“The biggest change to my life is that people in the industry value me more and treat me with more respect, which messes with your mind a little bit because I’m actually the same person.”
Actress Constance Wu has been leading the calls for greater diversity in Hollywood for years, and while her latest film, the rom-com ‘Crazy Rich Asians’, is dominating the US box office, finally being celebrated is something she is still adjusting to.
The Hollywood film is the first in 25 years to feature an all-Asian cast, and has been described by director Jon Chu as being “more than a movie – it’s a movement”, but the journey to its huge success has been a difficult one for Constance.
When she was cast as lead character Rachel, she found she had no role model to follow. No one who she could relate to. No precedent to follow.
“It’s really, really scary, it’s overwhelming, it’s lonely,” she tells HuffPost UK. “There really isn’t a precedent for an Asian-American actress who is the lead.
“All of a sudden people are actually respecting me and I’m grateful for it, but it does makes you think a little bit.”
Based on Kevin Kwan’s novel, the plot of ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ centres around Constance’s character, New Yorker Rachel Chu, and her boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding) as they visit his home of Singapore for a friend’s wedding, giving her the chance to meet his family.
She soon discovers Henry is heir to a huge fortune and his family belongs to the Singaporean elite. Many people, including Nick’s mother, disapprove of their relationship, with much hilarity ensuing.
However, getting the film off the ground exposed them to the bias in the industry. When the film was green-lighted, author Kevin was asked if Rachel could be rewritten as a white woman.
But both Constance and Henry say that always accepting supporting roles in films is not good enough anymore for Asian-Americans. The position of lead is very different, it’s not just about acting – it’s about leadership.
When it comes to racism in the film industry, Constance is straight talking, but she’s keen to highlight that it is not one person’s fault. She believes Hollywood’s problems are due to a “systemic bias and systemic racism”, adding that you need to be aware of them “in order to start dismantling them”.
She adds: “So it’s good that we’re talking about them, we need to teach other and listen to each other.”
— Constance Wu (@ConstanceWu) August 1, 2018
Henry also accepts he’s not the stereotypical lead actor. At 31, and with no Hollywood experience, he was already on the back foot before race was even brought up, but he believes what people expect from a lead actor is changing.
He tells us: ″It is turning more to a sort of realism, in that they want to see people that they can relate to and endear to rather than perfectly sleek men with shiny white veneers. So I think people’s pallet has definitely changed and I think Hollywood has become aware of that.”
Henry adds that the qualities of a lead actor cannot be quantified, but you need to “be able to not only be a leader on screen but for the set.”
He adds: “If you’re in the position of being number one then the responsibility goes on you to filter down what the mood on set is like.”
His journey to being cast as Henry is as unconventional as you can get.
He explains: “Two years ago to the day, I was in a jungle living off the land with tribesmen working on my Discovery show, so it’s quite the contrast to where I’m now staying in five-star hotels and having interviews with Lorraine Kelly, but it’s just something you’ve got to go with.”
That all changed when director Jon Chu – who’d struggled to find any male Asian actors with lead experience – reached out via a mutual friend and asked him to audition.
For Henry, he’s glad that this opportunity came around when he was 31 and had experience from multiple careers under his belt, allowing him to keep a level head when dealing with his new found fame, not that it wasn’t scary.
He was completely unknown to Hollywood, and the industry was unknown to him when he first heard of the audition. He thought film bosses wouldn’t “bank on a newbie”, admitting he kept declining the opportunity.
Constance has also struggled to adapt, explaining: “I’m walking in the dark, alone, and letting my heart guide me, which isn’t the best way to walk through a dark room but I’m doing it anyway.”
But now that ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ is out there – with Asian leads – they know they can use their new found platform to inspire.
“It’s felt like the privilege of a life time, the chance to act myself has been amazing but to be a part of a project that makes people feel that their stories and their faces and their culture is valued by the country in which they grew up that is beyond anything I could have dreamed of,” says Constance.
For Henry the reception he’s received has proved to him that ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ is more than a movie.
He says: “So many people have come up to me or reached out via messages and said ‘you know I’ve been meaning to say hey, thank you for really changing the minds and hearts of many people, not only in the industry, but around the world, we’re finally being seen as sexy and being able to be seen as that sort of leading man.’ It’s really wonderful, it’s become much bigger than itself.”
The film has been at the top of the US box office since it was released in August and has been extremely well received by viewers – and critics alike, which has had a big impact on Henry.
He says: “I think just, so many people you wouldn’t expect to be big fans of the movie, journalists who have been reviewing movies for 25-30 years coming out of the blue and being like ‘I’m not a big fan of rom-com’s but that was a fucking great movie’, you know it’s moments like that when we’re like ‘holy shit, we really hit the nail on the head when it comes to creating good cinema and having a good story.’”
Constance agrees, saying: “That’s how you do movements by doing good work, and I’m so grateful for all of the fans.”
For both of the leads, their characters’ stories reflected their personal relationship with the movement.
Henry tells us: “Nick lends himself as a character for me. The heart of Nick is something people are familiar with, somebody who wants to love who he wants to love, he doesn’t want to be defined by his family and in this case the family is rich. Independence is everybody’s strongest identity, so I think that has definitely rubbed off.”
But for Constance, Rachel’s bravery is what she relates to most.
She says: “I’m not as smart as she is, but I think she’s very brave and I think I’ve had to learn how to be brave in this industry because I don’t know where I’m going and I’m just being led my heart. That’s scary because it could break.”
Looking to the future, both agree that ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ is a step forward, but it isn’t going to change the industry on its own, although the conversations it creates might.
Henry wants to do away with the labels of ‘all Asian movie’ and all black movie’ completely, he just wants to see great cinema.
“We need to enter that stage where we’re not labelling anymore and we’re just enjoying the art for what it is,” he says “The story telling from different cultures being normalised so it I don’t have to do these interviews where I have to justify my Asian-ness.”
Commenting on how ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ is a conversation starter he says: “It is important to have these conversations because you can address that and you can almost educate people that there is a bigger world out there than just labels and identity. It’s not just something that you have in your passport which tells you what you are, it’s nurture and nature at the same time.”
For Constance, she believes the success of ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ – which has already been promised a sequel – will mean not only more opportunities Asian-Americans, but encouragement for them to pursue the arts.
She says: “sometimes what representation means is, possibility.”
‘Crazy Rich Asians’ arrives in UK cinemas on Friday 14 September.