Constance Wu Doesn’t Want to Be Your “It” Girl

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Photo: Meredith Jenks

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“Let’s talk about some race shit!” Constance Wu laughs, her lemonade-yellow dress spinning as she turns to give me a conspiratorial smirk. In many ways, Wu, who plays matriarch Jessica Huang on ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat, is the actor Asian America has been waiting for: funny, bold, analytical, and outspoken about Asian-American representation in Hollywood. In two conversations, one by phone and the other over lunch, we talked about the show and tiger-mom tropes, as well as her recent controversial remarks about yellowface, Hollywood’s “It”-girl syndrome, and her decision to leave her last agency because of a racist interaction. By the end of the conversation, we were both in tears as she explained why she won’t sell herself out for a job. “I'd rather lose all my stuff than lose myself,” Wu says, “because I've done that before, and that feels way worse.”

How do you feel about the end of the second season of the Fresh Off the Boat?
I feel good about the second season. We straddled the line of having the show be influenced by Chinese things, but not having it always be about being Chinese. Because that is essentially how we work. Yes, I have issues that have to do with growing up Asian-American. But there are other things, like doing my taxes or whether or not I should go here for vacation or what my Halloween costume is going to be. Regular human experiences, which for the most part have been only allowed to be white experiences. You're either Asian-Asian or you're white American. The in-between has not been explored very much.

How do you consider the trope of the tiger mom in relation to your character?
That's something I never thought about until I had this part. So bless this for making me think about what it must be like to have a kid you are responsible for, especially if you came to a country and people gave you shit for your accent or decorum, and it felt bad, and you don't want your kids to feel that bad. Also, you kind of want to say "Fuck you!" to the haters who gave you shit. How do you do that? By saying "Well, you know what? My kid got a 1600 on his SATs, and he's better than yours." That's your way of showing up all the haters. So that's how you open up the stereotype into a person. I almost think it's impossible not to have a stereotype, except in white culture we call them "archetypes," right? It's true!

Eddie Huang, whose memoir Fresh Off the Boat is based on, was very vocal in his criticism of the show.
He's now openly said he's made peace with the show. He didn't know what he was getting into. I didn't know what I was getting into, either. I had a real tough year going from zero to 60. I work out my problems in private. He works out his problems on the page, and that's why we love him. To give him shit for the very thing that made us love him is a slap in the face. And if we have to quiet our authentic voices just to hold on to scraps, what are you really holding on to?

I like the fact that our show is the way it is because I want it to be seen by families and little children. He wanted things in there that reflected his real life. And if you had a story made of your life, of course you want it to be real and a true reflection of you. But you can't exactly do domestic abuse and drug use in a story that you want 6-year-olds to watch. They're not ready for that yet. So let Eddie say his shit. He did say some shit that was mean, okay. I don't agree with that. But that's my personal metric. Also, if you read his book, you know what you're getting into. That's his voice.

Dissent is important, and Asian America is not a monolith anyway.
No. We don't even have the same language, you and I. But white America has grouped us all together, so therefore we are like, "Okay, you guys are the higher people. You said we're all together, so I guess we are."

Huang’s latest book, Double Cup Love, centers around his journey in Taiwan. What’d you think of it?
One of the things I love about Eddie is he grows up on the page. I know he got some flak for certain things in the first book, and also just for who he is. There are parts of the second book where he still has his voice, but he has more of an awareness of it, like when he was talking about how he’s self-conscious about if a girl is pretty enough to be with him, as if she were an accessory. And he knows that’s messed up, but it’s also part of the systemic programming in his brain that says, Yes, do that. So things like that, where you can see where he has an awareness. He’s not letting it make him super–politically correct either, but he knows about it.

