The mid-July sun at Waialua, on the north shore of Oahu, was already so unforgiving at 9 a.m. that the ice in a cooler of LaCroix near the foot of Constance Wu’s chair had all but melted; an assistant heaped up the few remaining cubes around the cans. It was the first day of principal photography on the movie “I Was a Simple Man,” an intergenerational family drama set partly in nineteen-fifties Hawaii, and Wu was being readied for continuity photos of her character, Grace, an ethnically Chinese woman whose family has lived in Hawaii for generations. Wu wore a floral dress with swirls of turquoise, and a waxy white orchid was about to be pinned behind her ear. When the stylist, a genial man whose beard and burly physique gave him the air of a tropical Santa, imparted a gentle wave to her hair, she yelped and winced repeatedly, convinced that she’d been burned. He assured her that what she felt was just freshly curled strips of hair brushing her skin. Wu kept close watch in the mirror as the makeup artist, a woman with wrist tattoos named Jordann, worked on her face. Eventually, Wu cocked her head, grimaced, and said, “I feel like you are making me look too pretty.”
Wu cast around for an example of what she was hoping for. “Like, you know how Brie Larson looked in ‘Short Term 12’?” Jordann hadn’t seen the movie. “Elsie Fisher in ‘Eighth Grade’?” A sorry shake of the head. Appraising her face once more, Wu said, “I mean, I feel like I’m at a magazine shoot, but I’m not sure I feel like the character.”
Jordann explained that the film’s writer and director, Chris Yogi, had shown her a video of an actress wearing the look he envisaged for Wu’s character. “He’s a guy,” Wu said, conspiratorially. “He probably liked it because he thought the girl was hot.”
After a while, Yogi wandered over, clutching a cup of coffee. Wu gestured at her face, smooth as the inside of a seashell, and he nodded approvingly just as she said, “Too much, right?” She pointed to her touched-up brows. “I think it needs to be more natural, don’t you? More like yours, maybe?”
“Mine . . .” Yogi said, raising his bushy thickets. Wu giggled. Yogi relented, deadpanning, “O.K., fine, make it like mine.” Her objective achieved, Wu dragged a moist cloth over her face, revealing her fine pores.
“I Was a Simple Man,” an indie project with a tiny budget, had taken a while to come together. Wu had workshopped the film at the Sundance Directors Lab back in 2015, and not long before that she had been a full-time waitress, forty thousand dollars in debt, with only a few acting credits to her name. But 2015 was her breakout year, thanks to her role in ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat,” the first Asian-American-led network sitcom in twenty years. Five seasons of the show have now aired, and Wu has been nominated for a Critics’ Choice Television Award for Best Actress in a Comedy Series four years running, becoming one of the most famous Asian-Americans to have emerged from television in decades.
Last summer, she transitioned to movie stardom, playing the lead in “Crazy Rich Asians,” an ecstatic fantasy of romance and opulence set in Singapore. The first all-Asian Hollywood film in twenty-five years, it outgrossed every romantic comedy released in the past decade, and Wu was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Actress, making her the first Asian woman to be recognized in the category in forty-five years. When Wu was named one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People, she became the face of a historic moment; the citation, by Lena Dunham, praised her for being “outspoken on the lack of Asian representation in Hollywood” and pointed out that, because of her ethnicity, “she is tasked with being more than just an actor.”
In Hollywood terms, Wu, who is thirty-seven, came to stardom late, and at first she was refreshingly un-circumspect for a celebrity. When Casey Affleck was nominated for an Oscar in 2017, despite allegations of sexual harassment, she tweeted, “Men who sexually harass women 4 OSCAR! Bc good acting performance matters more than humanity, human integrity!” She added, “I’ve been counseled not to talk about this for career’s sake. F my career then, I’m a woman & human first.”
But stardom is inevitably accompanied by scrutiny, and Twitter is nothing if not fickle. In May, in response to the news that “Fresh Off the Boat” had been picked up for a sixth season, Wu fired off a string of expletive-laden tweets grousing about what many actors would consider unequivocally good news: “So upset right now that I’m literally crying. Ugh, Fuck.” She was immediately pilloried on social media, and Jimmy Kimmel, on his late-night show on ABC, quipped, “Only on ABC is getting your show picked up the worst thing that can happen to you.” Wu took to Twitter again, explaining that the show’s re-up, while wonderful (“I know that it’s a huge privilege that I even HAVE options—options that FOTB has afforded me”), would prevent her from pursuing “another project that I was really passionate about,” one that “would have challenged me as an artist.”
