Interview: Wu Assassins’ Celia Au Talks To Us About Asian-American Representation, Making Bold Choices, And Her Love For The Backstreet Boys

Last month, Netflix launched the latest new binge-worthy series Wu Assassins. We had the pleasure of interviewing Celia Au who plays the character Ying Ying, an upbeat, sassy spiritual guide with a whole lot of swag – much like Celia herself.

We chatted about everything from her humble beginnings to her views on Wu Assassins.

Tell me how you landed the role. Did you go through casting or did they request you?

I got the role through an audition. I sent in a self-tape. Then after that I had two Skype callbacks with our show-runner (John Wirth), one of our writers (Cameron Litvack), and our casting director (Cathy Sandrich). After that it was just a really, really long, nerve-wrecking waiting game.

I remember I got the call saying that I got the part while I was at work. My agent said, “Hey Celia, I have your manager with me on the other line”.

I was like, “Is everything okay, what did I do?”. Usually when they’re all together, it’s either you book something or you’re in trouble. That is when they said, “You got the job!” So thank you, John, for believing in me and giving me a chance to play a character that’s usually, “the old wise one”.

When you first read the script what was your vision to play that character?

When I first read the script – I was just thinking, OMG! she’s so cool!

In the old Chinese martial art movies, there is always an old master who appears to and trains the next protégé. Ying Ying, was that type of character. Traditionally that character is usually an old man with a long beard. So I want to give it a spin and make her younger and more relatable.  When I got the job, John said “Thank Stephen Fung!”. He was the director for our first two episodes. John said that I was one of the first auditions he saw for the character and said that usually the first one can’t be it. So they went through every Asian possible for the part and that’s why I had to wait forever; it was so nerve-wrecking. The first one to audition is usually never it, but Stephen said “Why don’t we go back to Celia’s tape?”

John agreed that I was the one.

Hollywood is finally recognising the Asian community in film. How does that make you feel as an Asian-American actor?

I was born in Hong Kong but I emigrated to America when I was three-and-a-half years old. For Wu Assassins I was told they wanted every character to speak Cantonese because of San Francisco’s Chinatown. I was thinking that’s so cool because for years now, no one asks for Cantonese speaking roles anymore; although Warrior had, which was amazing! Before this, I had done Revenge of the Green Dragon which was the only Cantonese-speaking movie for a long time. I must give props to John Wirth for saying that all the music he wanted had to have Asian artists or Asian-American artists. They had BLACKPINK, 88 Rising, The Higher Brothers and in the very last episode they have the Missy Elliot of Taiwan, Miss Ko. Even though John is not Asian, he’s very considerate about every little detail and wants to represent everything correctly.

How did you feel about the production being a mostly Asian cast?

I don’t want the label of “Asian-American” to segregate us. I’m so happy that this show can show the general public that we’re not so different. We are going through the same struggle as Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans, Jewish-Americans. When our ancestors first came to the States, we all had the same problems; the only difference is the languages we spoke. I want to move towards a space where we can get rid of the labels and just call us all Americans. I want to work towards being called American, not Asian-American; there are just labels after labels after labels. Other countries in the world just refer to themselves as whatever country they are from; America is the only place where we put “_____-American.”

How did your parents feel about your decision to be an actor back then and how do they feel about it now? Do you have any aspirations of becoming a director or creating your own productions in the future?

In College, I actually started in the business track and half-way in I realized I really liked graphic design and advertising because I feel like I can persuade people to buy certain products and that the power of advertising is so amazing. Studying the history of advertising, you see there is so much subliminal messaging in ads and the psychology behind it is amazing. It’s like having a power to control how people consume products.

I remember taking finance, accounting, and economics classes for the business major and I hated it. I was struggling through those classes; definitely accounting and finance was not my thing. I found out that there was a special program in our liberal arts school called the Ad Hoc Major which means you make up your own major, but you won’t get a B.B.A just a B.A. which I thought was fine. I just combined everything in the advertising course with graphic design and communications; I wrote a proposal to all the deans in the school as to why I was taking these classes. I said that wanted to work in advertising and that my goal was to become a creative director and as a creative director I think it’s important for me to know how to build websites, how to design ads, and to shoot commercials.

It’s important to know how everything works because if I know a little bit about everything I can talk to all departments about how to execute the ideas I want. After that, the deans approved my major and now anyone can pursue my major in my college! I also minored in theater arts; cause  I thought it’d be an easy A!

