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Crazy Rich Asians: Director Jon M. Chu talks challenges of finding all-Asian cast

‘I’ve had sleepless nights,’ he says

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Gilbert Carrasquillo/FilmMagic

With Fresh Off the Boat and Master of None on TV and the hit book Crazy Rich Asians and a live-action adaptation of Mulan heading to the big screen, is Hollywood on the verge of a breakthrough, or is this yet another blip? Entertainment Weekly looks into the state of Asian representation this week.

Jon M. Chu was fated to direct the upcoming adaptation of Crazy Rich Asians. No, really: Kevin Kwan even referenced him in the bestselling novel that Chu first heard about while directing Now You See Me 2. “I talked to Kevin on the phone and I said, ‘You know, in the book there’s this one part where they talk about Rachel Chu’s family in Cupertino and he’s like, ‘They’re not like us, but they work hard for their money and they even have a cousin who makes movies in Hollywood,’ and I was like, ‘What was that about?'” Chu recalls. “He was like, ‘That’s… you.’ And I was like, ‘Whaaat?! What are you talking about?… And I was just like, I’m supposed to do this movie.”

And he is. The director entered into talks to helm the film in May, five months before Warner Bros. picked up the film and vowed to cast all-Asian leads. To convince producers he was right for the job, he even put together a visual presentation of family photos, showing how he connected with the material. Below, Chu spoke with EW about Asian identity, the film’s plans for casting (and when shooting will likely begin), and the pressures of directing a film that could change Asian visibility in Hollywood.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I read that you wanted to do this film so badly you put together a presentation. But what exactly made you want the gig?

JON M. CHU: I had more recommendations to read this book than any other, from my sister, from my friends. I just loved the book, like, forget that I’m Asian, it was just a really fun, entertaining book, and it was a page-turner for me, but I was in the middle of shooting Now You See Me 2, so I couldn’t think about it, and then I sort of forgot about it. When I was finishing Now You See Me 2, I remember thinking about exploring the Asian-American identity side of my brain. I’ve never fully explored that as an artist. I went to Beijing several times to meet with companies to try to see, like, is there a story out there to explore that side of me?

Nothing really connected, but then about five months ago, my sister was like, “Did you read Crazy Rich Asians?” and I was like, “Oh yeah, there’s that book!” I knew [Color Force producers] Nina Jacobson and Brad [Simpson] were a part of it, and I love Nina, I knew she was going to do it justice, so I reached out to my agent and was like, “Hey, what’s going on with Crazy Rich Asians?” … I read the script that night and loved it.

I was looking for it. It’s a movie that speaks to my identity as an Asian and that struggle of figuring out who I am and where I belong, and it deals with what my family went through, what my mom and my dad from mainland China [went through], so all the struggles I’ve experienced are in this book in a fun way, not in some sort of lecturing way. I reached out to Nina and Brad that week and I was like, “I have to do this movie.” I knew in my heart I had to do it.

No hesitation at all?

No hesitation. Obviously, while you’re reading a script you’re going, “How are they going to translate this?” but it was such a great adaptation already, and I knew we could bring it to another level. We brought on [writer] Adele Lim, who’s actually from Malaysia and mostly writes TV right now, but she came in and did an amazing job adding all the extra touches. As a woman, she has very strong [connection] with the female characters Rachel and Eleanor and all these different philosophies of life and family and their lives colliding into one intersection. She brought on all these other elements which is really great… And it was really great to get to know Kevin [Kwan] through all of this, I talked to him as we adapted. It’s a hard one to squeeze into a movie, but we’re doing our best.

Where are you now with the film, in terms of casting? You’re making sure to cast an all-Asian cast.

We’ve been reading people, getting people on tape, and, you know, Asian-Americans and Asians overseas aren’t used to having roles to play like this, so it takes more effort, it takes more time, and it takes more money than a normal movie would. What’s great about Warner Bros. and Nina and Brad is everybody on board knows it takes that kind of extra energy.