When you go to Taiwan, does it have a particular fascination or pull for you?
It does. I did this Taiwanese talk show, and the theme was “Americans in Taiwan.” A lot of these other people had grown up either in America or Canada, but in their adulthood they’d chosen to move back to Taiwan. One of the guys grew up in the States, and he was like, “Nobody cared about me. And then I moved to Taiwan in my adulthood, and every girl wanted me more than the guys who grew up there.” It shows that even in Asia, there is a valuation system that says this class of upbringing is something to strive for or that is desirable. Which is also interesting because you think of the Ghost in the Shell stuff — a lot of Japanese people are totally fine with it, right? My argument to that has always been, Japanese actors in Japan are the dominant culture there, therefore there are a lot of opportunities for them to be on Japanese television or plays. Here, we are very invisible to the industry, and so even when we have very few roles that are specifically Asian, we don’t get to audition for those. It hurts.

When you spoke out against the CGI testing done during Ghost in the Shell to make a white person look Asian, The Hollywood Reporter quoted you as saying you preferred to call it “the practice of blackface employed on Asians,” which struck me as very precise language.
[Laughs.] In the moment it was not precise, but I do stand behind it. The reason I got a lot of backlash was because the headline of that article — which they have since apologized for and corrected — said I called Scarlett Johansson’s casting blackface. I called the CGI tests — where they took her face and tried to make it have Asian features — “the practice of blackface” because it’s more evocative. A lot of people don’t know what yellowface is; they think it’s maybe a Halloween costume. I’m trying to evoke a deeper understanding of what it is and why it’s harmful by using a word that evokes meaning for those who do not originally understand the word. It’s like, if you’ve never tasted a jackfruit before, I’m going to be like, Oh, well, it tastes kind of like a kiwi, but it’s not tangy.

It’s funny because it just goes to show I can say yellowface all day, and nobody cares. That’s another version of invisibility. The second I throw the term blackface — which I wasn’t even using to compare struggles, just as a way to evoke meaning for those who don’t understand it — everybody freaks out. Black and Asian struggles are different struggles. I have to say that anybody who is insulted by the comparison says something about which struggle you think has more gravity. And that is a judgment call and a hierarchy of importance, which I don’t think is very cool to employ. Somebody could tell me I look like Taylor Swift, and I’ll be like, “I mean, I don’t,” but I’m not going to be insulted that you say that because I think Taylor Swift is very beautiful.

Lately though, it does feel like there is at least more discussion of yellowface and whitewashing, particularly with regard to Doctor Strange and Ghost in the Shell. That doesn’t mean practices have changed, in terms of the industry.
Nope. It’s made it worse.

The discussion has made it worse?
I don’t think the discussion has made it worse, but Asian erasure is largely based in systemic bias and microaggression, which inherently has good intentions. And when you cause a ruckus about someone’s choice who had a good intention, the human reaction is to become defensive. I’ve gone into a lot of executives’ offices since this stuff has come out, and when I talked about it or when they bring it up, they start white mansplaining why I’m wrong and why I am dumb, and why they’re good people. Max Landis had that thing where he said it’s just because there are no bankable movie stars — it’s about green, and that’s the only reason. I know Max Landis, and I understand why he would think it’s that way, and what he says has some evidence to back it up. It doesn’t mean it’s right or good. The key for me, because I’m learning from all of this too, is to take blame out of the picture. These studio executives, they’re like, “I’m just a good guy who’s trying to feed my family,” and it’s been more effective to be like, Of course! Where studio executives I’ve met fall short is they don’t understand our hurt. I go into Asian-American executives’ offices, and they’re like, “Uh, you know we try, but it’s so hard,” and it’s like, Why has that ever been an excuse for doing something great? It’s like, Boo fucking hoo, a lot of shit is hard. Care more, make it matter.

What do you think accounts for the disparity?
You may audition a person and be like, “Oh, this Asian guy is not a good actor.” Well, you know what? That Asian guy gets an audition maybe once every three months, and then a white guy gets an audition maybe five times a week. Who’s going to have more practice auditioning in a charged situation, and therefore is going to be better at auditioning, not acting? The guy who’s had more practice. That’s another way the system keeps us down. We have less opportunities to even practice our craft. That doesn’t mean talent doesn’t exist. It certainly does.

