A GIRL, A GUY AND A POTENTIAL MOTHER-IN-LAW
Stars Constance Wu, Henry Golding and Michelle Yeoh talk Crazy Rich Asians
By Jedd Jong
While visiting the Singapore set of Crazy Rich Asians last year, inSing spoke to stars Constance Wu, Henry Golding and Michelle Yeoh. Here’s what they had to say about the film:
Constance Wu plays Rachel, the lead character in Crazy Rich Asians. The actress is best known for playing Jessica Huang in the TV series Fresh Off the Boat and has appeared in TV shows like Torchwood, Covert Affairs and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. Wu is an outspoken feminist and champion for Asian representation in mainstream Hollywood media. As a take-off on the #StarringJohnCho meme, the #StarringConstanceWu meme similarly served to highlight how many Hollywood films could’ve worked with Asian stars like Cho and Wu in lead roles.
Wu spoke to inSing about filming on location in Singapore, working with her co-stars Henry Golding and Michelle Yeoh, how she spent her downtime in Singapore, and the importance of Crazy Rich Asians in the Hollywood landscape.
inSing: What does being part of this project mean to you?
CONSTANCE WU: Being rich, being crazy and being Asian [laughs]. It’s great being part of an ensemble that really gets along really well, and is trying to make a story that’s really fun and wonderful.
What was it like filming in Singapore and Malaysia? Does the heat get to you?
We had such an incredible crew that once they realised that they needed to bring more air conditioners and stuff like that, the crew was so hardworking and so caring that they really took care of us. Even on days when it’s really hot, there are all these people with fans and water around. Even though it’s been hot, the local crews have been so wonderful, it’s so great.
Can you go out without being recognised here?
I got more recognised here than I did in Malaysia. But yeah, I think I can blend in. Sunglasses, baseball cap [laughs].
What is it like working with Michelle, is she intimidating?
Oh, no! Michelle is very kind, very down to earth, she’s not as intimidating as Eleanor. But when she plays Eleanor, she definitely brings that. But as a person, no, she’s very kind
How about working with Henry?
It was great. He was really eager to do well.
Henry has discussed the backlash he received because of the ethnicity of the character of Nick. He was saying that you can’t get more Asian than him, because he grew up in Asia and spent all this time in Asia. What was your response to that backlash?
I don’t think it’s true that you can’t get more Asian than anybody, than him, because that implies that there’s one standard, and I don’t think there’s any standard of what’s more Asian or not. I think you create your own identity, and the identity you create is borne of many things: where you choose to live, what language you speak, what language your parents speak, what music you love, what stories you love. Those are all factors that make you who you are, and there isn’t any one person who’s more Asian than another person. There are just individuals. And that’s why this movie is so great: it doesn’t show Asians as just one monolith. It shows the diversity amongst Asians. You have characters as different from Kitty Pong to Rachel. You couldn’t be more different, both of them are Asian. Diversity within an Asian cast shows the richness of character within a culture and the richness of individual spirits within a culture, that are influenced by the culture but still claiming individual identity.
Everyone loves you from Fresh Off the Boat, and now you’re in Crazy Rich Asians. Do you see yourself as the ideal Asian-American representative in Hollywood?
I don’t think I’m the [ideal] Asian representative. I really like bringing to life stories about being Asian in the world, because there aren’t a lot of them, and I think they’re beautiful stories. It’s an honour to work with Nina, with Jon, and with Kevin Kwan’s story. It’s based on very personal things that happened to him.
Have you met your fair share of crazy rich Asians?
I’ve never met many.
So you’re very much like Rachel, in that you’re not used to this opulence.
No, not at all. I don’t even think I’ve met a crazy rich person, Asian or not, any person. I grew up working-class [laughs] in Virginia, in the United States.
Awkafina has said that there have been projects where she feels like the token Asian on set, and in this movie, that’s totally gone and she feels happy to be among her peers. Do you feel that this is a landmark, moving forward?
Sure. We’ve actually never had a studio movie that starred all Asians that wasn’t a period piece. Because The Joy Luck Club, that came out I think 20 years ago, it was partially a period piece. A lot of the Asian cinema that we see in theatres are period pieces, like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. They’re all beautiful and I love that we have a lot of period pieces, but why don’t we ever see Asian-Americans in a contemporary context? Why don’t we see mainstream movies where they’re using cell phones, you know? [Laughs] It’s not because we don’t, you’re using your cell phone right now. It’s a way to include them in the current conversation by showing them in a contemporary context, saying that they are here and they are contemporary, and our stories matter. So that is really ground-breaking, and is part of the reason why I took on this project.