Where we are right now is we know that we’ve seen a lot of people who are working right now, we’ve seen a lot of overseas Chinese actors, but who are the people we are missing? Who are the unknowns, the undiscovered, that we need to find? Because there’s no structure for those people, and they haven’t had these kind of roles, so they may not even be represented yet. We’re trying to dig deeper and find that next round. We’re also still working on the script, and we just got into this relationship with Warner Bros. so we’re just starting to figure out all the details of our actual shoot. It looks like we’re going to be shooting in the springtime, so we’re at soft prep right now, with prep starting in January, I would say.

You said casting for Crazy Rich Asians will take more time, effort, and energy. What exactly does that entail?

We’ll have to look in places that we don’t normally look for a movie. Normally you go to agencies, and they tell you who could fit, and you go and meet or greet them or have them come in and audition. In this one, a lot of the big agencies don’t necessarily know where to find the big, hunky Asian actor that could be [Crazy Rich Asians male lead] Nick that has that charming, leading man thing. Maybe they’re in theater and haven’t crossed over yet. Maybe they’re doing commercials and haven’t crossed over yet. And they have to be able to sound educated from Oxford, so they have to have the English accent on top of being a good actor.

My biggest thing is, forget it being an all-Asian cast. We need to make this a great movie, so no matter who we cast, and obviously it’s going to be all Asian, but they have to be up to snuff. We are representing what we consider the very top of Asian-American entertainment right now, so we want an all-star, talented cast. We know that importance, so from the very beginning, talking with Nina, we brought that up very early, saying, “This is not going to be an easy casting. We have to dig deeper, we can’t just settle, because it’s too important.” That’s what we all have agreed on.

NEXT: “It’s for the future of cinema that diversity and those new perspectives have to be told. Otherwise, the art will die.”

[pagebreak]

Tell me more about how the Warner Bros. deal came about. How did you go about meeting with studio execs, and what were those meetings like?

We developed the script for four or five months ourselves before going to the studio, and so we got it to a place where we had the script and certain images and ideas, and we even location-scouted so we could go to the studio and say, “Here’s the movie we’re making,” so we didn’t have to be in that weird in-between where they’re not greenlit yet. We went to all the studios, and we got offers from every single one of them. It’s amazing to know that they were all down to throw down on this movie, this decent-sized movie that would not necessarily have a star that everybody knew, but were all talented and Asian.

And those conversations of #WhiteWashedOut movements and all the #OscarsSoWhite stuff, and the stuff that happened at the Oscars that sort of targeted Asians in the joke, those conversations did come up in those meetings, and you could feel there was a difference. Those speaking out, the community, everybody coming together really did make a difference in those rooms, because now there were things everybody had to recognize. You couldn’t just say, “Oh, nobody goes to an all-Asian film.” Now it’s like the audience is demanding this, and we can prove that there is a community out there [for the film], and they will come see an Asian male can be the lead, an Asian female doesn’t just have to be the sexy vixen or whatever it may be. We can have all walks of life, all shapes and sizes, all ages of Asians, and be entertained.

We also had offers from digital studios that would have paid even more than a studio, and we had the difficult decision of deciding whether to stick to, you know, [streaming] or go with the big screen, and we all made an agreement that that’s the battle that we were gonna fight, because on the small screen, there’s a lot of things happening right now, like you can feel [Asian representation] bubbling. There’s Fresh Off the Boat, there’s Master of None, while on the big screen it’s still archaic, and so we knew that we were all in a position to bet on something. We could go for what we stood for and what Kevin Kwan always wanted even from a book stage.

How much pressure do you feel at this point? I know spring is a while away…

Well spring isn’t that far away [laughs] in movie prep time and that’s creeping closer, so I feel more pressure to make a great movie for movie-going audiences than I do about trying to do some sort of movement. In my mind, like, yes, we already knew coming into this that the statement was going to be big for the movement to put Asians on screen, but my job as a director is not to worry about the political statement, but to make it as entertaining as possible so that that message can come through.

Of course I’ve thought about it, of course I’ve had sleepless nights when that weighs on you. You think about [questions like], “Are we allowed to cast a Korean as a Chinese person? Are we allowed to cast a half Chinese-American in this particular world? Are we allowed to have this character be crass here? Is it okay to have these women fighting?” Like, all of those political questions, we have discussed, but I always have to come back and try to remind myself to not get caught up in all of the little things. The one thing I’m supposed to do is make this movie great and entertaining for everybody, and of course, to be as true and to make this the example of what a movie like this can really be so that others can follow, and we can open up a gate for other Asian stories.

