8:00am PT by Danielle Turchiano
Constance Wu: 'Fresh Off the Boat' Will Tip Its Hat to 'All-American Girl'
Fresh Off the Boat, ABC's family sitcom based on Eddie Huang's memoir, is not only delivering the first Asian-American series on network television in two decades, but the series is also hitting home for audiences of many ethnicities, thanks to layered individual characters who deliver humor and heart in every episode.
As the comedy's freshman season has gone on, network television newcomer Constance Wu has broken out as one of the season's best scene-stealers, with her shrewd side-eye, devotion to Stephen King, aggressive approach to the sex talk, and, of course, her musical chops. With more stories placing her in the spotlight before the season finale, The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Wu about her Fresh Off the Boat experience thus far.
Eddie admitted he didn't know what made now the right time for a show like Fresh Off the Boat to be embraced by a major network, let alone a mainstream audience. Why do you think it took so long, and why do you think it's resonating now?
Audiences are smarter than we think, and the nature of television is changing with our digital era. There's so much content out there that when you use the same tried-and-true formulas from great sitcoms like I Love Lucy, it can get old, because people are recycling formulas and forgetting the things that made shows like that so great. It wasn't the formula that it had; it was the spirit that created that formula.... I'm not relying on standard comedic turnarounds and practices and schtick. I try to make it come from a place of truth, universal family and love. To have that, and to have the lens flipped — instead of having a white person looking in on an Asian perspective, it's an Asian perspective looking out into a white world — that's new and relatable because it's born of the same truth that existed in those great sitcoms from before.
What kind of response have you gotten from Asian-American communities?
People are embracing the thing that made them different growing up instead of letting that thing elicit shame. It is from our point of view, so just to have a show that allows you to celebrate that I think has been powerful for our audience.
How do you feel ABC and Fresh Off the Boat have helped usher in a diversity push in general?
Networks are now seeing that people want to see the real world reflected in their television screens so that they can have a real community experience with their stories. Networks, because they are now seeing that when things reflect the real world, people tune in and people respond to that, they are responding, too. People's passion and desire for authenticity is strong. Some people may think it's politically minded, but I think at this point the audience response and the financial response show it's more. Authentic programming that shows the outside world garners authentic interest.
Now that you've been in the role for a little while, showrunner Nahnatchka Khan has really fleshed out Jessica's character. How did the character evolve? Was it a collaborative process?
I did not pitch any ideas to the writers; I just took what they gave me and tried to give it a lot of layers. There was one [time] well after we shot that I emailed [Nahnatchka] and asked to use a specific take of one of my lines. It was at the very end of the "Phillip Goldstein" episode, right after "Drop the mic." "Who's Mike?" "It means you did good, mom." In the other takes I had been really clever; I had improv'd some really funny repartee with Hudson [Yang], but on the last take I heard him say, "You did good, mom," and I just thought as a mother, it would be something really touching. So I didn't improv anything after it and asked that they use that one. Obviously, a lot of Jessica's mannerisms are things that are not necessarily written into the script, like when I sort of wave away the woman who's giving me samples in the grocery store; that was just something that intuitively happened when I was in character.
The show has introduced Jessica's family, and it's diving more into her back story before the season's end, with Rex Lee guesting as an old college friend. What new dynamic will that bring? (Watch an exclusive clip, above.)
It's delightfully misguided! We show some photos of our younger selves, and we do talk about our younger selves, but we don't have flashback scenes. It adds layers and depth to a character, which is very important, because when you do a comedy, you run the risk of just trying to be funny. That can work in short form, but if you want to draw a fan base, I believe the humor must come from a place of humanity and some sort of universal truth. The more you know about somebody's back story, the deeper you can delve into that well, and the more your comedic choices resonate full-body, instead of just being quick, quippy one-liners that are just like a bunch of people trying to be clever. Because after a while, cleverness is just really obnoxious! We know you're cute; we know you're smart; get over yourself!
Fresh Off the Boat is the first Asian-American comedy since All-American Girl with Margaret Cho in the '90s, when this show is set. Do you think it's important to reference that as something the family may be responding to culturally at the time, but also for the show itself to acknowledge what came before?
There is — it's in a later episode. There is a scene in which we are actually watching All-American Girl. I do think it's important to start a conversation about the fact that it did take  years — not to get mad about it but to start a spirited conversation so that it encourages people to express their voice about wanting to see the real world on their screen. A lot of people think Eddie Huang is really outspoken, but if you're not going to speak out for yourself, then who will? We've gotten pretty far in terms of socioeconomic status, but not necessarily in media, and at some point you need to be outspoken. This starts a dialogue. And the louder your voice is, the more people will hear you.
Fresh Off the Boat airs Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on ABC.