How Constance Wu fought to be in Crazy Rich Asians and why it meant so much to her

The actress hopes to see a more representative acting industry in the future.

Think you're busy? Trying being Constance Wu. The California-based actress spends nine months of each year filming her TV show, Fresh Off The Boat, the first US sitcom in two decades to focus on the experiences of an Asian-American family; other projects must be squeezed into her time off. Now, that downtime is devoted to promoting Crazy Rich Asians, a big-hearted rom-com about big money that's also the first major studio movie in 25-years to feature an all-Asian cast and spotlight Asian-American experience (following The Joy Luck Club, released in 1993).
The fact that Crazy Rich Asians has already broken several box office records in America hasn't quite sunk in yet.
"I had one week off from my show, and so I'm here in London doing press," she explains. "But it feels like the privilege of a lifetime to be able to do this work: you want to be able to move people, and I think we do that with our story. People finally feel represented."
Based on the best-selling series of novels by Singaporean author Kevin Kwan, Crazy Rich Asians follows economics professor Rachel Chu (played by Constance) as she travels to Singapore to meet the family of her boyfriend Nick (played by Henry Golding) for the first time. Oh, and said family just happen to be one of the richest business dynasties in Asia, with very specific ideas about who Nick should and shouldn't end up with.
Constance first encountered the story "right around when it came out, maybe five or six years ago", after being encouraged to read it by her agent, with one eye on the potential for a film version in the future. Her research paid off. When director Jon Chu boarded the project, he immediately thought of Constance for the part of Rachel – but that tight Fresh Off The Boat schedule nearly nixed her chances of taking the role.
"I had a schedule conflict because of my TV show, so I let it go," she recalls, until a moment of clarity – and a well-timed email – brought her back on board.
"I actually wrote to Jon, because I was feeling like I would really regret it if I didn't tell him what [the role] would mean to me. I guess it won him over, because then they pushed the production dates," she says. "Obviously, I still had to [do a] screen test and chemistry read, but me writing that was, I think, why they decided to push the project."
Crazy Rich Asians is an important movie. Perhaps because it's still so woefully rare to see a studio film led by an Asian cast, it was a tough pitch, and there was immense pressure for the film to succeed, critically and financially; a pressure that doesn't seem to exist for, say, the endless action movies fronted by middle-aged white men that do just well enough at the box office.
"People would often say, 'oh, there's no model for this type of movie.' But there is a model for good movies, so invest in that, try something a little different, and I think the risk pays off," she says.
The inevitable weight that comes with making history didn't discourage her, either. "I knew how important it would be; that's actually part of why I wrote the email to Jon," Constance adds. "I experienced that kind of watershed moment with Fresh Off The Boat, and I felt a responsibility to pursue it [with Crazy Rich Asians] and to try to make it really, really great. The reason we are doing this is for the representation, for the quality of the story. When you stick to that, you can't lose."
The actress is, however, realistic about the fact that films with a diverse cast are often faced with an impossible task: to accurately represent every possible experience within, in this case, the Asian community. Indeed, some critics have taken issue with the film's celebration of conspicuous consumption.
"I've said before, you have to be specific to be universal," she says. "If you're trying to please everybody, then it's a watered-down product: it's not born out of truth, it's born out of the desire to please, to get approval. This story was very specifically Asian-American, but it also touches on people who have gone into a different situation with an open heart and been hurt, and used that pain to re-energise their sense of self. You don't have to be Asian to understand that feeling!''
Constance is refreshingly open about how this film has affected her position in Hollywood.
"The way people treat me now is a lot nicer, with more respect," she laughs. "I think it's literally the fact that we are putting our story on a large screen."
She intends to use her elevated profile to work towards a better, more representative industry. She's spoken at Women's Marches in the US alongside other high-profile supporters of the Time's Up movement, is "writing a few things" and says she's keen to create a ripple effect of change by "produc[ing]and finance[ing] other works that are in line with [her] values".
But for now, she just wants the audience to "enjoy Crazy Rich Asians, and be moved and laugh and get a little bit lost in the story".
And as for the industry? "I hope that they understand that there are populations that need representation and are hungry for it, but also that it's not the formula that makes a good movie, it's the quality of the work. Make your decisions from your heart and you'd make better stuff – I so hope that happens."
Crazy Rich Asians is out in cinemas now.
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