How concerned are you at this point about how the film will perform at the box office?

I think that of course I want the community to come out and show support. Hollywood listens to money and to controversy. And I think the people have created a wave of controversy to wake up Hollywood, and now we have to execute. Now we have the opportunity and the pressure to make a great movie so that everybody can get behind [the movement]. Now we can show up in force and say, “We will go to these movies,” and that will speak volumes to the industry and to the studios, to say there is a market for this.

And beyond that, it’ll open up the eyes of a little girl or little boy out there who looks like me and looks up on the big screen, in the dark, having paid $20, and wants to escape into a fantastical world, and sees themselves there as a hero, and to me, that’s the most important thing across the board. I think about myself when I was young and not seeing anybody up there on the screen that represented me. To me, I was like, “Oh, I’m like Marty McFly. I’m like all these other characters that didn’t actually look like me.” How great would it be if there could be somebody [who could say], “Oh, I could be a superhero, I could be the charming guy girls can desire.” I think that that change is really exciting for me.

You see it in dance. When I was growing up, Asians weren’t known for dancing. I knew all my older aunts and uncles did, like, ballroom dancing and stuff. And then you saw all those dance crews like Quest and Jabbawockeez and now they’re like, known for dance. That happened within five or six or seven years now, that was a fast shift in public thought of who Asians were and can be, and I think we can do that across the board in every category.

Going off all of that, do you think, then, that Asian representation is at a turning point?

Yes, I truly believe, and I don’t know that everyone else can see it, but when I go into those meetings, that conversation comes up. I think those voices are heard. I was never an activist, I’ve always just wanted to make my movies and be compared to other directors, not other Asian directors and so the only reason that I, at 37 years old now, feel comfortable [doing this] is that I realize the reason I’ve been able to do that is because others before me have opened those doors. Others before me have fought those fights for me. I’ve gotten scholarships from the Asian-American Directors Guild of America society and things like that, and those things helped me, even if I didn’t realize how much.

So for me, looking at this next generation, I feel not obligated but honored to find how I can open those doors, so yes I think the audience has spoken and revolted against the systematic racism that exists in our business and in a lot of businesses, and now’s the time to say, “Okay, we have this opportunity, and now, I’ve gotta make a great movie, we’ve gotta have actors that can carry this load.” We have to put a flag in the sand and say we’re here and we’ve arrived and we deserve to be at this party as much as anybody else.

Well, how do you sustain that wave? I mean, you can crash that party, but how do you get the chance to stay?

[Laughs] Well, you gotta depend on others to come and tell their story. I’m really thinking about one movie as a statement, and then you’ve gotta trust that all this other talent around me, online or on TV or in theater, that they’re right there and they’re ready to deliver. I know they are, I’ve met them, and I know them, they just can’t get in the rooms of the big Hollywood studios, but as soon as it’s okay, those doors open for them. You just have to trust that they do have the perspectives and they do have the stuff, and there’s no doubt in my mind that they’ll be there right out the gate.

So that’s what we’re hoping, that whenever you break new ground or break the mold in a traditional business like the movie business, that young voices and even people who have been around for a while but never had that opportunity to tell their particular story now has an opportunity.

To me, everybody has a part to play in this movement, whether you’re Asian or not. I really believe that movies are in a critical state of telling superhero stories over and over again which is great and I love those movies, but the reason why movies are great is because they are on the biggest stage in the world, and they can change things. You look at Blackfish, and that changed a whole industry. That’s our goal, to just give a new perspective to an industry that needs it, and I think the more we can all open up those doors, the better for the business across the board. Again, it’s not just an Asian thing. It’s for the future of cinema that diversity and those new perspectives have to be told. Otherwise, the art will die.

This is the final piece in a series of stories this week on EW focused on the state of Asian representation in Hollywood. Read the first, on how the industry’s approach to Asian actors is at a crossroads, here; the second, an interview with actress Ming-Na Wen, here; the third, on casting directors’ perspectives, here; and the fourth, on the importance of the box office, here.