On May 1st, Netflix premiered Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood. This creative series tells the story of a major movie production studio breaking the rules and social norms in the 1940s. Ryan pulled in true-life characters like Eleanor Roosevelt, Hattie McDaniel, Rock Hudson, and Anna May Wong to bring reality into his storytelling.
Anna May Wong’s character is represented as a woman whose spirit is broken but (spoiler alert) triumphs in the end. But, who was this woman really and why was actress Michelle Krusiec so excited to play her? We had a chance to sit down and have a chat about her life, ambitions, and her role as Anna May Wong in Hollywood.
Michelle, the role of Anna May Wong has a powerful message as far as the roles given to Asian actors during the Golden Age of Tinseltown. From your experience in film and TV, can you tell us if you think things are different or the same comparatively?
On the whole the same templates that existed for Anna May Wong 100 years ago are still the same ones in existence today. You still haven’t seen an Asian female lead star opposite a White male lead in a major Hollywood production that’s not in an ensemble cast and/or set in Asia. That’s really the spirit of the Hays code still powerfully in effect. TV has provided more opportunities for diversity, but I would argue it’s still the same kind of casting composition for us in the US.
However there are some successes happening for Asians right now so times are definitely changing. You are seeing a lot of Asian American producers, directors, and writers getting more opportunities to pitch their work. People are willing to invest now because there have been a string of successes and it’s disproved the idea that Asian American casts don’t sell. The question is…is this change temporary? Is this a wave or have we really seen the tide shift?
Do you think Anna May Wong would approve of her character’s depiction in the Netflix series Hollywood?
In the research I came across, there are secondary accounts about Anna May Wong that stated she was a heavy drinker; she, unfortunately, passed away from a heart attack. But she was also suffering from a disease of the liver…cirrhosis. Her public image was quite classy and elegant, but she also seemed to me to know how to party. She hung out with some of the very top social elites and artists of her day.
She was a glamorous star and also an artist. I think she was very hip, very cool, a flapper; she was a modern woman and I think she was outspoken for a woman of her time. Her family did not approve of her love for cinema; she wouldn’t have been a typical Asian woman to marry an Asian man with her love of acting and film. I really think that she went into retirement after Hollywood hurt her and that’s where we find her in the series; she did the thing where she went back to Asia and even after that she still couldn’t earn any allyship from China. She realised she could not be accepted in America as a Chinese person, or in China as a Chinese actress. I think her public persona was to maintain herself as the icon who we recognize as Anna May Wong, but my sense was that she had been broken by Hollywood.
I did watch one of her last films and I was so sad to see her play a servant in her last film. You could just see the glory she once had. Hollywood will do that to you.
Tell us how you felt when you read the script. Were you nervous representing this strong, beautiful, talented, and unappreciated icon?
I was pretty scared and intimidated at first to play an icon; I’ve never been an icon. I’m now in my 40s and maybe if I was a huge star, I could’ve been better at it. I mean, in my own mind, I’m an icon! But there are so many people who know of her legendary status and that’s intimidating. I wasn’t sure if I could pull it off. Then I started researching her and seeing who she was underneath all the glamour. I could finally see her humanity and I felt very connected to her experience. Hands-down that was the one thing I could anchor myself to. I didn’t think about the glamour.
I am sure you must have done a tremendous amount of research to play this role. And pulling back the layers of who Anna May Wong really was and how she must have felt could be a bit intimidating. So, let’s pretend that in the future Hollywood casts someone to play you, what do you feel the audience will learn about you as a person, an actor, and an advocate in Hollywood?
I spend hours thinking about this question and what I can offer the world. What am I contributing to the cultural landscape? What is out there that needs to be said? I am cultivating my artistic voice, but I have not fully accomplished that yet. I’ve turned towards writing and directing now. My purpose is how can I bring stories to these cultural landscapes. How will these stories help us understand ourselves and each other?
I think that’s the magic of Hollywood and stories. If someone were to play me, I would hope they could capture my sincere and guileless attempt at finding those answers.
All of these are complex questions I ask myself about the work. In reality, I am not looking to just create art for a few people; I’m looking to make art for a lot of people. But the intersection of commerce and art is what I strive to achieve as a filmmaker. And as an actor, if the work speaks to me and contributes to the landscape, that’s what I’ll go for. I’m not interested in just being a piece in someone else’s puzzle; I’m looking to make my own puzzle now and make my own creations and have a vision and…hopefully have conversations through my films that will show this.
One more thing…the advocacy part is really important. I think that, in a way, Ryan is changing the landscape with this series; yes it is an entertaining series but he is trying to ask some complex questions through it. And not everybody will embrace that but it needs to be done. These are the first few steps people can take to fight for representation. He is doing it in a smart way where there is mass-appeal and that is advocacy. Seeing all the people he brings onto the set, cast and crew, how he works with them, that to me is how advocacy works.
I hope when I have a little bit of leverage and power, I can bring other underrepresented people in and give them the opportunity. I am grateful for Ryan because he gave me the opportunity to be heard and I would love to do the same for others.
Michelle can be found on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook at @michellekrusiec, or on her website.
The PBS special Michelle spoke about, ASIAN AMERICANS, can be viewed here.
This interview has been edited and condensed for brevity.