Then, in her effort to convince fans of her sincerity, Wu echoed the #MeToo slogan “believe women.” Another wave of indignation ensued, and the gossip rags quickly piled on. The Post quoted anonymous sources who claimed that Wu, on the set of “Hustlers”—a movie about strippers who fleece their skeevy Wall Street clients, which was released on September 13th—was a “bigger diva” than her co-stars Jennifer Lopez and Cardi B, and that she was widely loathed on the set of “Fresh Off the Boat.” In a tweet, since deleted, the journalist Yashar Ali wrote that Wu’s “conduct today comes as no surprise to anyone who has worked with her in recent years,” because of her “reputation for being rude, petty, mean-spirited, and ungrateful.”
Such is the state of cultural politics in 2019 that Wu’s every success and failure is fraught with significance; these days, no tempest can be relied on to remain in its teapot. What did it mean, politically, to see Wu as “ungrateful,” when so many stars—white stars, male stars—exhibit much worse behavior without provoking outrage? In Slate, the Korean-American writer Inkoo Kang suggested that Asian-Americans finally had “a diva to call our own.” Diva status, she wrote, “however undeserved the allowances it gets, is one that’s long been denied to a group of people often characterized as unoriginal robots and mean-for-meanness’ sake Dragon Ladies.”
In the time I spent with Wu, the scars of her recent bout with the media felt fresh. She oscillated between irreverently confiding—“Maybe I’ll get drunk and tell you all my secrets!” she joked one night—and watchful. “Is this recording, by the way?” she asked at our first meeting, in Los Angeles, when I set my phone on the table. Before answering questions, she would pause, fingers pressed to her temples and a twitch of her mouth conveying apprehension. She revised and retracted her statements, as if calculating every possible angle from which her words could be viewed.
In any minority group, the most prominent members are expected to somehow speak for the entire constituency. But, if the burden of being Constance Wu seemed to weigh heavily, it was also evidently not something that she felt she could renounce. The day of the “Simple Man” makeup session, we wandered the scruffy beachfront of Kaiaka Bay, picking our way through cow bush and sugarcane ferns to the water’s edge. A fetid stench wafted on the breeze and flies buzzed at our ankles. On the beach were the rotting remains of a school of fish. “It’s actually a good metaphor for the movie,” Wu said, excitedly. “Of how colonization happens.” I wasn’t sure what she meant, but she went on for several minutes about the film’s exploration of ancestry, colonization, and death—“not just the death of the protagonist but also of a way of life,” she said. “Seeing these dead fish is kind of to see the voices of the ancestors.”
I first encountered Wu four years ago, when I tuned in to the début episode of “Fresh Off the Boat.” The show follows a family of Taiwanese immigrants who uproot their life in an urban Chinatown and move to Orlando, Florida, in order to run a Western-themed steakhouse. Wu plays the matriarch and tiger mother par excellence Jessica Huang, a spirited and indefensibly blunt woman whose fierce devotion to her children is matched only by her uncompromising expectations for them. Wu’s presence onscreen—impetuous, possessive, pugilistic, winsome—quickly made her character the axle around which the other family members rotate. Jessica Huang may not always be pleasant, but she is never boring. Shipwrecked on the shoals of assimilation—adjusting to the cultural peculiarities of America less easily than the rest of her clan—she fights harder than anyone else to keep the family afloat.
When critics hailed Jessica Huang as the most compelling character on the show, it felt momentous: here was an Asian woman charming Americans by playing something other than a victim or a temptress, the two types generally assigned to Asian women since the time of Anna May Wong. (Wong, Hollywood’s first Asian-American star, is perhaps most famous for the role she didn’t land, as the lead in the 1937 adaptation of Pearl S. Buck’s “The Good Earth,” whose Chinese characters ended up being played by white actors.)
