BY DAN TABOR FILM CRITIC Based on a trilogy of best-selling books, Crazy Rich Asians is the story of Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), an economics professor at New York University who is invited by her boyfriend and fellow NYU prof Nick Young to accompany him to Singapore to attend his best friend’s wedding. What Rachel doesn’t know about Nick, her soon-to-be fiance, is that he is also a scion of one of the wealthiest families in Singapore. When Rachel gets to Singapore she’s not only forced to confront this secret, but also to contend with Nick’s overbearing mother (Michelle Yeoh), as well as his family who are dead set on driving away the woman they assume is nothing more than a gold digger.
Crazy Rich Asians is the first major Hollywood film to feature a predominantly Asian cast since The Joy Luck Club hit screens 25 years ago. Recently, Phawker was fortunate enough to speak with Kevin Kwan, the author of the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy, and two of the stars of the film, Gemma Chan and Jimmy O. Yang. Gemma plays Astrid, Nick’s complicated cousin whose relationship with her significant other has a much different trajectory. Jimmy O. Yang plays Bernard Tai, Nick’s eccentric and very wealthy classmate. They offered some great insights into the making of the film and discussed how they hope the film’s authentic voice challenges Hollywood’s chronic under-representation of Asian Americans on the silver screen.
PHAWKER: First off Kevin, have you seen the film and how do you think it works as an adaptation to your book?
PHAWKER: How much of your life was an inspiration?
KEVIN KWAN: Very little of my life is in this book. (laughs) You know I am a writer living in New York, but a lot of it is inspired by childhood memories of Singapore. I grew up there till I was eleven years old. It’s also based on frequent trips back to Asia and seeing how much it has changed over the last three decades.
PHAWKER: I am a big fan of the director Jon M. Chu, Kevin what was your working relationship like with him, because in my humble opinion he is vastly underrated?
KEVIN KWAN: He truly is.
JIMMY O. YANG: Hopefully people will now see how incredibly talented he is. It was such a clear and amazing vision that he was able to carry out, visually and with how he adapted the script to screen.
GEMMA CHAN: I texted him after I saw the film for the first time, Warner Brothers screened it for me. I didn’t know what I was going to see. I obviously thought the script was strong and I was a fan of Kevin’s books, but I was blown away. I thought he did such an amazing job with the music, in particular Brian Tyler and the pacing of the film. I think he did such an amazing job, rom-coms often they sag somewhere in the middle and I felt he really kept that energy up.
PHAWKER: So Gemma, given how Asians are traditionally marginalized in film what was it like to belong to such an amazing ensemble cast that really celebrated Asian culture in a way we rarely see on the American screen?
GEMMA CHAN: Well, it feels incredibly special. As you said, it’s so rare to have a film where it’s been 25 years since a Hollywood film has had an all Asian cast. For me what was special about this is yeah, it’s this story about this colorful cast of characters who happen to be Asian, but the theme to me are universal. Anyone who has ever struggled in love, with family or with a crazy mother in law, with familial expectations, this is not just a film for Asians. It’s really for everyone and I think that is something special to have these universal themes, with an all Asian cast, it’s unusual to kind of have that mainstream aspect to it all.
PHAWKER: Gemma, I found your portrayal of Astrid to be one of the most compelling parts of the film for me, originally, I thought she would be nothing more than a minor sub-plot. But instead it grew into this perfect counterbalance to the main romance and a really surprising conduit for the viewer to grasp on. Can you share your take on Astrid and how you approached her?
You know it’s very easy, with a character like Astrid, on the surface she is incredibly glamorous, she comes from an undeniably wealthy and privileged background. But what always was more interesting to me, particularly when I read the books was understanding there was so much with this woman going on underneath the surface. But what you see is not what you get with Astrid and my process was to try and get under her skin and find what the emotional truth of the journey she was on. I hope that comes across.
It was an interesting dynamic, that you see between her and her husband, because I think more and more in the world today you see families or couples where perhaps the man isn’t the main breadwinner. Perhaps his wife is more successful or has a higher profile and that is something that could be tricky. But yeah, I found that interesting to explore that in our story. It is an interesting counterbalance to Rachel and Nick, because you have this couple coming together and this other couple fracturing apart and perhaps showing what could happen if Nick and Rachel can’t resolve their issues.
KEVIN KWAN: I think Astrid is the most complicated and complex character I have written in all three books. There was so much of her in book one that was left on the cutting room floor, just by virtue of how we chose to adapt this movie.
GEMMA CHAN: You know Astrid the spinoff …(Laughs)
PHAWKER: Gemma, while most will focus on the more romantic underpinnings of Crazy Rich Asians the film also portrays these women in a very empowering light. All of the female protagonists are smart, strong, independent. They just happen to be trapped in a rom-com. Do you feel that because of that, even though CRA is still a love story, it’s more of a progressive take on one?
GEMMA CHAN: It’s interesting you say that. I think at the back bone of the film, you have these strong women. More than anything they are complex characters who have their own desires and their own wants. Probably if anything it shows how in other films, maybe that is not the case. You don’t get fully drawn characters.
PHAWKER: I think we are more used to seeing stereotypes.
GEMMA CHAN: Stereotypes, or they are just reactive or they are just there to support the man. I should say my character in the movie, to a certain extent at the beginning I think she is slightly living in the shadows, she is not completely living the life she is capable of. She is kind of hiding her light a little bit. But I feel by the end of the movie she is rediscovering her power and that is exciting.
PHAWKER: Jimmy, how did you get involved in this film and was it like working with some of the biggest names in comedy currently out there? Awkwafina, Ken Jeong to name a few?
JIMMY O. YANG: My publicist was actually the one who told me about the film, she loved this book and she told me they were making it into a movie so you need to get yourself involved. ‘Oh, Crazy Rich Asians, with a full Asian cast, I have to do this! I NEED to do this!’ But then it became much more than that, right. When I read the material and seeing who was cast, I was like this is for real! Like we are doing this for real, this is not just some indie movie we are trying to put together. A studio is behind it.
PHAWKER: I think that gives it a very rare authenticity, kind of like what happened with Black Panther, you don’t have a Caucasian auteur behind the camera simply putting his spin on it. You have an Asian American director, with a full cast of people who have all experienced this story in some way or another.
GEMMA CHAN: Authenticity. People are going to call you out nowadays I think and you wouldn’t have gotten away with what you would have maybe five years ago.
PHAWKER: I think that resonates with audiences, because I think they can tell and I think its great we have that conversation where the stories are now being told with the real voices. We have female directors now, minority filmmakers now telling their stories the way they should be told.
JIMMY O. YANG: Authenticity trickles down. It starts from Kevin’s experience knowing this world and writing a very authentic book about it and then to Jon who adds his own experience as an Asian American and then to all of the actors they hire. It’s so important, every step of the way, you do it authentically. There is not a break in this bridge. From Kevin’s story, to the person you see on screen in front of you we’ve all went through these experiences of being Asian American and knowing what it feels. I may not have grown up with billions of dollars, but it felt very special to be part of this cast of Asians from all over the world. It’s like the Justice League of Asians, we are still very close to this day.
KEVIN KWAN: I think Hollywood is going to be very surprised, because what I began hearing in 2013 when I would do book clubs in Texas or in California, suburban California in front of these vastly white waspy audiences is they wanted this movie. They wanted to see Asians on screen telling the story. It’s not just Asians demanding this and I think we will see that.
PHAWKER: Are you all under contract for the other two films, if this one does well?
GEMMA CHAN: I am.
JIMMY O. YANG: I think all of us are.