decision that Wu bemoans today. “It’s ridiculous for a 12-year-old to tell women what they should do with their bodies,” she says. “But when you’re a kid, you’re very much a product of your environment, and I grew up in a really conservative, religious town.” Despite her conservative surroundings, Wu was also drawn to the arts, so at age 12 she started participating in local community theater. Acting expanded her horizons, and by the time she was a teen, she knew she wanted to leave suburbia and move to New York City. “I think it’s pretty typical, especially for artsy suburban kids, to want to seek out New York or other cities that are different than what they grew up with,” she says.
At 16, Wu started studying acting at the Lee Strasberg Theater & Film Institute in New York City. “Then I went to college at SUNY Purchase in upstate New York for acting. And in the summers, I would live in Manhattan,” she says. After graduation, she performed in a showcase for agents, casting directors, and producers in New York City. “At the end, you get a sheet of paper that has all the people interested in you,” she recalls. “Then, you do meetings and decide on what agency you want to represent you.” I tell Wu that many Asian Americans, myself included, grew up with immigrant parents who wanted us to seek stable (ahem, lucrative) careers, and the arts weren’t encouraged as a path to success. She nods, mentioning that when she visits colleges to speak to Asian American student associations, she’s always asked about choosing to become an actor. “I tell them, your parents might not approve, but if you’re seeking your parents’ approval, that mindset is not good for the arts anyway,” she says. “With my parents, I think they knew that I was going to do acting whether or not they wanted me to. At the end of the day, your parents want you to be happy, and no one knows what makes you happy better than you.”
But at one point in her career, Wu considered quitting acting. “I was a little beat up and tired of it, so I studied linguistics and speech language pathology at Queens College,” she says. Then her boyfriend at the time dumped her, and, heartbroken, Wu decided she wanted to leave New York. So, in 2010, she took a leap of faith and moved to L.A. She hustled hard, landing bit parts on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and One Life to Live. When she auditioned for Fresh Off the Boat in 2014, she was dead broke. “I was in $40,000 of credit card debt. I really liked the pilot script. But at the same time, as I was auditioning for Fresh Off the Boat, I auditioned for a different pilot every day. At that point in my career, the show chose me,” she says.
Fresh Off the Boat, which debuted in February 2015, was the first sitcom since Margaret Cho’s short-lived show All-American Girl, in 1994, to feature an Asian-American cast, a fact that’s not lost on Wu. “In the past 20 years on TV, Asians played roles that could be played by anyone. Some people think that’s good that you’re not playing a stereotype. I think that’s just diversity as checking a box,” she says. “I’m more interested in representation, which is highlighting what makes an Asian American different than a white American or a black American.”
The show, based on Eddie Huang’s memoir of the same name, features a Taiwanese family that moves from D.C. to Orlando in the ’90s, so Louis Huang, the patriarch, can open the cowboy steakhouse of his dreams. Wu’s role is Jessica Huang, a mother and real-estate broker who tries to balance family traditions with her newly adopted American suburban life. (Her guilty pleasure is watching Melrose Place with the other suburban moms.)
“I’m more interested in representation, which is highlighting what makes an Asian American different than a white American or a black American.”
Wu and I chat about how we both relate so much to some of the show’s minor details. Wu, who was also raised in a Taiwanese-American family, recalls the first time she read her character’s line about dishwashers—a peculiarity we both recognized immediately. “Jessica says, ‘This is something Chinese people do, using the dishwasher as a drying rack.’ When they wrote that, I was like, I can’t even believe this.” I tell her the first time I ever used a dishwasher to actually clean dishes was when I moved in with a boyfriend in my 20s. “Yeah. You hand wash them,” concurs Wu, “then you put dishes in the dishwasher to dry.”
When I ask Wu what her working relationship is like with her Fresh Off the Boat co-star and on-set husband, Randall Park, it’s refreshing to hear her describe him as one of the nicest guys in the business. “Sometimes, you work with guys who are maybe five-percent creep. Hey, I can be five-percent jerk, too. But Randall is zero percent creep. He’s 100 percent good,” she says, and actually tears up while attempting to describe him further. “I am so lucky to work with him. He is so kind and generous with his heart and personality. I can’t say enough good things about him.” She laughs, adding, “Though I’m sure he could say a lot of shit about me.”
This is certainly high praise for Park, considering the fact that Wu has been notoriously critical of other folks in the entertainment industry—and rightly so. She angrily derided the casting of Matt Damon as the lead actor in the 2016 film The Great Wall and was similarly pissed when Scarlett Johansson nabbed the lead in last year’s Ghost in the Shell. Wu took to Twitter to call out both of these instances of blatant whitewashing, posting, “Can we all at least agree that hero-bias & ‘but it’s really hard to finance’ are no longer excuses for racism?”
When I ask if she’s faced any backlash for her outspokenness, she sighs wearily and replies, “I’m a woman. I face backlash for even walking down the street and taking up space in this world.” She pauses, then continues. “When a woman is anything other than an object, when she has a voice or thinks she is worthy of success or attention, people don’t like that.” This backlash is only magnified by the fact that Wu openly identifies as a feminist. “I think some people have a stereotype of feminism that’s not actually the philosophy behind it,” she says. “I think anyone who thinks women are human beings is basically a feminist.”
