Casting a new die for Hollywood
‘ Crazy Rich Asians’ – a comedy about Asians, starring actual Asians, is top of the US box office. For star Constance Wu, the end of whitewashed casting can’t come too soon, writes Tara Brady
Last spring, in just one of an ongoing series of controversies, Roseanne Barr took a shot at rival ABC sitcoms Fresh Off the Boat and Blackish. In an episode of the rebooted Roseanne, Barr and John Goodman’s characters fall asleep on the couch. When they wake up, Goodman’s Dan notes that they had “missed all the shows about black and Asian families,” to which Roseanne retorts: “They’re just like us. There, now you’re all caught up.”
Four months on and Roseanne the sitcom is cancelled, while Fresh Off the Boat’s Constance Wu is headlining Crazy Rich Asians, this summer’s soaraway sleeper hit.
“What she said wasn’t great,” says Wu. “She’s probably not going to be a person who is ever in my tribe. But as an actor our job is not to judge people but to understand them.”
The visibly- thrilled Wu can afford to be magnanimous.
Back when Roseanne was making her mean- spirited joke, Crazy Rich Asians, which has squatted on top of the US box office for three successive weekends, looked like an outside bet. The leading man is Henry Golding, who is best known as a travel host for the BBC and is entirely new to cinema. An old- fashioned Cinderella story about an Asian- American economics professor travelling to Singapore to meet her boyfriend’s ludicrously lux relatives, the film is a wide- eyed, lovable rom- com arriving at a time when Hollywood doesn’t do wide- eyed, lovable rom- coms.
“Every good story has both levity and depth, and that’s what a good rom- com does,” says Wu. “The rom is the depth, the com is the levity. If you have too much of one of those attributes it becomes indulgent, but when you have both, it feels great. It’s an awesome genre.”
It has been quite a fight to get Crazy Rich Asians into a multiplex near you. Kevin Kwan, who wrote the hit 2013 book on which the film is based, had to turn down numerous offers, including one producer who suggested changing the film’s heroine to a white American, in order to shepherd in a movie with an all- Asian cast.
Wu, who is currently gracing the cover of Time magazine under the heading “Crazy Rich Asians is going to change Hollywood”, has long had an inkling that the film was going to be a big deal.
“I definitely knew it was going to be very meaningful to a lot of people,” says Wu. “I kept hearing that even while we were making it. It did actually put a lot of pressure on me. It was scary. I’ve been an actor my whole life and all I would focus on is just the quality of the work. And suddenly this is so much bigger than an actor’s job. It’s something new that I’m just hoping to learn to navigate with grace and gratitude.”
Arguably, Crazy Rich Asians already has changed Hollywood. In late August, the Asian- American actor Jon Cho retweeted a story in the Hollywood Reporter noting that Crazy Rich Asians was top of the US box of- fice and Searching, an Asian- American thriller starring Cho, was in the second spot. “Nuts. I cannot overstate how nuts this is,” the actor tweeted.
This is quite the turnaround. As recently as 2016, Keith Chow, writing in the New York Times, lamented the whitewashed casting choices for Doctor Strange, Power Rangers, Ghost in the Shell and Aloha.
Wu, too, has been consistently and fiercely outspoken about representation. Speaking at an industry panel in 2016, she decried the use of CG effects to “Asian- ise” Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell: “Some people call it ‘ yellowface’, but I say ‘ the practice of blackface employed on Asians’ because that’s more evocative.” Later that year she tweeted about the casting of Matt Damon in The Great Wall as a way of perpetuating the “racist myth that [ only a] white man can save the world”.
She has been equally vocal in her support of Kelly Marie Tran, the Last Jedi star who deleted her Instagram account following a campaign of targeted harassment.
The rom is the depth, the com is the levity. If you have too much of one of those attributes it becomes indulgent, but when you have both, it feels great
■ Constance Wu: “I work in the art of changing people’s minds, even if they are mean.”