Interview: Michelle Krusiec, Through the Looking Glass

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?

I’m very similar to Anna May Wong in that she was a diehard. She was not a quitter. 

I always fought really hard and like Anna May Wong, though I questioned myself and whether I can do this. But I told myself “go” and kept pushing through. 

And, it’s very hard to explain how invisibility happens. With Asians, there is this kind of undiscussed racism that we experience and that is hard to explain to people because we are the model minority. 

There are some successes happening for Asians right now so times are definitely changing. Now, Asian producers, directors, and writers are getting more opportunities to share their work. People are willing to invest now because there is more opportunity to earn money from the Asian community. 

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 psoriasis of the liver. She had to find this balance between the elegance she had and her party-girl side. She was a glamorous star and also an artist. I think she was very hip, very cool, a flapper; she was a modern woman. This is probably why her family did not approve of her; she wouldn’t have a typical Asian marriage of the time. She may not have approved then but I think she would approve now. She’s always been an icon for the LGBTQ community because she was so distinctive talking about racism and prejudices. It’s taken me 20 years for me to talk about how I feel now, always questioning how I come across. With movements like #MeToo, we are now allowed to speak up. I don’t know about her family but I believe they still have trepidations; I was reading about her family being very aloof and not wanting to be questioned about her. I think the series gives her the opportunities she should’ve been given. 

I really think that she went into retirement after Hollywood hurt her; she did the thing where she went back to Asia and even after that she still couldn’t earn any allyship from them. She realised she could not be accepted in America as a Chinese person, or in China as a Chinese actress. 

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. I got a sense of her essence and where Hollywood brought her. 

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 pop star I could’ve been better at this. In my mind, I’m an icon! There are so many people who know of her legendary status and that’s intimidating. I couldn’t imagine pulling 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 only thing I could anchor myself into. I didn’t think about the glamour. 

Luckily they wrote about her getting pulled out of retirement which made me feel better. I felt there was enough there for me to identify with her. And luckily for me, I had incredible costume designers and a wonderful make-up team to help me out. In fact, my next-door neighbor said I look so different on TV. That’s part of the escapism of acting. You get to play these complex roles and that’s what makes it so fun. I’ve come across a lot of uncomplex roles in my career so this role allowed me to bring more to the table. 

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 in meditation 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 have 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. I have not accomplished that yet but if someone were to play me, I would hope they could capture my sincere and guileless attempt at finding those answers. 

All these complex questions I asked myself and the conversations I have had with people at 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. 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 go for. I’m not interested in being a piece in someone else’s puzzle; I’m looking to make my own puzzle and make my own creations and have a vision and hopefully have conversations that 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 and 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 and how he works with them, that to me is how advocacy works. 

Journalists interviewing everyone is important because it also aids in the progress. When I have a little bit of leverage and power I bring other people in and give them the opportunity. I am grateful for Ryan because he gave me the opportunity to be heard and I can bring awareness to people just like Ryan.

Many of our readers may recognise you from Film and TV. But few know you as a director. On social media, you spoke about your directorial journey. Tell us about what it is and how are you going to pull it off in the midst of a shutdown and social distancing.

I am part of the AFI (American Film Institute), and DWW (Directing Workshop for Women); it’s been in existence since 1974. It’s an intense annual lab and that helps cultivate us as directors to develop a voice and get us to the next level. Being in acting for a long time, it seems only natural to become a director. About three years ago I really started thinking about becoming a director; asking myself, “what can I say that hasn’t been said before in this industry?” 

My commitment to directing and writing is bringing light to lesser-known individuals; I want to write things where women and people of color are the main story. I want it to be their narrative; I don’t want them to be shown as side players. The only way to do this is to become a director/writer yourself. I want to find the universal appeal and do that. 

The AFI/DWW workshop is giving me a great platform to do this. They fortify a lot of people in the industry. My goal is to start inviting people and make them understand that I’m now taking this journey and I hope they’ll be excited to watch this unfold. We are in a place now where everyone has more access; if I’m transparent in my process I can maybe inspire people to do the same. It’s about getting more people in the room and showing them that they can have their own narrative. If you have a story, you can talk about it. I didn’t have narratives growing up. I have been watching so many other people’s narratives in my career; I don’t want that anymore. I want to give the next generation more access. I am hoping to use this visibility that I have to let people in on this next step. I am trying to advocate for that unspoken voice. 

The month of May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, do you have any suggestions for books, films or tv shows that we should experience this month? 

I’ve thought about this question. I am a mom and unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of time to read many books but I am excited about a PBS series called Asian Americans. I feel like the legacy of the people they will be covering will represent the spirit of what it means to come from two cultures. Holding on to who you are while transitioning into another culture will most likely be shown. Learning how to have value in a culture that tells you that you don’t have value is universal. 

It’s really about class and how we integrate ourselves in a changing world. Globalising what we watch is a wonderful way for us all to be connected. Watching a series about Asian Americans gives us recognition. 

I was embarrassed in my own internalized racist self; I’ve always felt equal to an extent, but honestly, I had to prove myself. This comes from living in a society that tells you that you are not worth as much as the person next to you because of how you look. In the series, Anna May Wong says: “We can’t pass as white”, and I fully agree. I’m looking forward to this great series which will also talk about Anna May Wong.

Tell our readers, where can we follow you?

It’s always been a love-hate relationship with social media. As a writer, it challenges me to figure out what I need to say and how to say it in the most concise image. I am always questioning how I can use social media to broadcast a message. You can find me on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, @michellekrusiec

Oh and I’ll be fundraising for my short film! My short film is called Bite. I know this is awkward time to ask for funds especially during the time of COVID-19. DWW participants are required to raise money through crowdfunding so we are raising funds through a Seed and Spark campaign.  You can also find me on my website.

The PBS special Michelle spoke about, ASIAN AMERICANS, can be viewed here.