Have you experienced discrimination during casting or auditions?
The thing I most experienced was that the white person had to be the lead, but they needed to say they were being diverse, so the best friend or the assistant was a person of color. It [would be] written nonspecifically, and then they would build the character around whoever they decided would get the part. To audition for the lead role in a movie? I’ve never experienced that. I would experience that maybe two times in my entire life, where there are white actresses I know who, even though they’re not famous, audition for those things all the time.

What are some of your dream roles?
I’d want to play Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors. I just love musicals. I’m a big Chekhov fan because I was a theater person growing up. So I’d probably like to do some of that. I’ll tell you what I don’t want to do. A lot of Asian people are like, “We need an Asian-American superhero!” And I think we do. I don’t think it should be me. I do not want to be a superhero, which is all they’re making these days. It’s all either reboots or sequels. I want to play people who are really flawed and human, not perfect and heroic. Because when I was growing up, those were the stories that moved me. I would feel less alone in the world.

Is there a strong community of Asian-American actors you can rely on?
No. There are a lot of Asian actors, and there are a lot of small communities within them that are very supportive of each other. I don’t really feel like I’m in those. Not by choice, but I don’t think I was ever cool enough to be in the club. But here’s another thing, and this is one that’s hard for me to accept. There are a lot of Asian artists, myself included, who for a while wanted to be the exception to the norm, instead of questioning the norm. For example, if I auditioned for a part that was the best friend, and I didn’t get it, and my agent would tell me, “Oh, you know what, they decided to go with a white girl,” or “Oh, they decided to go with a black girl,” I would be relieved, because then I was like, “Oh, it’s not because I was the third best Asian, it’s because they decided to go in another direction.” But if she was like, “Oh, they went with another Asian girl,” the former me — I’d like to make that very clear — would be like, “Oh, crap!” Because it made me feel like I wasn’t the exception, and she was.

I’m trying to change my mind-set now, that if I were to not get something, I actually want it to be an Asian person, and for there to be more famous Asian-American actors. But when I was younger, I wanted to be the one who was able to break through that barrier. I had another interviewer ask me, “When do you think you’re going to get through that door?” I was like, the problem here is you’re already thinking there’s a door I need to get through, because that door is white Hollywood. Instead of, like, “Oh, that door doesn’t even value me anyway. Why am I trying to get into it?” That’s a hard thing to justify, because we’re all humans with egos and insecurities, and we all want to be accepted and loved and admired. But I have to ask myself: “At what cost?”

On the other hand, there’s a very real financial problem in the sense that that’s where the paychecks are, right? So then you have to make it sustainable for you, financially, emotionally, and ethically.
Yeah, that’s why I don’t fault other actors for making choices that are based in finances or the executives who tell me, “Oh I try, but it’s hard.” But we’re not in finance. We’re in a creative industry. Listen, I’m very privileged. I have a show; I have a guaranteed paycheck. I could be financially fine for a really long time based on this show alone. Fame is not something I’ve been very comfortable with; I don’t love it. I don’t even love money all that much. But I have it, and that gives me a certain semblance of freedom that another actor might not have. So I’m going to try and use that for good. Obviously I don’t want to make my career a totally political thing, but I care about young Asian-American girls growing up thinking they can never be the stars of their own stories. 

Will you refuse roles you think are denigrating or problematic? Or have you read for roles anyway because you need the paycheck?
I haven't actually encountered too many offensive audition opportunities in my life. A lot of people are like, "Oh, Jessica's a stereotype. She has an accent." I don't want to propagate the idea that an accent is shameful, because that is the idea that has been propagated by white Hollywood culture since forever. It is simply a product of immigration, and our story is a story about immigration. It's called Fresh Off the Boat. It's not being used as fodder.