As I watched the show, I realized that the woman onscreen was very much like my mother, who arrived in the U.S. from China in the early nineties. Like her, Jessica wears visors and high-waisted khaki shorts, refuses to turn on the air-conditioning even at the height of summer, and packs her children pungent stir-fry lunches that earn them the scorn of their classmates. Like her, Jessica speaks with an accent—flattened “R”s, tightened “O”s, elided consonants—and has a predilection for dropping articles. But in Jessica the alienated edge of immigrant identity, which my mother and I both strove to hide, is played up and endowed with a kind of sideways charisma. Wu can render a petulant scowl hilarious by allowing it to linger on her face past the point of excess. Humor often comes from the dissonance between the expression in her eyes—panic, grievance, barely concealed resentment—and her belief that she projects an air of supreme control. When she says, “All white people look the same” or “It’s true, I am good at everything,” there is vulnerability to her vainglory because it is so transparently insecure.
On the Internet, the character’s idiosyncrasies are a matter of gleeful celebration. Listicles (“27 Lessons Jessica Huang Has Taught Us”) compile her wisdom on such matters as child rearing (“It’s just like chess, children are the pawns and you are the queen”) and upward mobility (“I’m gonna treat myself to a pedicure done by a white lady. That’s when you know you’ve made it”). On the one hand, it’s remarkable to see a woman like my mother, and her shabby, marginal occupation of a country that she’s never understood, become a subject fit for prime-time TV. On the other, it’s all played for laughs, and the more you watch Jessica the more you see her not as someone fully realized and human but as a marionette with stereotypes for strings, controlled by a legion of writers who know that they can rely on her spunk to give punch to any scene.
When the show débuted, its most ferocious critic was, unexpectedly, Eddie Huang, its producer and also the author of the memoir on which it was based. “This show isn’t about me, nor is it about Asian America,” Huang wrote, in an essay for New York, calling it “a reverse-yellowface show with universal white stories played out by Chinamen.” Huang’s essay provoked predictable obloquy in the entertainment industry, but Wu told me that she felt it was important to stand up for him. “Eddie got to where he is today by not mincing his words, and people loved him for it,” she said.
At the same time, Wu, who, I figured, had fielded her share of questions on stereotyping, maintained that the practice was harmful only if it was taken as defining a group. “If somebody just so happens to fall into stereotypical traits, it doesn’t mean that we should try to take that part of her away and hide it from the light,” she said. “Because that’s a manifestation of shame. If anything, I think that people who have been reduced by pop culture their whole lives deserve to have their stories expanded upon.” Later, she added that she always found it weird when Asian actors refused to play stereotypes. Why, she asked, when there weren’t enough Asian roles, would you turn one down, rather than take the opportunity to invest a stock type with “character and human experience that it’s never fucking gotten?”
To research the role of Jessica, Wu went to Orlando to spend time with Eddie Huang’s mother. “She’s very, very extravagant,” Wu once said, describing the real Jessica’s white minidress, giant platform sandals, and body “dripping in diamonds.” Eddie Huang told me about the encounter from his mother’s side. “The first thing she said was ‘O.K., she’s hot enough to play me,’ ” he recalled. “Constance really captures a lot of my mom, because my mom is very much a diva. They both are.” He laughed. “They’re both just super-alpha, super-diva, super-unstoppable forces. Constance shows up anywhere, and it’s a hurricane.”
A popular episode in the show’s first season centered on Jessica’s belief in traditional Chinese superstitions. The beliefs had been unfamiliar to Wu, who discussed them with other Asian-Americans in preparation for shooting. “Everyone knew about it,” she said. “But, because I grew up in America, I didn’t grow up around Chinese people or relatives. And I didn’t get these superstitions from my parents. So I had to integrate them into Jessica’s origin story.” Jessica’s origin stories—flashbacks to her formative years, in college, say, or meeting her husband—are Wu’s favorite part of the show, and it is easy to see how they have helped her inhabit a Chinese-American experience that is not her own.
