Interview: Constance Wu on Crazy Rich Asians, sacrifices and working with Henry Golding

Hello Asia was in Singapore last year during the filming of the smash hit film Crazy Rich Asians. In a series of interviews with the stars of the movie, Constance Wu chats to us onset about playing the character Rachel Chu, filming in Singapore for the first time, how does she relate to her character, her vocal representations of Asians and working with Henry Golding.

Hello Constance! What’s it been like to shoot in this region of Asia? Have you been to Singapore before?

No, I have never been here at all before. Not even to the airport, so it’s been a very new experience to me. It’s been very helpful in understanding the story that Kevin Kwan wrote, and in approaching the character, and in understanding the differences in culture between countries and cities and upbringings.

What are your impressions of Singapore so far?

Well, to be completely honest, I haven’t too much of a chance to explore because I’ve been working every single day. So most of my interaction has been with the hotel staff.

How are they?

They’ve been very friendly, I feel like there’s a lot of good food here so that’s been really fun. I feel like people really socialise around food and I feel like food is a mixture of many different cultures and influences both old and modern, which, in a way reflects the culture of the people. It’s a mixture of many different international influences both old and modern, and I think that makes for a very interesting culture.

Did you do a lot of research about Singapore before coming? What did you actually know about Singapore before actually coming?

You know, I didn’t know much. Cause I kinda wanted to enter the movie like my character, and my character is an American born, or American raised girl who has never been to Singapore. So I kinda wanted to discover it as my character was discovering it.

I can imagine you might be able to relate to Rachel’s character quite a bit as well. Did you at some point pull in your own experiences in life to channel into the character?

For sure. I think Rachel has very humble beginnings, the same way I do. She’s the daughter of an immigrant, the same way I am. She’s never experienced wealth or glamour, which I hadn’t experienced that growing up y’know. When I was a kid if I got an outfit from the Gap that was considered fancy. That was like really high class when I was kid. When I was a kid I hadn’t even heard of Louis Vuitton or Chanel or any of those. I didn’t even know what that was. And I think Singaporeans, even if they don’t wear that kind of stuff, they are very aware culturally of style and its history and things like that. Rachel is not like that at all. She’s kind of clueless when it comes to that kind of stuff. So in that way I think I’m similar to the character a lot.

I know you have worked pretty hard to get this role. What does it mean to be able to film like this, as an Asian person?

You know, it’s an extraordinary privilege to be able to play a role that explores both the American aspects of the character and a curiosity for different Asian cultures and how that shapes character. And it’s a privilege to be able to carry a narrative instead of supporting somebody else’s narrative. And to be supported by such talented, diverse and great other actors from all over the world. We have actors from South America, Australia, Hong Kong, England, America, I mean… and yet they’re all Asian. But they are international. So I think it’s truly a unique project and I hope it encourages film makers to invest in more projects like that so that people see new stories, instead of the same story and the same reboot told over again.

You talk a lot of the trends that are carried in Crazy Rich Asians. Are you feeling weight of by expectations of who you represent?

Feeling the weight? Yeah. I mean, because the only thing you can do is your very best and so I am trying to do my very best. I think it would be inhuman for me to expect myself not to occasionally falter or mess up because messing up is a part of growth, right? So I don’t feel the weight because I understand that. I know that I am doing my best and I know that anything that maybe is not perfect is an opportunity for growth and learning along the way to becoming a better artist.

You are hilarious in Fresh Off The Boat. Are you going to bring some of the humour onto this set as well?

Yeah, I’m trying to make a lot of stuff really funny but the delightful thing about the script is that it gives every body a chance to be really funny. And Rachel, my character, she’s kind of the straight person y’know, she’s not comic relief. So of course I think it’s important to have humour in every character, even dramatic, because it adds a layer of levity so it’s not quite such an indulgent performance. There’s so many talented actors in this movie who are really going into the comedy aspect of this film. I don’t feel like I had to do it as much because they are so funny, y’know?

