SINGAPORE: Until a couple of weeks ago, Constance Wu had never set foot in Singapore.
“Not even to the airport!” the 35-year-old actress told Channel NewsAsia on the Crazy Rich Asians set at the historic CHIJMES complex in Singapore.
In fact, she didn’t know much about our sunny island before arriving here to film Crazy Rich Asians. The Hollywood adaption of Singaporean Kevin Kwan’s bestseller about Singapore’s secret moneyed elite tells the story of Chinese-American economics professor Rachel Chu, who follows her Singaporean boyfriend Nick Young back home for a visit, only to discover that he is the heir to one of the biggest fortunes in Asia.
As it happens, Wu is making her unfamiliarity work in her favour as she tackles playing Rachel, her first leading lady film role in a big studio movie.
“It’s all been a very new experience for me and it’s been very helpful in understanding the story that Kevin (Kwan) wrote, in approaching the character and in understanding the differences in culture between countries and cities and upbringings,” she said.
“I didn’t know much (about Singapore) because I wanted to enter the movie like my character,” she explained. “And my character is an American-raised girl who has never been to Singapore. I wanted to discover it as my character would have discovered it.”
So what are her first impressions of Singapore?
“To be completely honest, I haven’t had too much of the time to explore because I’ve been working, so most of my interaction has been with the hotel staff,” she admitted with a smile. “And they are great! They’ve been very friendly.”
Wu is also very aware of Singapore’s obsession and love for food.
“I feel like there’s a lot of good food here. People really socialise around food and I feel like food is a mixture of many different cultures and influences – both old and modern – which in a way reflects the culture of the people,” she said. “It’s a mixture of many different international influences … and I think that’s what makes Singapore very interesting.”
Wu identifies with Rachel’s “very humble beginnings”, and she finds herself pulling in her own life experiences when embracing the role.
“She’s the daughter of an immigrant the same way I am, and she’s never experienced wealth or glamour, which I haven’t experienced growing up,” Wu said. “When I was a kid, if I got an outfit from Gap, that was considered fancy. That was considered really high class.”
She continued: “When I was a kid, I hadn’t even heard of Louis Vuitton or Chanel or any of those. I didn’t even know what that was! I think Singaporeans, even if they don’t wear that kind of stuff, they’re very aware culturally of style and its history and things like that. Rachel’s not like that at all. She’s clueless.”
In the wake of criticism about how Hollywood approaches diversity, all eyes are firmly on this highly anticipated film, which is billed as the first Hollywood film since Joy Luck Club to feature an all-Asian cast. For Wu, known for being outspoken in her opinions about Hollywood’s regular whitewashing, being part of Crazy Rich Asians has been “an extraordinary privilege”.
“It’s a privilege to be able to carry a narrative instead of supporting somebody else’s narrative,” she said. “To play a role that explores both the American aspect of the character and the curiosity for different Asian cultures and how that shapes the character and story.”
“And to be supported by such talented, diverse, great other actors from all over the world,” she continued. “We have actors from South America, Australia, Hong Kong, England, America – yet they’re all Asian. They’re international.”
Wu hopes that this would encourage filmmakers “to invest in more projects like this” – so that “people see new stories, instead of the same stories and the same reboots told over and over again”.