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

The Irish Times Magazine - - INTERVIEW -

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

PHO­TO­GRAPH: VERA AN­DER­SON/ WIREIMAGE

■ Con­stance Wu: “I work in the art of chang­ing peo­ple’s minds, even if they are mean.”

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