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Gemma Chan, of ‘Crazy Rich Asians,’ on female breadwinners and ‘true equality’ in film

(Photo by Getty/illustrations by Lydia Ortiz for The Lily)
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This interview is part of the Lily Lines newsletter; the version below has been edited for length. Sign up for it here.

A few scenes into the ostentatious comedy “Crazy Rich Asians” — in which Constance Wu flies to Singapore to meet her boyfriend’s unbelievably wealthy family — jaws drop in succession as the camera moves forward. They’re all staring at Gemma Chan, who plays the movie’s most graceful character and practically floats into frames in designer dresses with palpable poise. As the internationally beloved aristocrat Astrid, Chan pairs her posh accent with Mouawad jewels and rises above the gasps and gossip. But not all that glitters is gold: Behind the closed doors of her impeccably decorated home, Astrid struggles with her husband’s financial insecurities and conjugal infidelities.

Expectations are high for the adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s hit novel, which is the first Hollywood studio-produced movie with an all-Asian cast in 25 years. It’s a burden Chan carries proudly — after pivoting from her goal of becoming a lawyer and stealing scenes as a striking synth in AMC’s sci-fi drama “Humans,” the 35-year-old London native is now eyeing roles in projects that genuinely prioritize women on- and off-screen. “I feel that this is an exciting time,” she says with a smile.

Chan chats with The Lily at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel about Astrid’s empowering story line, a potential “Crazy Rich Asians” prequel and what we can expect from her Marvel debut.

“Crazy Rich Asians” follows Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) as she accompanies her longtime boyfriend, Nick Young (Henry Golding), to his best friend's wedding. (Video: Warner Bros. Pictures)

The Lily: What do you admire about your character?

Gemma Chan: Astrid was my favorite character when I read the book. What I love about her is that, yes, she comes from this ridiculously, undeniably wealthy background, but she doesn’t buy into the trappings of wealth. She’s real and she’s grounded. And when she buys something that happens to be really expensive, she buys it for the love of it, and for herself. She may not even wear it, but it’s because she genuinely loves fashion and style, not to show off her wealth or to make other people lesser than.

The Lily: Constance Wu’s character, Rachel, shows audiences what it’s like to enter a “crazy rich” family. What’s it like to play the other side of that coin, as Astrid deals with being born into this wealthy family?

Chan: With her, what you see is not quite what you get. She has this very glamorous facade, but there are so many layers to her and so much more going on beneath the surface. It was good fun dressing up in her diamonds and her stylish wardrobe and all the rest of it, but for me, what was important was to get underneath her skin to the emotional core of the journey she’s on. A lot happens for her — people think she has this perfect existence, with a perfect wardrobe and a perfect marriage, but she’s really struggling to hold it all together, which I think a lot of women can identify with. And I don’t think she’s someone who would ask for help, and that can be an isolating thing. But she also has this innate strength.

The Lily: What do you hope viewers take away from Astrid’s journey?

Chan: Her story shows this interesting dynamic that, often in families nowadays, men may not be the breadwinner or the more successful partner, and their wives might be. Astrid is trying to compensate for it rather than to confront it, and by trying to avoid conflict and not addressing the elephant in the room, it just makes the situation worse. Her husband behaves very badly, and the book gives a lot more of where his pride and insecurity come from, as well as his very humble background in contrast to her family. But every marriage and every relationship, ideally, is a partnership, and there has to be honesty to it. And you can’t deny who you are and who your family is. At the beginning of the film, she’s hiding her light and taking a second seat in order to not make her husband feel emasculated or inadequate, and by the end, she is someone who is reclaiming her power as a woman. I think it’s really satisfying to watch that arc and that realization that she has to assert herself.

The Lily: The expectations for this movie are so high, given that it’s the first Hollywood studio-produced movie with an all-Asian cast in 25 years. Did you and the cast feel that pressure on set?

Chan: I think we all knew the potential of what this film could be — I knew that after I had read the book and before I even read the script — because it’s just so unusual to have a contemporary story based on Asian and Asian American characters. But I have to say, on set, I think Jon [M. Chu, the director,] was such a wonderful leader, and I think he absorbed a lot of the pressure for us. He had such a positive energy and kept all the plates spinning in the air.

Sadly, it seems that when you have a film either directed by a minority or featuring minorities in the leads, or a film directed by a woman, there’s a danger that it’ll be treated as a referendum on whether women should be allowed to direct movies or minorities should be allowed to lead feature films. And it’s like, there are films that feature Caucasian people and are directed by white men that do terribly, and then they’re immediately given another chance. True equality, for me, would be when you’re allowed to have some films that maybe don’t quite work, but it’s not that “We’re not gonna let them make movies anymore.” Luckily, I don’t think that’ll be the case — I’m really happy with how it turned out.

The Lily: If the adventures of “Crazy Rich Asians” were to be explored in sequels, what are you most excited to see?

Chan: So much happens in the books. There’s a wealth of potential story lines in the material, probably enough to make more than three films. Bernard Tai, Jimmy O. Yang’s character, has a really unexpected trajectory.

In terms of Astrid, I would actually love to go back and look at her journey of how she became this style icon, and how she fell in love with her husband, Michael — and Charlie [her ex-fiancee, played in the movie by Harry Shum Jr.] as well. There’s a whole section where Astrid is in Paris with Charlie. We’ve joked that we have to do “Astrid: The Paris Years” and Jon is keen on that as well. I hope there’s room for that.

The Lily: After studying law at Oxford, you switched gears and attended drama school. What was the toughest part about that transition?

Chan: In the beginning, it was the uncertainty. My parents — bless them — they’d ask me, “What are you working on now?” I’d tell them, and then they’d go, “Well, what’s the next job?” I haven’t finished this job yet, I don’t know what the next job is. It wouldn’t frustrate me, but dealing with that can be tricky, especially when you don’t feel you’ve established your career yet.

I’m much more relaxed about it these days, but the main challenge now is being away from home. I get terribly homesick and I really miss my loved ones. I don’t think that’s going to get any easier.

The Lily: What’s your favorite thing to do when you’re back home?

Chan: Cooking together, eating together, reading to my baby nephew. I read to him from the same books that my mother read to me. My Asian parents, they don’t throw anything away — nothing goes to waste — so I’m reading books that are literally 30 years old to my 1½-year-old nephew.

The Lily: After three seasons of the AMC series “Humans,” you’re now featured in a slew of movies. What draws you to a role?

Chan: Script-wise, it’s about whether I find the character interesting, and whether it’s a fully dimensional character. Beyond that, is this a project I’d like to work on, and with people I’d like to work with? It’s tricky — I have a little bit of choice now, but it’s not like I’m being offered everything and I still have bills to pay. But I’ve become more aware than ever that I want the stories I put out into the world to be aligned with what I want to say, whether it’s about representation or female protagonists. My next few films are female-centric stories, and I was working with women [behind the scenes] as well. I feel that this is an exciting time. Things are changing for the better.

The Lily: You’re also starring opposite Brie Larson in “Captain Marvel,” out next year. What can we can expect to see?

Chan: It’s something I want little girls and little boys to watch and to feel that they can do anything.


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