If actor Constance Wu has learned anything from her year on the breakout hit Fresh Off the Boat, it’s that “dumb people exist and that’s OK,” she told BuzzFeed News with a laugh and a casual shrug of her shoulders.
Wu was specifically referring to a reporter who crashed the Television Critics Association winter press tour in January and posed this question to the Fresh Off the Boat cast and producers: “I love the Asian culture. And I was just talking about the chopsticks, and I just love all that. Will I get to see that, or will it be more Americanized?”
Wu and her colleagues immediately locked in on the humor of the myopic question — not to mention the horror felt by everyone else in the room — and began to respond with knowing jokes. “Yeah, we got a lot of chopsticks,” producer Eddie Huang deadpanned. “Wait ’til Episode 5. It’s all about chopsticks,” the show’s executive producer Nahnatchka Khan added as muffled giggles filled the room.
It was a preview of the deft way their show — about a Taiwanese couple and their three young sons who make their way from Washington, D.C.’s Chinatown to Orlando, Florida, in the mid-’90s — would go on to tackle racially charged situations just like that one.
And while the tension inside that ballroom was instantly lifted by their jokes, Wu was frustrated when her retort went unnoticed. “I don't think anybody got the joke I was trying to make,” she explained before recounting her response with the hopeful enthusiasm that it would elicit the desired reaction the second time around. “I said, ‘Oh, the original title of the show was Chopsticks, but it was too controversial,’ which is a joke, because everybody said Fresh Off the Boat was too controversial!”
They certainly did. Well before the comedy made its debut in February 2015, Fresh Off the Boat rode out an unusually tempestuous maelstrom of pre-premiere controversy — surrounding not just its title and, of course, the now infamous “chopsticks” incident, but Huang’s disparaging New York Magazine missive and some racially insensitive tweets from ABC itself. But the show went on to notch solid ratings in its first season, was picked up for a second, and Wu found herself nominated for Best Actress in a Comedy Series at the 2015 Critics' Choice TV Awards and Individual Achievement in Comedy at the 2015 Television Critics Association Awards.
Fresh Off the Boat is ABC’s first series centering on an Asian-American family since Margaret Cho’s 1994 comedy All-American Girl, and it’s turned Wu into a literal and figurative poster child for the immigrant experience — a responsibility she proudly accepts. Her parents immigrated to America from Taiwan just like her character Jessica Huang, and as a first generation Asian-American, she feels an obligation to her family, to herself, and to the millions of viewers who — for the first time in a long time — are seeing themselves onscreen.
“This is why I think the show is special,” Wu began while sitting at a massive booth at Factor’s Famous Deli in Los Angeles. “It's not a Chinese arc, it's not an Asian arc; it is an Asian-American arc, and I'll probably get shit for saying this, but in terms of the Hollywood or media perception of nonwhite cultures, one thing I have noticed is they're more comfortable hiring the Chinese-Chinese actress who is a star in China and who has bankability there and who they understand as a thing to celebrate if not exoticize."
She continued, "The Asian-American experience [is something] a lot of us as Asian-Americans really haven't explored, because they lump us all into one. Asia can be Japan and it can be India; it's a balance, and it's not easy, and that's probably why it's easier for Hollywood to hire Chinese-Chinese actresses as opposed to people who fit the Asian-American mold, because a lot of people like to simplify problems. It's terrifying to say, ‘This is a thing that is complex and worthy of our time,’ but it is complex, and that’s why you're not going to always find an easy, palatable answer. I think [the show is] trying to approach that complexity in a very traditionally simplistic form. And I think if we can do that, it's almost its own type of activism.”
And because of that, Wu takes playing Fresh Off the Boat’s outspoken, no-nonsense, endlessly devoted matriarch incredibly seriously, laboring over every single line that comes out of her character’s mouth. “I go over each script with my acting coach to, essentially, mine it for meaning,” said the actor, who also journals as Jessica. “There's an upcoming episode that's about mine and Louis's [Randall Park] wedding night — how we spent it haggling for a car — and even though this wasn't scripted, I spent the whole day writing out what that wedding day was like for her. Even though those choices don't blatantly show up onscreen, because they exist in my bones, they're there.”