On your Instagram, we saw that you made The Rabbit Headquarters your first stop in Singapore. What made you want to visit them?
I love rabbits, I have a rabbit and I couldn’t bring her here.
What’s your rabbit’s name?
Her name is Lida Rose. She’s four-years-old and she’s very cute. I really missed her, I don’t know why, but I really love rabbits. So the first thing I wanted to do when I came to Singapore was to go see rabbits.
You also posted on Instagram that you went to watch Wonder Woman in Singapore. Do you think that that’s on the horizon, an Asian female-led genre piece in Hollywood?
I don’t know, but I do consider this film to be a female-led piece. Even though a lot of people think it’s a love story, I don’t think it’s a love story. I truly think this story is about women and the sacrifices they make to protect men. If you look at what Michelle’s character does, Eleanor, [she] makes a sacrifice to protect Nick. If you look at what Astrid does, Astrid makes a sacrifice so that Michael doesn’t feel inferior about his lack of wealth as well. It’s all about these quiet sacrifices that women make, they don’t need to show off, and how they navigate them through their female friendships, especially Rachel’s friendship with Peik Lin, played by Awkwafina.
I do think with movies like this movie and Wonder Woman that hopefully stories that have females who are not just objects of romance but who are making sacrifices and making choices and having agency in their lives, that those are stories we’ll see. If it happens in the context of a big Marvel blockbuster, that’s great too, but if it happens in the contemporary context of Crazy Rich Asians, that’s awesome too. I think the thing that we want is narrative plentitude, as opposed to narrative scarcity, so we want more stories, and not just one. If you don’t identify with one story, then maybe there’s another story you identify with.
When you were growing up, did you find that there weren’t enough female Asian characters to look up to?
Yeah, precisely because I’m not interested in actresses who are known for their beauty. I am interested in actresses who are known for their talent and their depth. This is not the fault of the actresses, but a lot of Hollywood movies try to sexualise or romanticise women, as if they’re just supposed to be there are be pretty. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it, but that’s not what moves me. Growing up, I didn’t think about it too much, because you’re just a kid – you’re thinking about what you’re going to have for lunch [laughs]. You’re not thinking about those kinds of things.
I grew up in the theatre, and the theatre is very welcoming. Especially where I grew up, all the gay people went to theatre, because it’s a welcoming place. I always felt very welcome in the theatre, and that’s why I kept pursuing it, because it felt like family there.
We saw you filming a very emotional scene. How do you get into that headspace?
Oh, that’s boring. I don’t want to bore you with all the stuff I have to go to get into that. That’s the most boring stuff, actor’s stuff. I’ve trained my whole life as a serious actor. I’ve gone to a conservatory, I’ve done Shakespeare, I’ve done all of it – and it’s boring! It’s like if I taught you how to fix a car. It’s very boring [laughs].
But it gets you to that place.
Yeah. Different people have different techniques. You find the ones that work for you, and then you use them. But when the writing’s good, it’s pretty easy, and when the actors are good, it’s easy too.
The producers of Crazy Rich Asians searched far and wide for their dashing male lead, and settled on British-Malaysian TV personality Henry Golding. Golding is best known as a TV presenter, having hosted several travel shows. Despite having no acting credits to his name prior to this film, Golding is poised for stardom, having clinched a role in the upcoming Paul Feig-directed thriller A Simple Favour opposite Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively. He is also set to play a gay Vietnamese man returning to his home country in the independent film Monsoon, from director Hong Khaou. The story goes that an accountant on Crazy Rich Asians mentioned to their line producer that they had seen Golding host a red carpet event, reducing most of the women there to jelly.
In this interview, Golding spoke about making his acting debut, addressed the backlash to his casting, discussed working with his onscreen mother Michelle Yeoh and the explained the predicament his character Nick Young finds himself in.
inSing: What has it been like filming the movie?
HENRY GOLDING: Filming has been insane. It’s been a real learning curve for myself, but the crew here have been nothing but welcoming. It’s just become this huge family. I think that really makes a difference, and the one person who spearheads that is Jon. Jon is like a big brother to everyone, he’s got the patience of a saint, and that trickles down. When you’ve got a good director who doesn’t stress or shout, it makes everybody’s job easier. It’s been nothing but an amazing experience. I have nothing bad to say about it!
What were the challenges you’ve had to overcome, seeing as this is your first feature film role?
I’ve had very little onscreen time in terms of acting experience, but through the years, I’ve always wanted to get into acting. Movies are a big, big passion of mine, and have been for such a long time. Whilst watching movies, I’ve been analysing this whole time, and I’ve identified bad acting, and in a way, my love of movies and actors really helped bring something of mine. Acting is being in the moment, and being very present. Being intuitive to emotions, you blend those together, and I hope I did a good job.
