How the Crazy Rich Asians team faced the pressures of representation
For many in the cast of Crazy Rich Asians, working on the film meant seeing more than one Asian face on set for the first time in their careers.
Sonoya Mizuno, who stars as bride-to-be Araminta Lee, only made her film debut two years ago as the humanoid robot servant Kyoko in 2015’s Ex Machina. She’s landed minor roles in films like Beauty and the Beast and La La Land since, but Crazy Rich Asians made for a unique experience. “It really influenced the energy of the whole shoot,” she says. “It was such a pleasure to feel like I wasn’t there for a tokenistic reason.”
Awkwafina, who plays Rachel’s (Constance Wu) Singapore-based college friend Goh Peik Lin, agreed. “I was looking at all my cast-mates, and I realized that every single one of them had, in their career, been that Asian, that one Asian in the cast,” she says. “That does set you apart. In this movie, that dynamic doesn’t exist, and that’s profound.”
Profound, yes, and more than a little gratifying. “It was a party,” marvels Ken Jeong, who plays Peik Lin’s father, Goh Wye Mun. “I felt like I was a butterfly on the wall of something incredibly special.” With that, though, comes pressure. And as the director behind the first American studio film in years to have an all-Asian cast, Jon M. Chu feels the importance of delivering a hit. “There’s the feeling that if you don’t make a great movie,” he says, “then all of this is for nothing.”
Still, he adds quickly, the pressure lifted when filming began, especially after a call with Crazy Rich Asians author Kevin Kwan the first day of shooting. “He said, ‘When I started writing this book, I was in a bad place, I was working a job I hated, and I felt compelled to do something about my life,'” Chu remembers. “So he put on a Post-it note the word ‘joy’ and he posted it on the iMac he was writing on. And every day he wrote, he looked at that word. ‘Joy.’ He said, ‘Every day you shoot, don’t forget that that’s what the story’s about.'”
“So we hid a bunch of ‘joy’ Post-it notes around the movie, and it just centered everything,” Chu says. “It was a release. It freed us.”
The team needed that freedom to move forward. All those intangible hopes — that perhaps the film will rejuvenate the rom-com genre, that maybe it’ll break ground for Asian movie stars — may rest ultimately on the film’s box office fortunes, but that’s an impossible burden. This is not Crazy Rich Asians Who Will Solve All of Hollywood’s Representation Problems. “We have to be realistic about the fact that this is one movie, and one movie can’t be all things to all people,” says Gemma Chan, who stars as Nick’s (Henry Golding) favorite cousin Astrid Leong. “I hope it opens the door for other movies, that it will lead to more confidence in having more films being made. And I think that’s all we can hope for.”
In other words, as Wu puts it: “We need many stories. We need another rom-com that’s totally different from Crazy Rich Asians. There just needs to be more.”
Crazy Rich Asians hits theaters Aug. 17, 2018.