That need to uncover the truth behind her character has been paramount to the way Wu approaches acting since she began doing community theater in her hometown of Richmond, Virginia, at a very young age. “It was one of the first places I really felt a sense of community,” she said. “Theater folk are the best. They're so curious and inclusive and passionate and excited, and even if their play is a little show, like Waiting for Guffman, they believe in it. And there's something really beautiful and comforting about that to a little Asian kid in the white suburbs who gets to have this communal experience where there's no bullying.”
Wu was quick to add, however, that she personally experienced very little bullying growing up as the third of four daughters to a professor father and a computer programmer mother. But she did grow up in a very traditional environment with few people of color. “Even though people are super socially conservative, because they have manners, if you're talking about your liberal agenda, they listen,” Wu said. “They encourage discussion. It doesn't mean they're going to change their views, but I think it's a better way to approach problems.”
Wu has taken that “let’s sit down and talk about our differences” approach to heart, actively engaging in conversations about representation online and in real life. “The only way I know is to keep absorbing more information and other people's viewpoints and getting mad myself, which I certainly do, and seeing when that anger is born of ego or vanity or genuine injustice; an injustice not of the people committing the racism but of the system that has not given those people the opportunity to understand what they're doing. It's really fucking complex and it's really important, but it's not going to be a simple overnight answer, yet that's no reason we should shy away from these conversations.”
Though Wu now speaks about cultural conflation and racially motivated microaggressions with confidence, she didn’t always voice her opinion in those types of potentially combative discussions. “I was so scared to speak up that I was quiet to the point in my past where I almost acted like I didn't know anything was even going on,” she said, her voice filled half with self-loathing and half with pity for her former self. “I’ve learned you have to have the courage to go into a discussion and know there may not be one right answer. … It is easier to get on the train of I hate this or I love this — I feel more comfortable saying, ‘These problems are complex,’ and it's not a reason to shy away from discussing them.”
Currently the discussion Wu is most interested in revolves around the lack of Asian-American stories being told in pop culture today — a fact that was reinforced as she began to look for projects to film during her Fresh Off the Boat summer hiatus. Conventional Hollywood logic would (sadly) mean that after coming off a successful year playing an immigrant mother with a distinct accent, Wu would be repeatedly offered that exact role in films or other television shows. But that was not the case, and not because the industry suddenly adopted a color-blind casting mantra. “I didn't get a lot of accented mothers,” she said. “But I don't think it's because Hollywood is so open-minded. It's because Hollywood isn't even writing stories about immigrant mothers.”
The lack of opportunities for actors of color is a harsh reality Wu confronted over and over during the eight years she spent auditioning in Hollywood before landing Fresh Off the Boat. “It was always the person of color supporting the white person's story,” she said. “Oftentimes, I wasn't necessarily just going up against Asian actors, but I was going up against black actors or Latina actors or, to a lesser extent — and this is a funny thing about Hollywood — redheads. I'm serious. When you have a white girl as the lead, you can't have an all-white cast in this day and age, so her best friend must be ethnic. But it can be anything, because they're just trying to make it ethnic to please the politically correct, not thinking for a second that one's ethnicity actually determines many beautiful facets of character. I often got the parts where I was going up against a black or Hispanic person, or, ya know, a redhead.”
But even after Fresh Off the Boat proved there’s an audience invested in seeing stories about people of color, there was no second vehicle available for Wu to further drive open the door of inclusive storytelling in Hollywood. “I'm interested in stories that have Asian-Americans as the lead because we're never allowed to do that,” she said. “Even tremendous actresses like Sandra Oh, why hasn't anyone given her her own show? Her own movie? Maybe she's had a handful, but has she had as many as Jennifer Lawrence has? Sandra has been working forever and doing great fucking work. That's what I want to see!”
There is, however, another series centered on an Asian-American family coming to ABC: Dr. Ken, starring Ken Jeong, premieres Oct. 2, and whether or not the show ends up being as successful as Fresh Off the Boat, Wu believes its existence in and of itself is proof that the needle is moving a little bit. “The way you start making people make stories that are specifically Asian-American is by having more Asian-American stories,” she said, acknowledging the tricky catch-22 inherent in that rationale.
“By doing that, we show the next generation that it's even a possibility. That's why they say that with kids whose parents went to college, it's a lot easier for them to go to college themselves because they think of it as a possibility. So to have these shows … some kid out there in Virginia who, like me, has no show business connections or money will think it's now a possibility if they believe in themselves enough. I think it's completely probable that they can be very successful. I just want to encourage other artists to come up and tell their stories. I think it’ll help…I hope it’ll help.”