The tricky thing about accents is often they were employed within extremely limited roles. So the accent itself wasn't the problem, but the representation was so myopic that the accent becomes associated with that, and it's hard to pull away from.
Exactly. It's the comedic "buffoon on the side." This accent is employed just like somebody who's fat saying a funny line, and it's the fact that they look so funny and they're saying this thing that makes it funny. That doesn't mean being larger is in and of itself shameful. It's just Hollywood has dictated that the characters who merit stories with a beginning, middle, and end are white men with a good BMI. But then if you look at somebody like Philip Seymour Hoffman, who has definitely played the slob, he didn't have a great BMI. He's my favorite actor of all time. And if [his roles] had an accent, like Capote, it was born of something real. 

I'm sure there are actors who have had side roles where they have accents. I don't discredit any actor who does that, who plays a cabdriver. And maybe in his actor journal, he's made up a really rich character life for that cabdriver. It's not his fault that the filmmakers decide to reduce him to a stereotype.

Have the kinds of roles you look for changed?
I'm developing a project right now that's about the Chinese Exclusion Act, so that's a conscious decision to tell an important story that's never been fuckin' told before. I've been trying to take parts that have an actual arc and aren't just supporting a white person's story. Whereas before, if I was going to be the sprinkle of diversity in a really cool, star-studded cast, of course I would have loved to do that. I'm less interested in that now. I'd rather take the indie drama by Asian-American artists. 

You’re also starring in an Asian-American-led project, You and Me Both.
That one we're still working on some kinks. I think their financiers, one of them fell through. They’re not only Asian-American, they're Asian-American women making that project. How many Asian-American female directors can you name? You can name some Asian-American male directors, right?

Yes.
Of course you can. But can you name a single female?

I know Jennifer Cho Suhr, who you're doing the film with.
How do you know her? Because of me.

I'm not disagreeing with you in any way. [Laughs.]
I know you're not, but I'm saying that's something I care about. I'm trying to make those kinds of choices. I left my old agency, which is a very high-powered agency, because my agent there — who happened to be Asian — said something I thought was real, real racist. And he didn't even think it was racist. I was like, I don't need to leave the agency. I could get another person on my team. When I brought it to my other agent, who was a woman, she said I needed to get over it. Essentially she was saying because they were so powerful, I should listen to her, and I was being very naïve. And I was just like, Okay. But I don't care. I'm not gonna be scared by the fact that you have a big name. I did this thing, which was really cocky. I was like, "Actually, you work for me. You need to listen to me." I'm going to choose the representatives who represent me well and who care about the things I care about, or at least know what I care about.

A lot of young actors, because we're told from when we're kids that we are not the stars of our own stories and that other people are more powerful than us, we don't even think that's an option. And if even then they don't listen to you? I was like, Okay, fine. I just left. A lot of people would kill to get into [that] agency. There are a lot of opportunities there. But at what cost? Now I'm with a new agency that’s so great. I really just feel great about it.

Last year, I read articles that said that your age was 26, and now they say you're 34. I was wondering what the discrepancy was about.
[Laughs.] I think originally on Wikipedia it listed my age incorrectly. There's a lot of ageism in the industry, so when people would talk about it, I wouldn't correct them. I just wouldn't say anything about it. But then after a while I was just like, Fuck it.

So how old are you?
I'm 34.

What made you decide to do that?
It was a lot of things. For example, a lot of people used to say to me, "Oh my God, you look so young." And I used to say, "Thank you." My very small form of protest is now when somebody says that to me, I don't say thank you. Because I don't want to see youthfulness as necessarily a superior compliment.

Do you feel pressure to be younger?
I always played younger. Here's a prime example of Hollywood ageism. You know how there's a concept called an “It” girl? How come there's no “It” boy? There isn't because Hollywood likes their girls to feel like, Oh, I discovered her in a pizza parlor. Fresh plucked. New. Still sweet. Not battle-tested and wise and smart and strong. There's an “It” girl every year because there's a slot that needs to be filled, and this girl gets all the parts, and she gets them because she is so new and she's having her moment now. But an “It” moment only lasts X amount of time. Some of them are able to transition into leading-lady status like Charlize or Angelina. But how many “It” girls haven't been able to do that? And why is the “It” girl even a thing? I always played younger, and sometimes people, once they found out I was older, would be like, Oh. Knowing I was older and not so fresh to the game diminished my value in their eyes. And that has absolutely no basis, because usually somebody who's older is way more valuable, especially on a set and in terms of being an actor and having more life experiences from which to draw. But it isn't. The “It” girl is a very fucked-up idea when you think about it.