Did you feel nervous acting opposite performers who’ve been in the industry longer than you have?
That was the weird thing, not at all. If anybody, it would’ve been Michelle who would’ve freaked me out. Michelle is queen bee. She is classy, she’s the person you wish for Michelle to be, and much more. I’ve grown up watching her and when we first met, I called her up when we landed in KL and said “would you mind if we had tea [together]”, and she said “no, not at all!” So we had 2-3 hour tea and crumpets, just to get to know each other. From her side, there was zero diva, almost minus diva-ness. She’s really been everybody’s favourite, she’s a saint.
The producer Nina Jacobson said you are the ideal Nick, and you had everything they were looking for in Nick. But of course, there has been some backlash because of your ethnicity. What would you say to the critics?
There are plenty of directions we can always go with this. We’ll go through the spectrum. Historically, Asia, especially Southeast Asia, is such a mix of blood, in terms of Peranakan, you’ve got the Malacca and Penang, all those Dutch and Portuguese influences, there’s mixed blood everywhere. That’s something that the Westerners, even Chinese-Americans, don’t understand. We are such a melting pot here in Southeast Asia. What we should be proud of is we’re representing this side of the world. People are only concerned with Chinese-Americans in Hollywood. Then there’s the rest of us, who are maybe a little bit of Malay, a bit of Peranakan, everything.
When it comes to me being half-English, to me, I identify more with my Asian side. I’m from Sarawak. You cannot get more Asian than coming from five hours into the jungle. I would put myself against anybody from the States – how Asian do you have to be? I don’t understand. I’ve lived all my life in Asia, I align myself with the Asian cultures, but then it’s easy for somebody to say “he’s not Asian, he’s just a white guy!” They’ve never left wherever they’re from. It’s easy to point fingers, it’s easy to criticise, and it’s easy to always never be able to make everybody happy. That’s something we have to come to terms with. But for me, I’m extremely proud that I’m able to represent Singapore, Malaysia, all of us Southeast Asian countries. It’s very important that we’ve made it this far, and I take my hat off to Warner Bros. for taking it there. We’re breaking boundaries with this film.
Tell us about your character Nick.
Nick is…his own self. Nick has a very rich history, especially with Singapore. His family is of the old guard. For Nick, he is very acutely aware that he’s the heir apparent to these riches, that he’s Singapore’s poster child for that old system, but he wants to be his own person. He wants to shine as Nick Yong, not of Ah Ma’s creation or Eleanor’s creation. He left to find himself – he went to Oxford to study, then he went to New York, all under the guise of trying to find himself – and he found himself in Rachel. That bond is essentially the core of the story. It’s a love story. He is a bit silly in not explaining what is waiting for Rachel, but what he’s most afraid of is her judging him for that, and her thinking differently of the Nick that she fell in love with. He’s caught in between this hell and heaven, where he needs to introduce to that part of his life, but he doesn’t want to scare her. He doesn’t know how to put it across, because his grand idea would be to bring her over and throw her into that pot.
So it’s a little bit like Eddie Murphy’s character in Coming to America, in a way.
In a sense, in a sense. Thankfully, Rachel does enjoy herself, and ends up falling in love with Singapore, almost finding something in herself. She was never in touch with her ancestry, apart from her mother, her Asian-ness. For her, all of this is new. It goes back to how Asian you have to be to actually be Asian. For her, she’s a foreigner, coming to Singapore. She’s learning a culture that she’s not familiar with.
How strongly did you identify with the character?
It was very strange, because Nick shoes that I stepped into are very similar to my own, in a sense. His sense of not really identifying with the past – his identity is something he’s always had problems with. He’s not ashamed of his family, but he’s very aware that it can be very jarring for someone like Rachel. When I was growing up in England, I was seen as a foreigner, then when I’m back in Asia, I was a foreigner as well, so where do you belong? You’re a stranger everywhere. When I was creating Nick, it was more conceptualising the ideas and the memories that Nick had. Growing up with Colin, how he met Rachel, the process of him falling in love, and his relationship with his mother, one of the key components of this story. Those are the things I had to explore, and have those triggers ready for a scene which would bring those to the front.
Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh is no stranger to moviegoers in Asia, and has made considerable inroads into Hollywood as well. She is perhaps best known for her roles in the Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies and the Lee Ang-directed martial arts epic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. She has also taken on prestige pictures like the Aun Sung Suu Kyi biopic The Lady. Lately, Yeoh has appeared in sci-fi projects like Star Trek: Discovery and Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2.
