character study

Making Jessica Huang, TV’s Queen of One-Liners

Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson and Photo by ABC

On last week’s episode of Fresh Off the Boat, Mama Huang, played by Constance Wu, remembers the story of how she adopted her American name, Jessica. Their friendly white neighbors Marv, Honey, and Deirdre populate her flashback even though Louis points out that they didn’t go to school with her. “All white people look the same,” she says with a wave of her hand. “It flips the lens on a familiar trope where white people think basically that all other ethnicities look the same,” showrunner Nahnatchka Khan told me. “She’s like, Let’s not even.”

In other words, it was just another gem from Jessica Huang, who weekly delivers some of the best lines on TV, expressing confusion about mainstream white culture (“For who could ever love a cabbage-faced baby?”) or keeping her family in line (“Did you tell him not to date rape?”). In a way, she’s an onscreen representation of the Tiger Mom — the oft-misunderstood Asian-American mother who rules her children like a Marine. And yet through Wu’s performance, she becomes much greater than that.

At Vulture, we wanted to explore how a character like Jessica Huang comes together, so we spoke to Khan, Wu, and writers and executive producers Sanjay Shah and Kourtney Kang about how she went from an adaptation in Eddie Huang’s memoir, Fresh Off the Boat, to the character we see onscreen.

First off, there is, of course, Eddie’s real-life mother, Jessica Huang. Huang herself read her character’s lines from the pilot on video, a private link that Constance Wu had access to as a reference point. To prepare shooting for the pilot, Wu would listen to her accent and watch her mannerisms. “It’s actually really funny because she’s reading all my lines, but she’s making commentary on them with facial expressions,” said Wu. “You could tell some of the lines she does not like. It’s a very useful character exploration to see her mannerisms.”

Wu even met the Huangs at their house. “She’s very, very extravagant,” Wu said, remembering Jessica Huang was wearing a white mini-dress, giant platform sandals, and was “dripping in diamonds.” But she never wanted her character to be an emulation of the real person, so instead she looked at her carriage and the feeling she conveyed. “She was very planted in the earth but also very whimsical in the air,” Wu laughed.

For Khan, the real-life Huang was always just a starting point. “The mom wasn’t only going to be seen through Eddie’s eyes. The mom was going to be independent, her own character,” said Khan. “And listen, my favorite thing is writing strong women characters. That’s what I love.”

Khan’s Jessica would be tough, but loving. In the writers room, she’s also become the repository for personal anecdotes from the writers, many of whom are the sons and daughters of immigrants. “A lot of the staff members who have first-generation parents found a lot of really relatable, compelling things about the character that they saw in their own lives,” said Sanjay Shah. “Speaking for myself, my mom came to this country in the ‘70s. She has a kind of similarly stern, layered attitude towards parenting. It’s constantly hustling.”

Initially, Khan balked when she saw Wu. “I saw her picture and I was like, ‘She’s way too young. Like, there’s no way. She’s got to be the mom of three boys, I’m not going to buy it,’” said Khan. “I mean, she’s a freshman at Northwestern, if anything.” Indeed, Wu had just shot a pilot where she played a college student during the audition process. But one of the casting directors, Michael V. Nicolo, insisted they bring her in anyway.

“I went to Crossroads or one of these second-hand stores and I bought something that I thought looked like what a mom would wear,” Wu said, of preparing to come in for another reading. When Khan first saw her in person, she still thought she looked too young, but changed her mind once the audition started. “This is going to sound a little bit like exaggeration, but it’s really not: The camera turns on and she somehow transformed physically,” said Khan. “She goes to this place where she really and truly inhabits the character, and she just looks different.”

Wu remembers going in thinking she didn’t have a shot. She saw other more experienced actresses up for the role and assumed they would get it. “They’ve done network TV. They’ve done comedy. They’re fantastic,” she thought. “I just went in there like, Oh, I’m not going to get it. I might as well just have a great time. And so that’s what I did. I wasn’t even nervous. ..And then I got it and it was very shocking.”

As for the accent, that was always going to be a part of her character. “That was something that was built into the DNA. They were not born here, the kids were,” said Khan. “But we didn’t really calibrate her level. We weren’t like, ‘That’s too much, that’s too little.’ She sort of found it.” For Wu, it’s an important reminder that while accented English has long been used to make a joke out of Asian immigrants, it’s not in itself negative. “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,” said Wu. “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. It’s actually crucial and integral.”

Writing for Jessica Huang has consistently provided an opportunity to throw in great lines from the beginning. “One of my favorite moments [from the pilot] is when Jessica was commenting on Evan’s lactose intolerance and says, ‘His body is rejecting white culture, which makes me kind of proud,’” said Shah. “[It] felt real! My parents were never ashamed about being from India. That line really summarized the lack of shame for who they are and also a latent anxiety about assimilation.”

“Usually a character like Jessica Huang would be like the fourth funny neighbor that would chime in color on the other mom’s problem we’re following,” said Kang. “It’s a really fun way to look at everything we think of as the norm.” Kang describes how Khan built the writing staff to include those who would be able to channel this perspective. “She was looking for people who had a sense of being an outsider,” said Kang. “People who felt like they maybe weren’t always a part of the norm of things.”

For the most part, Jessica’s jokes aren’t overtly political. Shah remembers one of his favorite lines: the one where Jessica doesn’t understand why there would be calendars of babies dressed up as vegetables. “For who could ever love a cabbage-faced baby?” Jessica asks, incredulous.  “I love that she’s not limited [to any one thing] as an actress or as a character,” said Shah. “She can just have a funny rant about this weird, American cultural thing of sticking babies’ faces in vegetables.” (That was Kang’s baby, by the way.)

“Constance herself is so charismatic and interesting that she’s given her character such a life,” said Kang. “That’s why it feels like someone you know.”

Wu said she’s kept a character journal since day one. “Something as simple as Honey saying to me, ‘Oh I think that a fortune teller is ridiculous,’ instead of me being like, ‘No, I think a fortune teller is great’ — I kept a journal and I wrote down imaginary experiences of every single time I went to a fortune teller,” she explained. She would imagine how Jessica felt, why she did it, and how she felt about the advice. “And then of course when you’re actually playing the scene you throw all that shit away, and just trust that it’s in your marrow,” said Wu.

This strategy allows for moments of surprise when Constance herself does something unexpected with a line, sometimes veering into pathos. For instance, during the flashback for “Hi, My Name Is…” Jessica recalls a series of three moments that led her to change her name. In one, she has an interaction where her professor won’t call on her in class because he can’t pronounce her name, Chou Tsai Cha. “It’s my name. People should learn how to say it,” she tells him. “Yes, but they probably won’t,” he responds.

“I remember a lot of takes where I was actually crying,” said Wu, “because it’s so hurtful to hear somebody say that to me. And it was a little too heavy for me to be that upset over it, so I tried to reel it back obviously with comedy.”

“When we were writing it, we thought, this is just a moment of casual racism, and Jessica’s just going to take it because she’s unashamed, has a strong personality, and is going to defend herself,” said Shah. “I couldn’t have imagined that in that exact moment there would be a sadness of the reality. That’s what the actress brought to it. It felt real, it felt true. Here we thought that vignette in particular might be the funnest one of the three, but that ended up being the most emotional of the three.”

It’s moments like these that make Jessica Huang someone three-dimensional, vibrant, and relatable. “She is, to me, my mom,” said Khan. “She is all moms who don’t quite understand the way the system works.”