When I was taking the classes, I found them to be fun. At first, I didn’t know what acting is about. I remember my asking my Acting 101 professor “How do you [an actor] make money?” And he goes, “Well if I knew, I wouldn’t be teaching here.”, so, I decided to look up how to become an actor and how to act. I went on Craigslist to look for acting jobs.

I sent my pictures to a post looking for actors on a TV show, and quickly I got a response saying “Great, show up at 6AM this day. You got the job!”.

It was for a huge TV show and I would be a background actor. I had no idea what that meant. I just sat in the background for an entire day and made about $85 since I was non-union. But that was the day that I befriended a season actor who introduced me into the industry. He introduced me to his manager and she was my first rep ever. I remember her telling me that I need to learn how to act and gave me suggestions of teachers and showing me step-by-step how it works. In the beginning I was working on music videos and then print modelling and later on I started doing commercials. It took me about three or four years to learn what acting was and I got my first non-speaking part in a film playing a punk character.

A year after that I got my first speaking role in the independent film Detachment with Adrian Brody, and I played against James Caan. The whole time I was thinking that this was a cool hobby to have. In the beginning my parents didn’t want me to in the industry because of all the  stories they’ve heard. But then my Mom came with me on set a few of times and saw how nice everyone was. A few years later I quit my job as a graphic designer. At that point she asked me if I’d get another job and I said yes; but that year I did four national commercials. And I realised that I can make a living working as an actor. Now my mom binge-watches everything I’m in and critiques me. She’ll say, “Celia, you should’ve fixed your posture in that scene.” (laughs).

She’s completely supportive right now, she was excited for the release of Wu Assassins. In the future, I definitely do want to direct. I have already directed some short films and music videos. The last thing I directed was a Virtual Reality film which got into a good amount of film festivals. I feel that the media is such a powerful tool because with it we can educate and help people. I want to use this tool  to  spread positive knowledge and good messages to people.

Netflix is a huge platform that operates in over 190 countries. Five years ago did you ever imagine that you’d be featured in a series that would be seen in so many different countries? How does that make you feel?

Five years ago, no, I was in the indie-film Revenge of the Green Dragons which was my first substantial part in a feature film. I was so grateful to be part of a film like that and having it be an Asian-American cast, centred around gangs in New York between the 80s and early 90s. And I was excited that my family in Hong Kong would be able to watch the film! I believe House of Cards started about five or six years ago and I remember seeing it on Netflix and thinking, “Wow, it would be great to be on Netflix one day.” And now we are on Netflix; it’s so amazing to hear people from around the world saying that they’re watching the show.

The soundtrack for Wu Assassins was amazing. Friends and Foes was produced by the Higher Brothers ft. Snoop Dogg. This whole series seems to be a wonderful mix of cultural fusion. Do you feel that creating these types of films and tv series will enlighten people and future generations to create a harmonious world?

Having a message spread in a very entertaining way, light, easy to understand, is very important. Because it makes it enjoyable to learn. Plus, sometimes people are not as open to express their struggles in life but seeing it on screen can show them it’s okay; you’re not alone. There are other people like you and that’s why we’re telling stories. We need to talk about our stories. In episode 7 of Wu Assassins, there’s a wonderful speech about how Asians helped build the American railroads and we have been here for generations and we are americans too. Also, the relationship between Jenny and Tommy is very relatable to everyone with parents having such high expectations and children feeling stifled and choked all while trying to please them.

We may be marketing it as a martial arts series, but we focus on the humanity of the characters that everyone can relate to.

What kind of music do you like to listen to?

I love all types of music, but my guilty pleasures are the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears. Disney songs too like Aladdin, Mulan, and Hercules; I was sitting with young kids who were like 3 or 4 years old and singing along. In general, I love music that is light and portrays a great message.

Will Netflix have a part two or a second season for Wu Assassins?

We all hope so! We just need fans to keep spreading the word about the show and hopefully we reach the right amount of viewership for a second season!

We would like to thank Celia and Wu Assassins for giving us an inside view. Now everyone grab a comfortable seat, some snacks and binge watch Wu Assassins! Oh… And make sure to follow Celia on Facebook and Instagram!

Photo Credits:
PHOTOGRAPHY: Nick Onken
HAIR: Corey Tuttle
MAKE-UP: Romana Makeup New York
STYLING: Carolyn Son