And playing women that don't need to be saved...
Crazy Rich Asians has just come to our screens, and unsurprisingly it is set to be the film of the year.
The strong female leads, the food porn (do not watch this film without snacks), the fashion (we’re talking Elie Saab, Dior, custom-made Michael Cinco and Carven Ong) and the many life lessons we can take away from it. But the film has of course become such a talking point because of the Asian representation (the first all-Asian cast in a major studio film in 25 years).
Junior Digital News Editor Jenny Proudfoot sat down with Crazy Rich Asians‘ leading ladies, Gemma Chan and Constance Wu, to talk high class couture, Asian representation, and why now is not the time for Crazy Rich Asians, it’s long past due.
Crazy Rich Asians is such a long time coming, why do you think it took so long?
Gemma: To be honest, I don’t know. It’s been 25 years since there’s been a mainstream Hollywood movie with an all Asian cast and yeah, it feels like the film is somewhat overdue. There was the belief that if you have a film with non-white leads, it won’t sell abroad or that it will only have a niche audience, but these things have just been proved untrue.
Constance: There hasn’t really been an evocative voice that demands attention rather than expresses gratitude for belonging until recently. You know, in Asian-American culture there is an assumption that you play by the rules. But then when you have a voice as evocative and provocative as we do here, it causes people to think differently – it causes conversation and we need to have more conversation. We live in countries where we can express and so we should express. That’s what happened here. There were people who were willing to speak out and that started giving other people the confidence to express themselves, their views and their identities. And I think that when people see there is more than one voice out there with talent, that there are lots of different voices with talent out there, then they start paying attention.
What initially drew you in?
Constance: It’s a number one lead in a studio movie, and despite definitely having Asian actors that are worthy of it, it hasn’t really happened before. Sandra Oh for example is tremendous – and she should have been the star of her own movie ages ago, but she’s always been the number two or number three. She even said with Killing Eve when she read the script she just assumed that she was number two because it just doesn’t happen. Don’t get me wrong – number two is great, number three is great, everybody who is a supporting cast member is fantastic and it’s awesome. But it’s when the industry expects a certain ethnicity to only do that and to just be grateful for that, that’s when we have to ask for more.
Gemma: I think the conversation has really got going in earnest now and I hope Asian representation isn’t just a trend – I don’t think we can go back and I think people are now going to demand diverse and authentic storytelling, because there is a want for it. It has been proven – people will show up. They will get a babysitter on a Friday night and they will pay their hard-earned money to go to the cinema to see movies like this.
Did you expect it to be such a hit?
Constance: This is going to sound cocky but yes. To everyone else it’s been a surprise but not to me – not because I thought I’m such hot shit but because this happened to me with my TV show, Fresh Off the Boat, on a smaller scale so I knew there was a drought of content of Asian-American pop culture and I knew that people would be moved to see their faces represented on television in a modern way. Nobody was talking about it before so it wasn’t an apparent problem, but it couldn’t not have been a hit because of the time we’re in. Right now, you don’t have to work for the major news stations to have a voice; if you have something provocative to say that is actually good, it will spread around.
Gemma: I certainly felt the film had potential to be something really special – I had read the books and I’d already fallen in love with the characters – but you never know whether that’s necessarily going to translate – whether all the elements that need to come together will actually come together to make a film work. We all had high hopes, we all worked incredibly hard and we had an amazing director who kept all the plates spinning but yeah, when I watched it for the first time I was blown away. It made me really emotional. It made me realise that I’d never seen people on screen that looked like my family – like my granny – it was incredible for me just as a viewer to see that and to realise how much of a lack of representation there’s been in the past.
Chrissy Teigen said she had never seen her family represented on screen either…
Gemma: That was amazing and I completely identify with it. My mum and dad saw the film for the first time last night and my mum was really emotional when I saw her afterwards. She started crying quite early on. There was a song on the soundtrack – a Chinese song – that she hadn’t heard since her childhood. It was what her mum used to sing to her and her dad. Sadly they’ve both passed now and so for her it was a really emotional thing – she never expected to hear that in a Hollywood film so it was just an amazing moment for us.
How did you get the part?
