'It says something if we can only picture Asians in something from another time,' she says
Rachel Chu, the heroine of Crazy Rich Asians, walks into a waking nightmare when she gets caught amid the storm of high-society cattiness in Singapore.
But for actress Constance Wu, who plays Rachel in the film, the experience of heading to Asia felt completely different. Surrounded by actors of various backgrounds, including Asians, Asian-Americans, British-Asians, and Asian-Australians, the Fresh Off the Boat star says she found her on-set life to be “incredibly moving.” It wasn’t only because they were able to tell a story featuring Asians in front of the camera, she explains, but also because they managed to tell one of present-day Asia — a rarity in Hollywood films about Asians, in her experience.
“Crazy Rich Asians is very special in that it is, I believe, the first American studio movie to star all Asians that is set entirely in a contemporary setting,” she explains. “I mean, we had Joy Luck Club, which was many decades ago, but [in] Joy Luck Club, half of that is a period piece, and that’s the immigrant story. It’s about these women who came here and are immigrants, and Crazy Rich Asians is the opposite. Yes, Rachel is an immigrant, and she’s going back to Asia, but she’s not going back in time.”
“A lot of the roles I see that are good for Asians are often period pieces,” she continues. “While that’s great, I think it says something if we can only picture Asians in something from another time. It’s like a different type of alienation.”
Of course, Crazy Rich Asians doesn’t claim to represent every Asian culture. Instead, Wu points out that simply presenting a slice of today’s Asia helps raise awareness over how Asians should be portrayed, which in turn helps to underline why whitewashing is such an issue.
“For the most part, a lot of this whitewashing is done under the premise of good intentions — nobody’s trying to be a jerk — but I think when something is unintentional, it’s because you are not aware, and I think just having more narrative certitude of Asian stories makes other people more aware,” she explains. “It doesn’t mean they have to make their cast all-Asian, but I think awareness of the world in which you live helps elevate any type of art. It helps you as a person.”
It has certainly helped her understand her own identity, she says. When Wu first met with director Jon M. Chu about starring in the film, the conversation revolved less around the story, and more about their personal connections to the material. “We were just talking about the world of the story and how it related to both himself and myself as Asians who grew up in America,” she recalls. “[The story] obviously touches on a lot of things that Jon and I have gone through in our very different types of careers, so we talked about that and how we related to it. We found that common thread.”
Chu, after all, was looking for an actress who could epitomize Rachel’s journey of reverse culture shock — and the fact that Wu, like Rachel, had never been to Singapore or Malaysia before, only bolstered her performance. “It was like, ‘This is going to be a great journey for her, and we’re going to capture that on film, we’re going to see her uncomfortable, and we’re going to see her find herself,'” he explains. “She embodies Rachel because she has that bite to her. Constance, you can’t push her around, but when you surround in Singapore with all these people, you start to worry for her.”
Crazy Rich Asians hits theaters Aug. 17, 2018.