‘I don’t regret being messy and imperfect’ – Constance Wu on Crazy Rich Asians, Twitter storms and acting with J-Lo | Film | The Guardian
Like many struggling actors, in her early 20s Constance Wu waited tables and toyed with the idea of getting a proper job. In her case, retraining to be a speech therapist. Wu is visibly embarrassed when I bring it up, which has less to do with her chosen field, and more with her motivation behind it. “It’s really the most pathetic reason of all,” she says, rolling her eyes.
“I had a boyfriend I was in love with, who wasn’t too psyched with the idea of being with an actress, because it wasn’t stable. He wasn’t like: ‘I don’t want to be with an actress,’ but he said: ‘I just want a partner with a stable job.’ I tried it. It didn’t work for me. And that relationship did not end up working out.”
This was in the early 00s, when Wu was living in New York. By 2010, she had relocated to Los Angeles, where her acting career finally took off with a starring role in the Asian-American sitcom Fresh Off the Boat and a Golden Globe nomination for her performance in last year’s hit romcom, Crazy Rich Asians.
She started out in community theatre in her home town of Richmond, Virginia, at the age of 12, before training at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute four years later. “There was no other choice for me in terms of career,” she says. “I’m really sensitive, and in an office culture – especially one that is often dominated by the patriarchy – sometimes that does not inspire respect or confidence. I’ve found a profession in which I can use those parts of me rather than being ashamed of them.
“I love what I do. It’s more fun for me than going to a party,” she says. “When I have a day off, I go to acting class. I’m there with all the other actors who are struggling and waiting tables and trying to become actors, just because it’s fun. It’s where I feel most free.”
“Sensitive” is not the impression Wu, 37, gave people earlier this year when she found herself at the centre of a social media storm. On the same day that Fresh Off the Boat – in which Wu plays the tiger mother-of-three, Jessica Huang – was renewed for a sixth season, Wu tweeted: “So upset right now that I’m literally crying. Ugh. Fuck.” She followed it up with a second tweet: “Fucking hell.” And then she commented: “Dislike” on the show’s official Instagram.
Her defence – that she was upset, not because of the renewal, but because it would force her to miss out on another project “that would have challenged me as an artist” more than the “fun and easy and pleasant” Fresh Off the Boat – only made things worse. Wu’s apology was slated on social media and in opinion pieces and podcasts that even accused her of clumsily referencing the #MeToo movement when she signed off with: “It’s meaningful when you make the choice to believe women.”
Today, Wu makes another attempt to set the record straight. “I don’t regret being messy and imperfect in public,” she says, “but I do regret not taking into account how it might have affected people I care about, like the kids on the show. I love them. I had a talk with each kid. I wanted to make sure they knew I acted out of a moment of passion that was not reflective of how I feel about them.”When we meet she is in the middle of filming the sixth season, and the cast and crew “could not be more lovely and supportive,” she says. “They’re like: ‘I’m sorry you went through that, and that people think that, but we know who you are.’ Because here’s the thing – we’ve had the same crew for six years. That never happens if you have a diva on set.”
Is Wu wary of social media now? “A bit, but I was never really that much of a social media person anyway. I’m definitely not an influencer, and I’m definitely not seeking more followers or anything like that. I’m not a perfect person and I not only think it’s OK, but I think it’s good to sometimes publicly fail.”
For someone who describes herself as sensitive, she has an admirable tolerance for haters. “A lot of the time somebody’s mad because they’re hurt,” she says, “and I think you just have to understand that. I don’t want people to get mad but I want people to express their emotions even if they are negative towards me. Expression is just one step towards the larger journey of understanding yourself. Even me, tweeting that in a moment of heat. That’s one step in the larger journey of understanding myself. Human beings are lucky we have the capacity to have emotions. We’re not just eating-and-sleeping machines.”
Wu’s latest role is the lead in Hustlers, a comedy-drama inspired by a 2015 article in New York magazine, The Hustlers at Scores by Jessica Pressler. Part social-commentary, part-heist, the film, co-starring Jennifer Lopez, Cardi B and Lizzo, follows a group of savvy strip-club employees who turn the tables on their Wall Street clients after the 2008 economic collapse.
“People are like: ‘What made you want to play a stripper?’ and I’m like: ‘I didn’t play a stripper; I played a person who works in a strip club for a living,’” says Wu. “I make that distinction because I think people’s occupations are used as identity markers and that leads to a lot of preconceived notions and prejudices. I love that Lorene Scafaria [the director] wasn’t judging these women or thinking that they are their occupations.”
What else drew her to the film? “At the time I was really looking for a movie that was about loneliness, because I think with all the political polarisation that’s going on and the increased amount of time people are spending in front of screens, loneliness ha become pervasive.
