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Constance Wu of 'Fresh Off the Boat' opens up about the show's controversial start

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Eric McCandless/ABC

As tough-love matriarch Jessica Huang, Constance Wu has emerged as the hilarious, steely heart of Fresh Off the Boat. So we asked her about the character and what the show’s early success has meant.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was important to you when developing Jessica as a character?

CONSTANCE WU: I wanted to make sure none of the jokes came from cheap or tacky places. Of course, there are going to be people who laugh at cheap and tacky things that aren’t my intention, but I never wanted to cheapen my performance by using those tricks. Beyond that, I wanted to make sure that everything Jessica did came from a universal truth of family, of love, and of protection.

What do you like best about Jessica?

I identify strongly with the fact that Jessica doesn’t make her choices based on other people’s perceptions of her. She makes choices based on what she thinks is right and good and true. That’s what’s cool about the show. Instead of Asians being the butt of the joke, it flips the lens to where the thing that’s considered normal and standard is not the white-bread lifestyle. I think that’s really valuable, because who ever said that NASCAR and Wonder Bread were the standards from which everything else deviates? It’s cool that we flip the lens in that way and let us Chinese people carry the story and show our viewpoint.

What part of the show makes you laugh the hardest?

Grandma Huang. She doesn’t talk too much, but when she does, it’s a real zinger. She’s kind of a gangsta, you know? Both Randall and I would do a scene with her, and we couldn’t keep a straight face, because she was just so gangsta. Also, any time little Eddie tries to be fly and be cool, I think it’s really funny and very sweet. The scene where Eddie gets his report card was great because the personality of the characters and the writers comes through. You also get the ’90s period and a very Asian precedent of report cards and grades, and you have the hip-hop culture. It’s really fun when there’s that perfect storm.

Eddie Huang wrote about his issues with changing his story to fit the network sitcom formula. How did the balance between those forces develop throughout the season?

I’ll be honest: We did 13 episodes, and there are some episodes that seem like Eddie’s family is a platform for writers’ room jokes. They can exist in any sitcom. I don’t necessarily think that’s harmful, because I think if you’re doing 13 episodes, not every one can be the pivotal moment of everyone’s lives. Throughout the season, we do have episodes that are really trying to be new and authentic and bold and challenging to people’s perceptions. We have both, and to me, that’s a great place to be when you’re trying to make a network show out of such a unique voice as Eddie’s. If we’re there now, we can only go up.

What did it mean to you that the early ratings were so strong?

To come from a group that’s so grossly underrepresent in media and to feel like we’ve been heard is something I’ve never experienced. All of the other parts I’ve played have been Asian because I’m Asian, but the Asian-ness of it has been neutralized for P.C. reasons. To have a show that, instead of choosing to neutralize that, celebrates Asian-ness and makes it a story worth being told is beyond anything I’ve ever expected to get from my career.

Fresh Off the Boat airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. ET.

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