There was a hashtag going around on Twitter, #StarringJohnCho, and then there was one started about you, #StarringConstanceWu. You have been embraced on the digital sphere, and I was wondering why you think that is.
I don't know. Am I? I think a lot of what people are responding to is that I’m not trying to be liked. People want to be the exception. They want to be included in the white club and be liked and be accepted, which is a very human response. I don't begrudge anybody wanting to feel that way, but I’ve gone to such depths of despair to generate meaning from within instead of from my car or my group of friends or my employment or my bank account or what clothes I wear. That's how most people generate meaning in their lives: what vacation they take, whether or not they booked this cool job. I have gone so low, and I’ve had such a difficult time personally, not just with acting but other life shit. Part of the reason I don't worry about what other people think about me is because I know that even if I lose all my money and my job and my opportunities tomorrow, I’m very capable of creating meaning without all of the stuff around. It would take a real humility check for me to go there, but anytime I’ve had a humility check it's really good for me.

I'd rather lose all my stuff than lose myself, because I've done that before, and that feels way worse. I don't have the best family life. I'm not going to have a sob story and be like, my parents abandoned me, because they didn't. But they also are not that present. When I’m alone, I’m alone. I don't have anybody to call, and so I have to create meaning from myself. That's why I don't give a fuck, because I can't lose anything. What I have I make myself. There's my long, dramatic answer to your question.

A lot of shows on television tend to be about white men in crisis.
Dude problems. I am definitely trying not to take films that are mostly about dude problems, not because I don't think they're worthy problems, but there are a lot of people who will take those.

Is it hard to make your bread if you decide to not do those roles?
Yes, but I have the freedom of my show. I have the freedom of knowing I’m okay without having a nice car, house, and clothes. I have the freedom of knowing that if I’ve got to go back to being a waitress, there's absolutely no shame in that. It's a very powerful thing when you can do that. It's not easy to do, and I mess up on it all the time, but it definitely frees you up. I don't measure success with money.

Was there a turning point when you decided that?
There might be two. At one point I quit acting for a little bit to study psycholinguistics — somewhat a more practical career. It just didn't feel right. Then I went back and struggled really hard. About a couple of years before I got Fresh Off the Boat, I was really broke. I was in tens of thousands of dollars in debt: credit card. Car. Personal. Student loans. I paid for my college all myself. I didn't have a boyfriend. I was really alone and lonely. I was new in the city, and I didn't have a community of friends in L.A. [Tears up.] I was like, Are you okay if your life stays like this, where you're waiting tables, struggling to make ends meet? Are you still okay doing this when you're 45? I decided that I was.

That's when my work improved because it wasn't results-oriented. It wasn't like, I heard that this director likes crazy characters, so I’m going to try to make it crazy. I was like, What do you, Constance Wu, envision for the character? What is the special thing you can bring even if it keeps you from getting the part? This is your chance to do it. Let's do it. That way when you don't get the part, they have taken nothing away from you because you got to do what you wanted to do. Even if I did play that crazy person, I might still not have gotten the part because I was too short or whatever, and then I’d feel doubly bad because (a) I didn't get the part, and (b) I did something I didn't want to do in the room in order to get the part, trying to appeal to their vanities instead of appealing to my artistic spirit. That's when I started booking work. The catch-22 is you get employment by focusing on the work, not the employment. That's generating meaning: doing what you want to do so they can't take anything away from you.

Opening Photo: Hair by Lacy Redway (The Wall Group)