Cartoon by Bruce Eric Kaplan
Wu was born in Richmond, Virginia, the third of four daughters, to Taiwanese immigrants who had moved to the U.S. in the nineteen-seventies. Her father pursued a doctorate in biology and genetics and later became a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University; her mother was initially a homemaker, then went to the local community college to study computer programming. By the time Wu was born, the family was solidly middle class—“not upper-middle, not lower-middle, but fucking middle-middle.” On the weekends, she went with neighbors to the local Third Presbyterian Church. She took piano lessons and did gymnastics at the Y.M.C.A. English was spoken in the household. “I speak Chinese like a toddler with an American accent,” Wu told me. The family went on vacation to the Blue Ridge Mountains or Disney World, not to their ancestral home.
Like the Huangs in “Fresh Off the Boat,” Wu’s family were virtually the only Asians in their town. But, whereas Eddie Huang has written about being called a “chink” on his first day of middle school, Wu can’t recall being treated differently, much less bullied, because of how she looked. When the Wus moved into a new house, she told me, neighbors came to greet them: “They were literally baking us pies to welcome us to the neighborhood.”
Genteel Southern culture figured more prominently in Wu’s upbringing than ancient Chinese traditions did. “Richmond is the city that built me,” Wu said. “There was a lot of J. Crew and Ann Taylor.” At her high school, whose mascot was a Confederate Rebel, she was a cheerleader for the wrestling team. But school, in general, wasn’t of much interest to Wu; community theatre was where she thrived. “Theatre was the place where adults listened to you, with respect, and valued your feelings, instead of trying to make you suppress them,” she said. Wu made her lead acting début, at the age of twelve, as Mole, in a stage adaptation of “The Wind in the Willows.” A couple of years later, she saw college productions of “All My Sons” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”—shows that, she said, “knocked my socks off to the other side of the fucking theatre.”
Christianity and political conservatism were integral to the identity of the adults she knew. Although Wu is coy about whether she believes in God, she uses religion as a framing device for understanding certain parts of her life. When she was twelve, she wrote to the local paper to advocate a fervently pro-life position. (Wu, who campaigned for Hillary Clinton in 2016, is now pro-choice.) “I was proud of being a virgin when I got to college,” she told me. “Because, where I come from, it was cool to wait until marriage.”
College was SUNY Purchase, where Wu earned a B.F.A. in acting. She described her academic schedule as rigorous, and said that it made her reckon with her work in a serious way. “It took me a long time to marry that seriousness with the playfulness and the freedom that I had to give,” she said. One of her professors, Jennie Israel, recalling Wu’s drive, described “fire coming off her in determination.”
While Wu was in college, her parents divorced. It was a painful and confusing time that Wu doesn’t like to talk about, and I noticed that she slipped into an abstracted third person when discussing it. “Eighteen to twenty-one is a hard time for the showbiz-starving kid whose parents just got divorced, so she doesn’t exactly, like, know what home she’s coming back to,” she said.
Wu is generally reluctant to talk about her family, particularly her mother, whom she has gnomically described as “whimsical.” Eddie Huang was too loyal to Wu to divulge details, but he inadvertently let a hint slip. “Constance and I struggle with our parents in a very similar way,” he said. “My mom always thought she knew best for me. And it was always really a struggle to be able to be myself at home with my mother around. She was my first hater. And, you know, Constance and I really relate.”
Wu graduated from Purchase, in 2005, with a good agent. She moved to New York, where she spent the next five years waitressing and going to countless auditions, which led to only a handful of TV and Off Off Broadway roles. Still, she remembers those years as a time of self-discovery—she took a class in Victorian literature, attended Quaker meeting for a year, and contemplated a career as a speech therapist—and she still speaks passionately about the idealism of the New York theatre world. She moved to Los Angeles in 2010, after a bad breakup with a boyfriend, but for several years her life continued much the same in the new location: waitressing, auditions, sporadic roles. “At one point, I asked myself if I would be O.K. waitressing at forty-five as long as I got to do acting,” Wu told me. “My answer was a firm yes.”
One afternoon, a week or so before the movie shoot in Hawaii, I accompanied Wu to visit her acting coach, Craig Archibald, in the Hancock Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. Archibald, an affable Canadian in his mid-fifties, greeted us at the door of his Spanish-style duplex home, where he lives and teaches. After serving us generous mugs of tea, he turned to his client. “So, tell me how you are doing,” he said. Wu drew a long breath and curled herself into a deep red sofa.
“I’m having a day,” she said, pulling a notebook and a pen out of a black leather backpack.
