Hollywood came knocking on author Kevin Kwan’s door even before Crazy Rich Asians hit shelves in the summer of 2013, but not every suitor came calling with the right pitch.
In fact, one potential producer had the wrong idea entirely of what would appeal to Kwan. During this early meeting, Kwan says, the producer asked him to reimagine his protagonist, Rachel (played by Constance Wu in the film), as Caucasian. “That was their strategy,” he remembers. “They wanted to change the heroine into a white girl. I was like, ‘Well, you’ve missed the point completely.’ I said, ‘No, thank you.'”
The idea wasn’t surprising to Kwan, of course. Hollywood has tended to whitewash Asian roles in the past. But in this case, to whitewash Rachel would take away an integral part of the character’s identity and also be a detriment to the story itself. Crazy Rich Asians is about a Chinese-American woman’s journey back to Asia, a quintessentially Asian immigrant experience. Rachel goes through reverse culture shock as part of her journey; to remove that aspect of the character by making her a white woman would have made it a completely different story.
When Kwan shared the tale of this early meeting while on his first book tour, he says the reactions he heard wound up convincing him that a film version of the story would — against typical Hollywood thinking — appeal to audiences who weren’t Asian. He recalls one stop in Texas at a book club made up of white women who were just as appalled as he was at the prospect of whitewashing Rachel. “You should’ve heard them scream,” he says. “They were like, ‘Nooo!’ I remember one woman saying, ‘What makes these people think that all we want to do is see the same white actors or actresses on screen?’ To hear that reaction really confirmed for me what the audience wanted.”
And in the end, Kwan found producers who had the same goals when it came to representation, working with The Hunger Games producer Nina Jacobson and her producing partner Brad Simpson to bring the book to the big screen. “[Nina] felt it was really important to tell the story and to have this message and to have that representation out there,” Kwan says. “That was in 2013, way before the whole Hollywood whitewashing movement happened.”
If anything, Kwan says seeing the film come to life has been proof that the idea to whitewash characters may finally be seen as a negative, and not as a necessity. “I do think the tide is turning, and my personal experience as far as I’m concerned has always been a very positive one, from the very beginning,” he explains. “I had one of the top producers in Hollywood come to me wanting to make this movie and wanting to do it right, so I think the culture is shifting. They’re seeing the importance of this.”
Crazy Rich Asians hits theaters Aug. 17, 2018.