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Wu first spoke publicly about the sexual harassment and intimidation she received at the hands of one of the show’s (unnamed) producers during a Sept. 23 appearance at the Atlantic Festival, and the news took off. It’s easy to understand why: Not only was her recounting of her experiences on the ABC show poignant and harrowing, but Wu’s statements answered questions that many fans still had about the controversy that erupted after a 2019 tweet bemoaning Fresh Off the Boat‘s renewal. But, as Wu told The Hollywood Reporter ahead of the release of Making a Scene, Hollywood fodder was never meant to be the main subject of her memoir-in-essays.
“As I talk about this book, everybody thinks it’s a book about Fresh Off the Boat, or my Tweets about Fresh Off the Boat,” she said. “But that was the last essay I wrote, and it was one I really did not want to write.” Wu explained, during a Zoom interview from her Los Angeles home, that she was resistant to discussing the topic, preferring instead to focus on memories from her childhood and her early days trying to make it as an actress (Scene‘s very first iteration was more activist manifesto than memoir). “My editor kept pushing it and finally I was like, ‘Fine, I’ll write it as an exercise but I’m not publishing it,'” she said. “I thought I’d closed that chapter of my life.”
Ahead of the release of Making a Scene, Wu spoke with THR about selecting personal moments from her life for publication, and what she learned along the way.
Can you talk about what happened after you wrote the chapter as an exercise — the decision to actually go through with publishing?
As I said, I was resistant to writing about it, because I know there are people who have had way worse stories than what I had to go through on Fresh Off the Boat. Objectively, I don’t quote “think it’s that bad,” but [the experience was] something that I swallowed for a long time in an attempt to preserve something for somebody else. And by doing that, I think I am a contributor to perpetuating a system that is one that I no longer care to uphold. Even though at the time of the show I was like, “I dealt with it, it was hard, but I moved on and I prevailed, I don’t need to talk about it anymore,” I realized I also had a lot of fear of the criticism and judgment I might get from people saying that what I experienced wasn’t so bad. Me talking about it is more important than my fear of talking about it. The whole point is that people shouldn’t have had to go through it at all.
From the outside, it seems like you could draw a throughline from the practice of writing these types of stories down, to you being able to return to social media and go public about your suicide attempt — did the writing specifically give you courage or did that come from other work on yourself?
Working on this book was healing for me. I liken it to when you go through a physical trauma, you often have a scar as physical proof and you can see it heal. When you have an emotional trauma, there’s a catharsis that comes from talking about it and it’s easy to think that’s all you need. I learned through the process of writing this book that putting words down on paper, and using that actual language, felt like bearing witness to the reality to what I went through. Like finally having a scar to prove that something scary happened to me.
One of my essays is about something that happened with a middle school teacher, and even though there are objectively more traumatic things that have happened to me, it still makes me cry talking about it. My teacher accused me of plagiarism, and she couldn’t prove it — because I didn’t plagiarize — she went around to the other teachers to get their opinions on whether they thought I was smart enough to have written the essay myself. And what I didn’t connect until I wrote the essay about it was that teacher was my drama teacher. It’s so obvious now the connections to going into acting.
Or even with Fresh Off the Boat, I’ve always had a little shame around sometimes contributing to the harassment and intimidation on that set because I was trying so hard to be part of the Boys’ Club — and I thought I had dealt with that shame. But I realized I didn’t give myself enough space to feel the wound. Like, I love Randall Park to death but I wonder, if I had gotten to have his specifically male experience on that show, without the sexual harassment and intimidation, and if I hadn’t had to delicately soften everything about myself so as not to wound the producer’s ego, if I’d been able to put more energy into my work. I could have saved all that energy for the work. And it makes me forgive myself for all the times where I wasn’t my best. Because I was dealing with things that a lot of men don’t have to deal with. Writing it on paper helped me realize all of that.
Do you think that men reading an essay like that will be able to really internalize what you just described — that energy surplus they had from not having to feel unsafe at work?
To be honest, I don’t think I’ll have a lot of male readers. I think they will feel badly about it, but even the men who have true sympathy for it, I don’t think they often correlate that to their own privilege. I still have very good friends who say things like, “If you’re a white man you can’t get a writers room job anymore.” They think it’s OK to say something like that because they’ll bookend it with: “… which is great, I’m so glad that’s happening!” Which I believe they think the movement is great, but the fact that they even think about that first part of that sentence, that it’s hard to get a job as a straight white man these days, that that’s even floating around their psyche, reveals a lot. Once they can do away with that thinking, I’ll feel like the awareness has been applied to their own privilege.
Did you have any boundaries about what you were willing to share in the book?
I pretty much share everything. I didn’t think I was going to. Like how I thought I wouldn’t actually include the Fresh Off the Boat essay. Same with my rape essay, where I talk about having an orgasm while being raped. I didn’t want to include that and I still don’t, I’m ashamed of it and worried it will open up the possibilities for criticism and questioning. It’s the same process that led me to tweet about my suicide attempt, I didn’t want to talk about it but decided it might help someone, and that means more than my being afraid.
Was there anyone in your life from whom you sought out feedback on the book?
There is a chapter where I write about an ex-lover of mine, George. If there was anyone I could have shared my book with for editorial feedback, it would have been him. I don’t talk to him anymore. Not because we have any bad feelings, but it was just a chapter in my life I needed to close. But in terms of people who understand me and who understand my writing and pinpoint the times when it’s my ego versus my heart talking, I think he would have been the best at that.
Did the process of revisiting your past bring to light a different perspective on any seminal memories in your life?
I think with the story of my rape, I give space where I talk about how I could understand why he would think he didn’t rape me. I could understand why this accusation could be baffling to him. It doesn’t negate my experience and it’s not me sympathizing with him, it’s just giving space for the possibility of another perspective. And wouldn’t it be nice if all the men who were baffled when they had sexual harassment accusations leveled against them, if they gave that same consideration that their experience of something might not have been the only experience? It’s also helpful to your own heart to grow your empathy that way. I hope the few men who read my book can come away with that.
You have a line in your book about having spent your 20s “more worried about rent than representation,” which feels very indicative of what it’s like to be a young person pursuing a career in Hollywood and being afraid to be picky. Did you have a specific turning point where you began to feel comfortable being picky?
It’s rare that I have one turning point with anything in my life. But to this specific question, I do have a specific turning point, which was when I bought my house. It was several years after my Fresh Off the Boat success, when I had just finished filming Crazy Rich Asians. None of my success felt real or stable until I bought the house. I’m like “Oh, I guess that’s why they call it real estate.”
If you look back to the period in time in which you received backlash for tweeting about Fresh Off the Boat, and then flash to now when we have a situation in which it seems Florence Pugh didn’t have a great experience on the set of Don’t Worry Darling — do you think it’s become safer or more acceptable for actresses to be outspoken or honest when a job wasn’t good?
I don’t know if I would say it’s safer. I would say it’s more acceptable and there’s a lot more emotional support available around it. The Florence Pugh stuff, which I’ll admit I don’t know anything about, I do see the media’s hunger to exploit that and create a cat fight. I think of all the times a male director didn’t get along with one of their actors, it never gets this much coverage. And I think there’s something to that. That’s not to say that what happened or didn’t happen on set isn’t real, but it feels like an opportunity for us to look at what scandals we salivate over, which scandals we permit. I also think that for a time it was safer to talk about these kinds of things, but now we’re eager to jump on women who speak up if they’re not perfect. I’m seeing a backlash that I think merits a deeper examination.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Making a Scene is available now.
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