“O.K., so, a day,” Archibald said slowly. “Business day or personal day?”
“Both,” Wu replied. She had spent the morning writing in her journal, which, she said, always gets “rather emotional,” and had done a number of interviews for the imminent release of “Hustlers.” Archibald asked if she planned to see the movie, and she laughed. “I don’t like to watch myself,” she said. “All the exposure just makes me yucky.”
Archibald, who has the soothing voice of a mindfulness-app guide, had a therapeutic habit of repeating Wu’s words, as if to make sure that she had heard herself and given adequate weight to her own ideas. I got the impression that a significant part of the work was buttressing Wu’s confidence, letting her work out thoughts and emotions in a protected environment. Wu has been attending coaching sessions with Archibald since shortly after she arrived in L.A.—long before she could afford it. During her waitressing years, she’d bring audition pieces to rehearse, but now she looks to Archibald for help inhabiting a character she’s playing by inventing a backstory or developing an interior world.
Wu told Archibald that she had yet to meet the woman who would be playing a younger version of her character, Grace, in “I Was a Simple Man.” “I’m concerned, because I don’t know how she sounds,” Wu said, haltingly. “She’s not an actress, she has never acted before.” (“Oof,” Archibald said, with raised brows.) “We’ve done so much on Grace’s spirit and her inner life,” Wu went on. “But that’s all work that we’ve done that isn’t in the other actress.”
“You can talk to her, you know?” Archibald said. “She’s gonna be very respectful of you.”
“Will she, though?” Wu asked.
“Of course she will,” Archibald said.
“No, she won’t,” Wu protested, without conviction.
Wu’s intensity brought with it a certain distractibility. When a lawnmower began rumbling outside, Archibald apologized and explained that yard work was normally done in the morning, but the crew had arrived late. Wu almost vibrated with agitation. “Oh, my God, it’s just so loud!” she exclaimed at one point, as if the mower had been dispatched expressly to thwart her concentration.
Soon she turned to me, her face darkening. “I’m honestly distracted because of you,” she said. I had been tapping out notes on my phone on a couch off to the side. “Are you actually taking notes, or are you texting people or doing something else?” she asked. Unsure whether “yes” or “no” would antagonize her more, I said, weakly, “A bit of both.” Wrong answer.
“Because, here, what we say has a lot of reverence,” she continued, frowning. “Pay attention.” In our subsequent encounters, Wu spoke directly into my phone, as if recording an audiobook.
Archibald moved us to a quieter room to resume the exploration of Wu’s role. He told me about one of the techniques they use. “Very often, it’s helpful for actors to see themselves as either a plant or an animal,” he said.
“Animal work is a big thing,” Wu said.
Archibald explained that choosing an animal that a role resembles “helps you feel the essence of it.”
The pair had decided that, in this film, Wu’s character was fundamentally a plant. “In my mind, Grace, when she dies, literally enters the soil and is put at the base of this monkey-pod tree,” Wu said. She added, grinning, “This is the first time I’m being a plant!”
“This the first time you’re being a plant,” Archibald affirmed serenely.
“But it works!” she cried, with an almost childlike glee.
Acting is the art of animating fiction. Slipping into a character is a form of forgetting the self. But, whereas Tom Hanks and Brad Pitt are given free rein to channel the Everyman in American cinema, being a minority actress often means auditioning for roles that dwell on the specificity of the Asian-American experience—roles that, for the actor, can feel like a constant reminder of what sets her apart.
Wu’s character in “Crazy Rich Asians” is an accomplished professor from a humble Chinese-American background, whose sense of her heritage is transformed when she accompanies her boyfriend to Singapore and discovers that he is the scion of the city’s most prominent family. But, to Wu, the character is a child. “She never feels quite at home in America, where she grew up, yet she has never been to Asia,” she said. “When she finally goes, she is bullied.”
I asked what animal was behind her performance in “Fresh Off the Boat,” but Wu worried that the real Jessica Huang would be offended by her answer. She told me eventually, but insisted that it be off the record. “You have to understand that Jessica sees herself as a peacock,” Wu said.
