If Internet trolls had their way, Constance Wu would keep her mouth shut. But no, there is she is on Twitter, calling out the white-saviour narrative that put Matt Damon at the centre of the American-Chinese film The Great Wall (2016). And there she goes again, highlighting the systemic racism that led to Scarlett Johansson being chosen to play a Japanese character in Ghost in the Shell (2017). The subtext in some of the nastier brickbats hurled at Wu is that she’s just too outspoken—not just for a woman, but for an Asian woman. But no brickbat is going to silence the fiery 36-year-old.
Wu’s biting commentary on Hollywood’s diversity blindspot has made her one of the leading Asian-American voices holding the entertainment industry to account in recent years. And professionally, her star is only getting brighter, reaching a new apogee in August when she headlines the much-anticipated Crazy Rich Asians, the first major Hollywood movie with a mostly-Asian cast since The Joy Luck Club, which was released 25 years ago. Based on Kevin Kwan’s New York Times bestselling comedy of manners, Wu stars as Rachel Chu, an Asian-American woman discovering her boyfriend is one of Singapore’s richest bachelors.
Yet despite her growing celebrity, Wu seems to eschew the spotlight. When she meets Harper’s Bazaar Singapore for a chat in a Los Angeles café, she is studiously low-key, her dainty features half-hidden by a denim cap and honey-dipped tresses. It is the actress who has asked to meet at this unpretentious vegan spot in her neighbourhood, Silverlake, an artsy hipster enclave far from the usual Hollywood power-meeting venues.
Wu, born and raised in Richmond, Virginia to two Taiwanese émigrés—a genetics-professor father and computer-programmer mother—calls this area home now. “I like the sensibility better,” she explains. “If I go somewhere like Beverly Hills or West Hollywood, I feel like everyone around me is clean and pretty, and I’m just dirty,” she laughs.
The only attention she draws at the café is from the cashier, who admires Wu’s 10-year-old Yeah Yeah Yeahs tee. “I like vintage, well-made pieces. My style has stayed pretty much the same over the years,” Wu says. Her hair colour, on the other hand, is a different matter altogether. If you follow Wu on Instagram, you’ll know she has been switching up her hair colour lately, going from strawberry blonde locks to blunt black bangs in the same week. Her advice on how to play with hair colours? “Don’t worry so much in general—and especially don’t waste energy worrying about something as temporary as hair colour. If you want to do it, just do it. If it’s not great, it’ll grow back.”
Wu started out doing classical theatre in New York, before progressing to indie films and guest appearances on television shows such as Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. But it was her portrayal of Jessica Huang on Fresh off the Boat, the Asian-American sitcom that launched her career in 2015, that truly struck a chord with viewers. Off-duty, Wu is equally entrenched in the cultural zeitgeist. Time magazine chose her to be on its Most Influential People list in 2017, where Lena Dunham wrote of her friend, “On the road with her for Hillary Clinton’s campaign, I was not only able to access a glint of Constance’s humour but also witness her giving nature, her monstrously big heart, her passion for change and the careful way she lets everyone around her share the challenges of their own identity. This year—when she spoke out against Hollywood’s knack for dismissing sexual misconduct in our great men—she chose honesty and fight over the neutrality so many think they need to maintain in order to further their careers. It was a hallelujah moment.” In 2018, she joined other celebrities such as Natalie Portman and Viola Davis at the second Women’s March in L.A., speaking out against the fetishisation of Asians.
Critics may see her as something of a gadfly when it comes to Tinseltown’s poor record on diversity, but she shrugs it off. “People will say a woman is mouthy if she says anything,” Wu observes. If she had to guess, she thinks she has “probably” lost some work as a result of some of her more trenchant critiques. But even as she says her manager would shield her from knowing she missed out on a role, “because he knows I’m really sensitive,” there is a glint of steel in her eyes. “When I speak out about something that means a lot to me, whether it’s sexual harassment or whitewashing, that matters to me more than losing jobs.
“Because the types of people for whom those statements came from would lower my credibility. I don’t want their company. I don’t care if they’re the biggest studio head, I want to be around people who feel like my tribe,” she continues defiantly. “So it’s not that scary.”
Just as Wu has become a lightning rod in controversies about Asian representation, so too have her biggest projects: Fresh off the Boat, and now Crazy Rich Asians. And interestingly, the most vociferous attacks tend to come from other Asians who believe these stories aren’t representative of them.
Some felt it was wrong to pick a half-white actor, Henry Golding, to play the male lead, Nicholas Young, while others have taken issue with the American and British accents of some of the Asian cast as well as the dearth of non-Chinese Asian characters.
Wu will stick up for the film, but she also welcomes a debate. When you’re blazing a trail and there are so few Asian-centric stories to begin with, you have to grow a thick skin, she believes.
“The thing is, I’ve gone through all this before on a smaller scale, because with Fresh off the Boat it was the same situation—it was the first TV show to centre on an Asian-American experience in over 20 years.” And Asian viewers’ critiques of Fresh off the Boat, which has been renewed for a fifth season, foreshadowed what has begun to happen with Crazy Rich Asians. “There was a lot of pressure because, obviously, one story can’t represent the whole. People were anxious because of the way Hollywood has treated and portrayed us before. And before you even watch it, you’re defensive and ready to hate it and be offended. That’s a natural response to not being heard or respected your whole life.
“But I think it’s okay to hate my movie. Maybe it makes somebody so pissed off that they make their own. You don’t think this movie or my TV show represents you? Then I want to see what represents you. I value your story even if Hollywood doesn’t.”
Still, there has been a groundswell of support for both the show and the new film ahead of its August release, which Wu believes speaks to the burning hunger among Asians to see themselves on screen. “There are people for whom it means so much who relate to it, and that’s wonderful.
“Because what does it say to a young woman if her face is never the centre of the narrative? She won’t ever think she’s meant to be the star of her own show.”
Photographer: Claire Rothstein
Stylist: Windy Aulia
Makeup: Molly Greenwald/The Wall Group
Hair: Derek Yuen/Starworks Artists
Manicure: Jolene Brodeur/The Wall Group
Digital operator: Michael Yates
Producer: Victoria Hutchings/Mint Productions
Line producer: Matt Musty
Styling assistant: Alyx Cohen
Shot on location at Sunset Hollywood Villa