Constance Wu Tweets Less Now, but Still Has Plenty on Her Mind
The 'Crazy Rich Asians' star contemplated a variety of subjects — including male privilege, Asian-American representation and punctuation — in a freewheeling conversation at Vulture Fest.
Even before she was the protagonist of the most successful romantic comedy in a decade (and the first Asian-American studio film in a quarter century), Constance Wu was making headlines. Not only was she the breakout star of yet another milestone for representation (Fresh Off the Boat, the first Asian-American primetime series in 20 years), she had also earned a reputation for fearlessly speaking out on hot-button Hollywood issues, from whitewashing to honoring accused sexual offenders.
"I say it less now," she told New York staff writer E. Alex Jung in a conversation at Vulture Fest in Los Angeles on Saturday night. "Not because I don't feel it, but because part of the reason I said that stuff is because no one was saying it, and that really fucking pissed me off."
Wu may have mellowed on her Twitter "rampages," as she put them, but the Crazy Rich Asians star remains candid and gamely weighed in on any subject proffered during the hourlong discussion, between the requisite status updates on her projects. (For the record: now shooting Fresh Off the Boat's fifth season and waiting for Jon M. Chu to finish directing In the Heights next year before tackling the Crazy Rich Asians sequel. The news that she was attached to the Jennifer Lopez stripper movie based on New York's "The Hustlers at Scores" article was "premature," she said, noting that she had simply met with its director, Lorene Scafaria.)
Wu also clarified other media narratives, including those revolving around her previous social media activity. "Any of these people I call out are [merely] the people who facilitate the conversation," she said. "I'm always trying to make it about the system, not the person, and if you read my tweets very clearly, I do that. But it's a much sexier headline to be like, 'Constance Wu Says This About Matt Damon.' With the Casey Affleck thing, I was never saying that he sucked or shouldn't get anything. I said the Academy essentially should engage in responsible curation of nominees."
Wu was referring to her condemnation of the 2017 awards season accolades for Affleck's Manchester by the Sea performance, which culminated in the Oscar for best actor. Affleck had previously been sued by two women for sexual harassment, allegations he denied and eventually settled. "People were like, 'He did a good job.' There are hundreds of actors who have done a good job," Wu pointed out. "If you think that not getting a nomination is a type of punishment, then what is your bottom-line privilege?"
The #MeToo movement has opened the door to long overdue public conversations, and Wu had advice for those who feel that sexual misconduct issues don't apply to them. "You can hear people without being defensive," she said. "If you're confident in the fact that you're a man who does not sexually harass people, that should be enough. You shouldn't have to be like, 'Well, I don't do it.' It's not about you right now. I believe you if you want to say that, but right now we're talking about this experience. You want to talk about your experience? We've been doing it for the past century."
Of course, as the actor at the center of the first major Asian-American project in decades on both the big and small screens, Wu was asked to reflect on the current state of representation for the community. Although actors of color have historically tended to consider race-blind roles as a holy grail or marker of success, "doing Fresh Off the Boat made me realize that to say Asian-American identity has no influence on the character is not true and can be kind of harmful to how you view that side of yourself," she said. "It made me want to take on roles where not only was it a part of your character, but it was a part that you did not want to neutralize and wanted to express in full context."
Color-blind casting is somewhat "insulting," Wu remarked. "I understand why people want to be like, 'I'm above race; I don't see anything.' But to say that the way the world perceives you has no impact on your character is kind of ridiculous."
Wu's first breakthrough role, Fresh Off the Boat's immigrant matriarch Jessica Huang, is reclaiming another sore spot for Asian-American actors. As she has noted since the beginning of the ABC comedy's run in 2015, the use of accents in the show is not deployed as a punchline, but rather as a true-to-life aspect of the real-life people (chef Eddie Huang's family) on whom the series is based. "When you have an accent, it's because you know two languages, the second of which you learned when you were an adult. That's not an easy thing to do," said Wu, whose parents immigrated from Taiwan before she was born. "When I was younger, I wanted Asians on TV with accents to go away because I wanted Asians to be cool. Why did I let somebody else's superficial ridicule of my parents' speech matter more than my real lived experience? That's how it feels to be a minority." (Wu had expounded further on the subject a week earlier, in her acceptance speech for an ACLU of Southern California Bill of Rights Award.)
Interviews conducted by journalists who share a common or similar background with the subject are often able to delve into deeper layers of identity and community, and the exchange between Wu and Jung was no exception. Jung asked Wu about her request to remove a line of dialogue in Crazy Rich Asians wherein her character, Rachel, boasts about never having dated Asian men. It was a detail initially reported in The Hollywood Reporter's Crazy Rich Asians cover story that has gone largely unnoticed in the mainstream conversation but is part of a thorny issue within the Asian-American community.
"It's a topic that should have its own story, but I think what we were trying to do with Crazy Rich Asians is not even dignify that argument by putting it in. [The male characters] just existed as themselves as talented, great, handsome Asian men," Wu said. "In the book [Rachel] says, 'Wow, I've never dated Asian guys before, but Nick is different.' To say that somebody is the exception to the rule is to reaffirm the rule."
Wu also publicly acknowledged for the first time the online attacks she has received from some Asian-American men for having dated interracially. "They make this assumption that every single one of my boyfriends has been white based on the one boyfriend they saw on my social media, the one I was dating when I started my account," she said. "But if this anger is so large and triggered by something kind of small and not necessarily verifiable, then it's about a deeper issue, and I or other Asian women might be the unfortunate target of it. The way I try to think about it is if somebody needs to target me as part of their longer journey to figure out how they feel about themselves and their place in the world, I think that's fine. Of course hateful things don't feel good, but I understand. This person does things because they're hurting, and they don't know how to express it."
Although Wu seems to have no trouble expressing herself — in public address, regardless of industry support — she admitted that it isn't easy, as a woman, to counteract systemic programming and assert her values. While filming Crazy Rich Asians' climactic mah-jongg scene, she said she cried during almost every take, when Rachel tells her boyfriend's disapproving mother, Eleanor, that she will walk away from the love of her life and his family, knowing her own self-worth. "I'm gonna cry now because the line where I say, 'I know I'm enough' is hard not just for Rachel. When you're a woman, to assert your worth in a declarative way without apologizing for it is scary, because you've been chastised before," Wu said, pointing out that even punctuation can be a daily minefield for women policing their own tone. "The other day I was writing an email, and I spent 15 minutes trying to figure out whether to use a period or an exclamation point." (Note for men: Women tend to deploy exclamation points to soften tone.)
Wu, a noted bibliophile, then referenced Jennifer Egan's 2011 Pulitzer-winning novel A Visit From the Goon Squad and Ariana Grande's hit single "Thank U, Next" in noting how language evolves over time. "I love that song," Wu enthused about the latter's tribute to her exes. "It's so nice but not nice at the same time. It's like a period and an exclamation point!"