In “Hustlers,” Wu plays a squirrel—which is to say, she plays a woman from Queens named Destiny who strips in order to support a young daughter and the grandmother who raised her. “Destiny was always on the lookout, always afraid of predators,” Wu said. “She’s always trying to store up all the nuts because she has a scarcity complex.” Wu seemed to retreat into herself, and then come to a realization. “I know that well, because I think I am very much a squirrel,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to play somebody who’s really lonely.”
In the movie, Destiny is mentored by Jennifer Lopez’s magnetic character, Ramona—a lioness to Destiny’s squirrel—who teaches her how to extract money from clients and later hatches a scheme to drug and defraud them. When I saw the film, I noticed how watchfully Destiny enters every room. Whether navigating a club or celebrating Christmas with her sisters in crime at a lavish apartment, she always seems to be observing the scene, and to be slightly apart from it.
“Destiny needs money, but Destiny really gets caught up in it because she loves feeling like she’s a part of something,” Wu explained when I brought this up, a tenderness entering her voice. “She’s so excited that she’s part of a family.”
But Wu’s flitting eyes betray that Destiny doesn’t quite dare to believe that she really belongs, and, the more I thought about the characters that Wu has inhabited, the more connected they felt to me, a band of outsiders.
The story of Asian-Americans is the story of being marooned between vertiginous aspiration and compensatory diligence, between being probationary Americans at best and perennial aliens at worst. America is the strange place where Asians are stranded, yoked together by difference. As Wu put it to me, “ ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ is not about being Asian. It’s not about being Chinese. It’s about Asian America—the fact that, even though we are from different cultures, what we share is the way our dominant culture, which is white America, treated us growing up and lumped us together.”
White America tends to ignore the fact that Asian America encompasses a vast variety of experiences—not just different countries and cultures of origin but a whole spectrum of assimilation, class, and other markers of identity. “For most Asians, either you’re super-poor or you’re gonna go to school and be a professional,” Eddie Huang told me. Wu’s Asian America, he said, was “a little bit whiter” than his own. “The first week we hung out, Constance wanted no part of the Asian-representation stuff,” he recalled. “She was, like, ‘I’m an actor. I’m focussed on acting as a craft.’ Constance definitely ran from the Chinese home in a lot of ways, and then came back around to find it through consciously exploring her identity on the show.”
When Huang and I spoke, we used English threaded with Chinese words and expressions. Huang, who has a book and a movie coming out, both featuring Asian-American protagonists—“I can only ever write what I know”—told me that he recently found himself asking a Barnes & Noble clerk for a copy of Sally Rooney’s novel “Conversations with Friends” in his “white voice.” “I didn’t even realize I had a white voice until the person I was with pointed it out to me,” Huang said, with a dry laugh.
Huang’s words reminded me of all the times that I’d been charged with “sounding white” or being a “banana”—yellow on the outside and white on the inside—and of how baffled I’d been by the accusations. If the prototypical American was white and middle class, and my parents’ Chinese accents and indigence marked them as irredeemably fresh off the boat, what chance was there for someone like me to achieve Americanness? And, if striving to assimilate is an unforgivable form of selling out, is there any way to be authentically American without being perceived as an impostor?
Wu is still surprised when people comment on her staunch embrace of an American identity. Once, on “The Ellen Degeneres Show,” when asked where she was from, she reflexively answered, “Richmond.” “There was a whole thing online where Asian-Americans were saying how rad it was that I said it so naturally,” Wu said, with a shrug. “But I really wasn’t trying to make a statement.”
One afternoon in Hawaii, I met up with Chris Yogi and Sarah Kim, the producer of “I Was a Simple Man,” at the house they’d rented for the movie’s crew. Yogi grew up on Oahu; his great-great-grandfather came from Japan more than a century ago, to work on the sugar plantations. “I Was a Simple Man” came out of his experience, in his twenties, of watching both his father and his grandfather die. Yogi’s grandfather, in his last days, had started calling out to people who weren’t there, in Japanese phrases that Yogi couldn’t understand. “It’s a story about family and death and trauma, but the island is the main character, and I want to honor that,” he said, of the film.
In Hawaii, people of Asian or Pacific heritage are the majority, and Yogi said that this gave him a very particular sense of Asian-Americanness when he was young. After he left home, to study film at the University of Southern California, he was puzzled by the sense of exclusion felt by Asian-Americans around him. “It’s pretty interesting to grow up in a place where you’re not the minority and then to go to a place where you are,” he said. “It was almost like when I moved to L.A. I had to sort of assimilate all over again.”