In Crazy Rich Asians, Yeoh plays Eleanor Young, who butts heads with protagonist Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), who is dating her beloved son Nick (Henry Golding). Much of the conflict derives from differences in culture and class, with Eleanor being the main obstacle standing in the way of Rachel finding happiness with Nick. In this interview, Yeoh told us about her character, working with co-star Golding and director Jon Chu, and the heart of the movie behind the sheen of material wealth.
inSing: How do you function in this heat without sweating buckets?
MICHELLE YEOH: There’s a crew behind us who runs around with fans [so] we don’t melt.
Throughout your career, you’ve worked with so many great directors. How does Jon Chu measure up?
Oh, wonderfully. I told him a couple of days ago, he reminds me of a young Ang Lee. The intensity, the way he works, the way he talks to himself, the way he visualises. He’s so hands-on. The way he runs around the set looking at all the details, I really enjoyed my experience working with Jon. He has been an absolute delight.
What was it like working with Henry Golding, see as it’s his first movie?
Fantastic. He’s like an old-timer. I’ve really, really enjoyed working with him. He’s very passionate, he’s very eager and he wants to do this well. I think if you ask anybody in the crew, they all adore him. Everyone wants to take him home to show their mother, and all the mothers want to take him home as their sons!
How do you approach a role like Eleanor?
It’s not difficult, because first of all, the book is there. I have a very close understanding with Jon, which is very important because as the director, he is really the soul of the film. We’ve done some major changes as well, we really worked on the relationship between the mother and son. I think this is very key for me as an actor, and key for the movie as well, otherwise what is it that holds all this craziness together? It’s that the mother would die for him. She would do anything for him – you know how Chinese mothers are. You know they would jump in front of a train for you. The thing is, we think that when we’re brought up in America, you’re like a banana. You’ve forgotten what it’s like to be respectful to your elders, you listen to them instead of just chasing your own dreams and things like that. In this movie, I think we approach this subject matter and deal with it accordingly. I think there’s no right or wrong, some of the old ways need to be changed, but I think with Eleanor, when I saw this, it was a very good opportunity. All the things you’ve heard about in the past, the Tiger Mom, the matriarch, the mother-in-law, even in the black-and-white movies – I think in this one, we try to break that cycle, if it’s possible at all.
Will this film dispel the myth of Crazy Rich Asians?
No! I hope it gives you a chance to laugh at them, and laugh with them. The thing is, we’re not trying to laugh at them, we’re trying to laugh with them. There’s nothing wrong with laughing at ourselves. I think we can take ourselves too seriously at times, that makes you miserable and makes the people around you miserable. Life is short, and can be very unpredictable, so if you don’t enjoy the moment you have, it’s a missed opportunity.
It’s there in the title, Crazy Rich Asians. How do you reconcile the materialism and the opulence with the heart?
I think there is always that balance. It doesn’t mean that if you can afford all these material things, you don’t have heart. When you are very rich, it’s how you spend the money. You can pamper yourself, but also be aware and compassionate to those around you who need it. Sometimes when you’re very young, and you have it, you haven’t got the sense of control or the sense of discipline yet, to understand what you can do. You think “me, my car, my plane, my ship, my my my my my!” I hope one day this person will have his eyes opened and be enlightened, or have a good mentor who can show him the right way.
How is this role different from the others in your career?
I hope that every time I come into a role, it is different, because otherwise, you just see Michelle Yeoh. When I get offered a role, I have to see “why am I doing this?” Do I love the script? Do I love the director? I don’t want to make a movie where you watch it and go “oh, that’s just Michelle Yeoh being Michelle Yeoh again”. It’s like when we designed for Eleanor, this is not what Michelle Yeoh would wear, this is not the kind of hairstyle I would have. My assistant went “you never wear that!” And I said “good, it’s not me in the movie!” You have to step into the roles of others, otherwise it will lose the fascination for me, and for the audience as well.
This film is seen as a very big step forward for the representation of Asian people in Hollywood? What do you see as the future for Asian actors in genre projects, stuff like Star Trek or Marvel?
I hope I have that magic ball to see! I think it’s very important that we keep pushing for these genre movies. It’s so rare, so few and [far] in between that we get [them]. We are such a big community. We have to be more united, to get out and push more of these projects out there. We have to create the box office, we have to create the marketplace. Just think about the African-Americans, and the Indians – they make these movies because there is an audience of it. If we Asians can stick together and demand more of these movies, then Crazy Rich Asians gets made.