“It was everything I was looking for in a project. But not the stripping part. That wasn’t a part of my decision. I don’t really think of myself with a sexual lens. I think of myself as, like, an artist. Not to say some of these girls aren’t artists, but they are exploiting the culture’s obsession with sexuality. I’ve never really thought of that as something I was good at. On a practical level, I’m definitely not good at dancing. I am great at dancing at weddings, but dancing in a sensual manner is something … ”
That makes you cringe? “It doesn’t make me cringe; it’s just something I’m not skilled in and it makes me self-conscious. But my character, Destiny, isn’t supposed to be as good at it. Jen’s character, Ramona, teaches me. Destiny is a girl who is lonely, and looking for a friend and mentor and she finds it in Ramona.”
The two women’s friendship is key to the plot, so I wonder what Wu’s relationship was like with Lopez. “Me and Jen,” she smiles wistfully. “I mean, it was the most peaceful set I’ve ever been on. Jen is such a big star that it was amazing to see what a down-to-earth kind of person she was. She’s really cool.”
I ask the question because it was widely reported that Wu had requested top billing above Lopez.
“I wasn’t demanding anything,” she says with a sigh. “The reason that happened was because people on the team were calling journalists because they were not putting me in [their stories about the film]. It wasn’t anything I asked them to do.”
So it was just another example of the media pitting women against one another? “People stereotyping us separates us, and when we are not unified it helps the patriarchy stay in power, right? If you’re at a board meeting and there’s only one seat for a woman and all the other seats are for men, it’s not about being a woman – if you think there’s only one seat, it’s going to be competitive. If it’s a board meeting of all women and there’s only one seat for a man, the men will start becoming competitive. It’s about the scarcity, not gender.
“That was what was really special about Hustlers. Nobody was fighting about the one seat at the table. It was our table. The men in the movie barely have names. It wasn’t written to be their story and that happens to women all the time, where there are no female characters of substance. I really think that is why patriarchy tries to separate us because they know that when we’re together there is nothing more strong and beautiful.”
Next up, Wu is slated to produce and star in an adaptation of Rachel Khong’s 2017 novel Goodbye, Vitamin. There are also two Crazy Rich Asians sequels in the pipeline, although Wu is vague about details. “I’m still friends with Jon M Chu [the director]. Last I talked to him, they were still working on the scripts.”
Shortly after we speak, however, the news breaks that Adele Lim, the original film’s Chinese-Malaysian scriptwriter, has walked away from the franchise, claiming that she had been offered much less money than a white male counterpart.
Has Crazy Rich Asians improved on-screen diversity? “I think it’s really helped it. It’s exciting to see so many stories by and about Asian-American people,” Wu nods. “I’m very happy with the kind of change that’s been happening.”
But haven’t there been claims that the film was only a springboard for the cast – who include Gemma Chan, Awkwafina and Henry Golding – rather than the wider Asian acting community? “As an actor it’s hard, no matter what, to get your foot in the door,” she says. “There were times when I was a younger actor and I’d see a part and think: ‘Oh, I could have played that,’ but they wouldn’t even let me audition because there were too many people. I understand the frustration, and I think the solution is creating more projects so there are more opportunities to get a foot in the door.”
Does Wu feel she has to be an example for the Asian community? “The fact that I was able to play humanised Asian-American characters was historic, not because of me, but because of the paucity of content that was before. That’s a statement on the system, not on me,” she says. “That should have been happening all along. Now that I do have amplification, I try to make the best use of it, I want to do it well.”
“I’m lucky to have a lot of autonomy over my career,” she continues. “I was a waitress for 10 years and I didn’t have a lot of choice. Right now I’m in a space in my career – which I might not always be in – where I have a lot of artistic privilege, so I would like to select roles that push and challenge me. That’s not for everybody. Some people have this privilege and make choices that make them, like, an icon. But that’s not what I want to be.
“It’s not that I don’t want to be an icon,” she says, checking herself. “It’s just that [it] was never really on my list of goals.”
Speaking of which, what did her parents – a science professor and a computer programmer – say when she told them she wanted to act? “Well, I never told them,” Wu says. “It just sort of happened. I didn’t ask permission. I just assumed.”
A lot of parents don’t think it’s a proper job and worry it’s not a stable profession, I say. You know – like your ex. “But when you’re 18, you don’t have to listen to your parents, so I’d hear them in their worry and I’d understand it was motivated by love, but I also knew myself better than my parents. Nobody knows you better than yourself.”
“When you’re an artist, you have to do something for a deeper purpose than seeking approval [or] it’s going to be a real rough time for you. You need a stronger core of meaning than that. Seeking whose approval? Seek your own artistic approval. That’s your metric.”
Hustlers is out on 13 September.