“If it’s in a museum, you’re allowed to look.”Cartoon by David Sipress
When Yogi got out of film school, he was confronted with the received wisdom of the industry: no matter how interesting the story, white America does not want to watch a film with only Asian-American stars. “You sort of know that intellectually, but it’s a real wake-up call when you actually go out,” he said. “A few execs would say stuff like ‘Even Asian-Americans don’t want to watch Asian-American work!’ And some of these people were Asian-American execs.” He shook his head.
Kim, who was working on a laptop nearby, chimed in. “There are a lot of white people who are in places of power so, naturally, they hire other white people,” she said. “It may not be conscious sometimes, but it arises out of the same sense of familiarity we Asians feel with one another—the kind of comfort and safety that’s difficult to put into words.” Even the Asian movies that got made in the U.S., she felt, like “Mulan,” succeed in part by telling stories filtered through a Westernized, white perspective.
“It’s the age-old question,” Yogi said. “Do you try to change the system, or do you just try to create your own?” The pair talked with rueful admiration about recent advances in black cinema. “We need ten flops to make one ‘Moonlight,’ ” Kim said. But there wouldn’t be ten films if the first one was a flop. She went on, “And we don’t have the Asian Ava DuVernay, who is leading this charge and making her own way to do things.”
They’d recently been given a sobering piece of advice by an executive who was a woman of color, and who had witnessed the fluctuating fortunes of black cinema since the nineties. “She was really excited that our film was gaining momentum,” Yogi recalled. “But she said, ‘You Asian-Americans’—this was right after ‘Crazy Rich Asians’—and she was, like, ‘It’s really great that you guys have momentum, but this isn’t going to last. Because next year Hollywood may change again.’ ”
These days, all the big studios have diversity executives, and I talked to one, who said that she would be able to speak more frankly if she wasn’t named. The executive, who is African-American, had seen her share of unconscious-bias absurdities, and recalled one in particular, a meeting about casting the role of a police chief. “I said, ‘What about an Asian-American female?’ And people, like, burst out laughing,” she told me. “Then they realized that I was serious, and they looked skeptical. I said, ‘Well, you know what? The chief of police in San Francisco is an Asian-American female.’ ”
All the same, she was encouraged by recent developments in representation both in front of and behind the camera, and by changes in supply and demand. On the supply side, she pointed out the ease of access to online video platforms and the power of social media as a publicity tool. “Think about just how many Asian-Americans have been on YouTube for many years,” she said, citing the Japanese-Hawaiian comedian Ryan Higa. “No one knew about Ryan, but he got this outsized, coveted YouTuber fan base.”
As for demand, she told me that she had a statistic that she was fond of citing. “U.S. minorities represent $3.7 trillion in buying power, so it’s not marketing to a multicultural audience that isn’t sustainable,” she said. “The numbers don’t lie. We’re talking about the census and how in, like, 2040—in twenty years—we will be the majority.”
On my last afternoon in Hawaii, I met up with Wu at her hotel. She’d spent the morning on a hike with a native Hawaiian family, “to absorb the sound of the island and its trees.” She was wearing a cropped T-shirt, dark denim shorts, and Havaianas flip-flops, and could have passed for one of the tourists who drifted around us, sporting seashell necklaces, hair half wet, looking dazed from the sun. She took a sip from her drink—a perfect Manhattan with a twist, her favorite cocktail—and gazed out at the receding tide and the swaying palms.
I asked how much she thought systemic bias had affected her career. She cautioned that her particular background predisposed her to notice it less than someone else in her position might. But, after a pause, she said that it had of course come up. “When I first got ‘Fresh Off the Boat,’ I noticed that all the parts I was being offered afterward were what I call ‘suits,’ ” she said. “They were lawyers or professionals—you know, businesspeople. And I was, like, ‘That’s really weird, because, if you look at my résumé, there is no evidence that this is something that’s in my repertoire.’ ” She went on, “People are, like, ‘We want to include an Asian in our project because we care about diversity. How can we imagine an Asian being in our project? Oh, she could totally play the lawyer, she could totally play the agent.’ ”
I wondered if the sense of being pigeonholed had increased with her fame—if she felt pigeonholed at this very moment, as I peppered her with questions about her Asian-Americanness, when it wasn’t the defining facet of her identity. Wu sank back into her seat and pulled one leg up. “Look, when Tom Cruise is in an interview, people aren’t, like, ‘What’s it like to be a white actor?’ My answers coincide with Asian-American activism, but that’s because those are the questions I’m being asked. It doesn’t mean that I don’t believe in it and that I’m not a proponent of it. But is it my reason for being alive? No.”