Everybody recognises you as the iconic character Jessica Wong, and we Asians relate to that because our moms are Jessica Wong. Are you excited for your fans to see you portray somebody other than her?

I don’t know, I try not to think too much about how people perceive me and just try to focus on my work and my character. Cause I think, when you start to worry about the public, or your fans perception of you, then it becomes about your ego and not about the work or the story. So I try not to. In the sense of whether or not it’s relief, I think Rachel is a little bit closer to my character than Jessica is, so it’s a lot more intuitive for me to play. I’ve never had kids, like Jessica, I’m not an immigrant like Jessica so it’s a little harder to play Jessica. So easier to play Rachel. So that’s kind of it.

I love how vocal you are online about representation of Asians and you speak for a lot people who haven’t had a voice. But now that you’ve started doing this, there have been a lot of detractors talking about Henry Golding as not being full-blooded Asian, full-blooded Chinese or Singaporean. Is this a truly Asian film? Now that you have started filming, how has that changed you?

I don’t think I’ve changed. Anything I’m vocal about is based on my convictions not on any external noise that comes through. And my convictions have remained largely the same and I think any kind of criticism that comes about only informs my conviction, instead of changing it. And I think it informs it in a way. I think you’ll notice I’m very careful that if somebody criticises that any aspect of this production I don’t discourage their criticism because I think a big part of your identity is being allowed to be critical.

It’s the discussion.

Yeah, when it’s fueled by hate or petty stuff, I mean, that’s not great but that’s also very human and very natural response to a culture, especially in America, that might have made you feel devalued your whole life. And so when you have one narrative that is attempting to represent the whole, there is a natural human anxiety that this one narrative will not reflect your experience.

If you could talk about what it’s like working with Michelle Yeoh?

Oh, it’s awesome working with her! It’s great working with her because she’s a really good actress and it’s like … and now I play tennis. It’s like playing tennis with Federer, you know? It’s like you get to play tennis with somebody who’s really good and it automatically makes you better.

So on a lighter note, how is your chemistry with Henry? How is it going to be translated on screen? How is it so far?

I mean obviously we did screen tests and we did chemistry tests to make sure we had chemistry. And obviously we did because Henry got cast and that actually was really exciting for me because he submitted to an open call for Crazy Rich Asians several months ago. You know the open call that they put out internationally to anyone who wanted to submit? Not the YouTube one, but there was another one that they put out. And he just self submitted a tape but then he didn’t hear anything, he was rejected, and then many months later we changed casting director, they brought him back. And so we sort of got a second chance. So they flew Henry here and he did chemistry readings. And they flew another few actors here to do a few chemistry readings and screen tests with me as well, and they were all super talented. Henry and I had the best chemistry in terms of the screen test, so I hope it translates.

We saw the church scene being created on set just now. Can you talk about where your character Rachel is at this point with Nick Young? Cause I know you’re kind of unsure of your relationship (in the movie)?

Well, for me Crazy Rich Asians is actually not a love story. For me this movie is a story about women and the things they sacrifice to protect men. And you see that in the trifecta, you see that in Eleanor. She sacrifices everything in bringing up Nick and giving him to his Grandma so that Nick has money and a better life. Astrid sacrifices, she dims her own wealth so that her husband Michael doesn’t feel insecure about the fact that he’s not as wealthy. And this is a spoiler alert, but Rachel lets go of Nick. She sacrifices the love of her life so that he doesn’t lose his connection to his family. I mean, in the end they end up together obviously but if you read the book, you see that’s the recurrent theme. It’s not about love. It’s about the sacrifices women are making for their men and that’s something that happens cross culturally. And women are often quiet about that. They don’t need to brag about the sacrifices they’re making and the way they navigate those sacrifices. Which in this movie, is through their friendships. With Peik Lin, or with my friendship with Astrid, that’s how we navigate those sacrifices. And in this particular scene at the wedding, this is where Rachel thinks she is going to stand up to Eleanor and then she realises she is going to have to sacrifice Nick in order to help him maintain his relationship with his mother. So that’s what’s happening.

Crazy Rich Asians is currently screening nationally.