Constance: I was approached for the role by the director, Jon, and I couldn’t do it because of my television shooting schedule, but I knew it was going to be a smash – not just financially but in people’s hearts. So I just let it go and he auditioned a bunch of other girls, but I knew how much it was going to mean so one day I wrote him a really impassioned email. It wasn’t long – it just said why it was going to be meaningful to me and to kids growing up and what I would do with the part. I wished him all the success with the project regardless of whether I got a role, but I said ‘If you wait for me, I can and I will do it. I know how to carry a movie and you won’t regret it’. So then he did. They actually pushed the movie back! I know so many Asian actors or any actors, who are so scared to ask for what they want. I’m just like ‘what’s the worst that can happen?’
Gemma: Mine was relatively straightforward. I got the call from my agent that they wanted me to audition and sent off a tape, not expecting to hear anything back. I had asked to go for Astrid because I had fallen in love with her when I had read the books – and gosh she’s got a fabulous wardrobe. I went to L.A. and I met our director Jon M. Chu, and Nina, one of our producers, and heard about their vision for the film and then they offered me the part.
Talk me through filming…
Constance: We filmed in Singapore and Malaysia, and I think it took around 6-8 weeks – it was pretty fast. There were some real highs – the location, set design, the people and crew and the passion that everyone had for the project. But there were lows – the hours were long, and the weather!! It was hot and super humid every day – I don’t even know how my hair held up.
Gemma: Filming in the tropics is tough – the humidity and the heat was insane. You know, we had all those party scenes when the men were all dressed in their suits and gosh, I don’t know how they weren’t dropping like flies, I felt so, so sorry for them.
What were your favourite scenes to film?
Constance: My favourite scene to film was probably the dumpling scene because there’s so many different layers going on. There’s so many different generations at that table and there’s something about the act of making food with your hands that’s interesting. There’s so many different conflicts and relationships in that scene that are so subtle, and that’s what makes them real. When you sit down with family you’re not like, ‘I have issues with you because you were always better than me’. Instead you say something like ‘oh, you’re going to take all those mashed potatoes?’ – you do little cutting things that are sugar-coated – or should I say ‘dumpling-coated’! She’s taking it all in and seeing the family dynamics – there’s just so many things going on in that scene that I really think make it complex and alive.
Gemma: Mine was my final scene where Astrid is speaking to her husband, Michael. She finally stands up and asserts herself and it was a very satisfying scene to play. I think the arc of the character was really interesting – at the beginning, she’s taking a backseat and hiding her light, but by the end, she’s reasserting her power. I think it’s really refreshing that in this film, none of the women need saving. You’ve got at least four very different women, and none of them are waiting to be rescued. In fact, many of them have made sacrifices for the people in their lives but they figure out a way to save themselves really.
Constance: Yeah. Patriarchy is strong in Asian culture, but it’s nice that it’s more the matriarchy in this movie.
Can we talk about the fashion?
Gemma: Gosh, Astrid had such good clothes, and there’s so many to choose from, I couldn’t pick a favourite. I loved the Audrey Hepburn inspired outfit she makes her first entrance in – the shades, the pale pink drop-waist dress – I love that look. I also loved the Alexander McQueen dress, which I wore for the wedding – that was another one of my favourite scenes to film. I got to walk down the aisle with Lisa Lu, who plays Ah Ma, and she’s an incredible actress. She was in the last film that featured an all-Asian cast, The Joy Luck Club – 25 years ago, so it was lovely to have that continuity between that film and ours. She has such an amazing energy and I love working with her.
Why go watch Crazy Rich Asians?
Gemma: It’s the kind of film that you can see with your family and your friends – it’s a feel-good movie, but it has substance as well. You’ll laugh, you may cry and hopefully you’ll leave the cinema feeling like certain things have been affirmed. Our story is a specific story about this Chinese-Singaporean family but the themes are so universal. We’ve taken this film all over America and I’m amazed at the amount of people who’ve come up to me saying, ‘my family isn’t Asian but I completely identify with it’. There’s so much going on in that family and I think people can really relate to it.
Constance: And also just the scenery, the colours, the clothes, the food – it’s all just beautiful.
Well that we can all agree on – see you all there.