Thankfully, Wu’s commitment to speaking her mind doesn’t appear to be slowing her down at all. Fresh Off the Boat is still a hit, and her starring role in Crazy Rich Asians is about to launch her career to new heights. In the film, Wu plays Rachel, an NYU economics professor who travels with her boyfriend Nick to Singapore for his best friend’s wedding. Unbeknownst to Rachel, her charming boyfriend is a famously eligible and uber-rich bachelor from a family luxury hotel dynasty. So when Rachel lands in Singapore, she gets a crash course in the lifestyles of the beyond rich and famous. (Let’s just say that Beverly Hills’ Rodeo Drive looks like a quaint shopping mall compared to Singapore.)
Besides the fabulous eye candy of couture gowns and opulent locales, it’s exciting to see a film exclusively filled with Asian-American actors killing it on screen. From Michelle Yeoh as Nick’s disapproving mom to Awkwafina as Rachel’s eccentric friend from Singapore, the cast of Crazy Rich Asians is dazzling, truly bringing this Baz Luhrmann-style romp to life. Wu’s turn as the foreigner facing off against the formidable Yeoh is perfect. And their final confrontation reveals a bit of the real Constance Wu (in a badass, mic-drop scene at a mahjong hall).
Filming in Singapore for a month was a fantastic experience for Wu, and she raves about the gorgeous location shoots and the fun she had with her castmates post-shooting. “We did a lot of drinking. I did less, though, because when I work, I need my mind to be sharp, so I don’t drink that much when I’m working,” she says, then adds, smiling, “but everybody else did.”
As rewarding as it was filming Crazy Rich Asians, Wu was also homesick for her tiny, brown, pet bunny, Lida Rose. “She’s named after a barbershop quartet song,” she says, smiling. When I inquire why she chose a bunny as a pet, she replies, “When I see a bunny, my heart melts. Lida Rose is really affectionate, litter trained, and she minds her own business.” When on set for Fresh Off the Boat, Wu brings Lida Rose to work every day to hang out in her trailer. But Wu admits that her longtime boyfriend isn’t a bunny person. In fact, one of the reasons she loves him is because he didn’t try to impress her by feigning affection for Lida Rose. “When some guys come over, they try to act like they love my bunny, but it’s fake. With my boyfriend, he was just himself when he first met my bunny, which was a while ago. He’s not really an animal person, but he’s a great person person.”
When she’s not working 15-hour days on her TV show or filming movies on-location, Wu loves a really good single-malt Scotch, bourbon Manhattans, and a relaxing spa day (“Half the reason I go is the nice fluffy robe,”) with her guilty pleasure—fashion magazines. “I just love looking at the clothes,” says Wu, who admits that since dressing up is part of her job, she’s more casual on her non-work days. And even on-screen, her favorite part of playing Jessica Huang on Fresh Off the Boat is that she always wears comfortable shoes. “I don’t like physical discomfort,” says Wu. “When I get offered these roles where I’m going to have to go through four hours of makeup, I can’t do it. I could do that for a week, but if I have to do that for three months, I will go fucking insane.”
For the hard-working actor, the past four years have been full of rewarding experiences, but her biggest challenge has been learning to turn down big projects. “I’m allowed to say no if a really big project is offered to me, but it doesn’t align with my values,” says Wu. “Some people will say, ‘But this is a great opportunity.’ And I’m sure it is, but it’s not for me. I’ve learned how to say no, but I need to also learn how to be comfortable after I say it. That’s a big challenge for me.” When I note that her problem is relatable for a lot of women, Wu concurs. “Totally,” she says. “Sometimes, people will say you’re a bitch if you don’t say yes. If you ask for more money, people will say you’re ungrateful. I don’t even care about money, but it’s the precedent. Saying no comes with a lot of guilt, even in issues of consent, as we’ve learned in the current topical environment.”
Next up for Wu is a feature film she’s co-writing with a friend (“We’re so close to being finished!” she says), and another feature she’s writing on her own. “I’m also pitching TV shows that are interested in representation and history, but are also really fucking fun,” she says. “I’m interested in creating my own projects and opportunities.”
“Asian Americans always talk about how they want positive representation. But the key is never positive representation. You want narrative plentitude. ”
Before we part in front of Blue Bottle Coffee, Wu urges me to try a local restaurant, Pine & Crane. “It’s Taiwanese-Chinese, and it’s so good,” she says before climbing into a Lyft because her car is in the shop. As we wave goodbye, I reflect on Wu’s views about Asian-American representation in entertainment, and am inspired by her confidence in championing our stories. “We’re trying to make more stories so that investors will invest in stories that are different,” she told me. “Asian Americans always talk about how they want positive representation. But the key is never positive representation. You want narrative plentitude. The best thing art can do for us is make us feel less alone in the world. Yes, it’s fun to go to a movie and see hot people in cool clothes. But there are times when you want to see somebody who’s struggling like you are, who maybe isn’t cool, and never was cool. You want to see that their narrative is still important enough to be the lead.”
By Jennifer Chen
Photos by Kat Borchart
Styling by Jardine Hammond // Hair by Marcus Francis @ Starworks
Makeup by Molly Greenwald @ The Wall Group
This article originally appeared in the August/September 2018 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!
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