Finally, I asked Wu about her trial by Twitter. She sat up and rubbed her temples. She had been taking a long break from Twitter since the incident. “Being messy in public is something—” She stopped, adjusting her posture sombrely, like a politician who realizes that this is the question on which people will base their vote. “I’m not proud of what I said,” she continued. “But I also think that it was how I was feeling in the moment, and we all have days where we feel differently, and I don’t think it represents my entire character.”
Wu wondered if role models—“and I don’t want to be a fucking role model, I’m an artist”—should be allowed to be a little less pure. “Wouldn’t that make people feel a lot less lonely when they were having the feelings and emotions that weren’t the prescribed ones?” she asked.
She paused. “I’m glad people are talking shit about me, because it makes me think about other people’s feelings and the effects of things,” she said. “It’s like negotiating authenticity with obligation, and I don’t have an answer either way, because I think you have to actually clarify what your obligations are first and what your authenticity is first.”
On my way back from Hawaii, I thought about Wu’s authenticity, and I kept coming back to the day we’d spent with her acting coach. After her private session, she had stayed around for a group class that night.
“It’s funny,” Archibald said. “It was only after she landed ‘Fresh’ that she said, ‘Now I’m gonna come to group class.’ ” Wu considered this for a second, nodding. Later, she told me, “Sure, my career is doing well. But in class we’re talking about art, not career. Everything else—success, career, money, accolades—that all gets left at the door.”
There were only five students that evening—two of the regulars were off playing a zombie and a mobster. A redhead who bore a passing resemblance to Christina Hendricks arrived, followed by a young, square-jawed man in tight black jeans. Wu sat quietly on the couch, her eyes trained on a script, as the others made small talk about the recent earthquake and snacked on chips. The actors did brief scenes from various sitcoms they were auditioning for. Resting her chin on the back of her hand, Wu watched with coiled stillness, her only movements the lines of pleasure and surprise that occasionally registered on her forehead.
When her turn came, Wu chose an emotionally lacerating eight-minute scene from “Middletown,” a play by Will Eno. She was reading the role of a young man who has just attempted suicide and is now trying to make sense of the experience with a doctor. Wu had told me earlier that she’d always loved the play, but has come to understand the character only by speaking his lines. “It’s so babbly,” she said. “On the page, it looks so poetic. But then, when I was saying it out loud, I realized, No, this is somebody who is covering up, who is nervous. Because if he doesn’t babble he’s gonna break.”
As she began to speak, the defensiveness she’d shown earlier that day dissolved. And although she now sat jittery with vulnerability, inhabiting a character whose fragility reverberated across the room, it occurred to me later that this was the most at ease I ever saw her. She folded her arms across her chest, her elbows shifting impatiently, a haunted expression softening her features as she struggled to speak, sometimes through tears. Her voice, when it came out, was gauzy with depth and delicacy: “I wanted to be an emergency somehow. I always felt like I was one deep down.”
Wu finished and said, “Ugh, I was watching myself too much, so weaving in and out.” She wiped her nose and eyes, which were still damp.
“But you just got right back into it,” Archibald said gently.
“The reason I love this scene is that I love when he says, ‘I want to be an emergency somehow. My life’ ”—she said, transitioning to the voice of the character—“ ‘has become a little bit static. Like, I don’t know if I’m important to somebody.’ ” She blinked up at the ceiling and repeated, “I wanted to be an emergency.” The room was so quiet that you could hear the rustle of the pages as Wu dropped the script into her lap.
“Ask this question,” Archibald prodded. “What is your relationship with yourself?”
“Gosh, that’s a good question,” Wu said slowly. “I don’t know.” ♦