The A Plus Interview

This 'Crazy Rich Asians' Star Tells Us How The Story Is Important But, At Its Core, Simply Human

"I want them to laugh. I want them to cry. I want them to be very curious about my country, Singapore."

This 'Crazy Rich Asians' Star Tells Us How The Story Is Important But, At Its Core, Simply Human

Unless you live under a rock, you've most likely heard about 2018's game-changing summer rom-com Crazy Rich Asians. That's because it's the first Hollywood studio film with a modern-day story centered around an Asian-American lead and featuring an all-Asian cast since 1993's The Joy Luck Club — a full 25 years between the two, if you're counting (we certainly are).

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Crazy Rich Asians stars Constance Wu (from ABC's Fresh Off the Boat) and Henry Golding (making a big screen debut) as the main couple, with supporting help from the likes of Michelle Yeoh, Awkwafina, and Gemma Chan — just to name a few. It's based on the novel of the same name by Kevin Kwan and is just the latest example of just how much representation matters.

To celebrate the release of Jon M. Chu's Crazy Rich Asians, A Plus spoke to one of the movie's stars: Tan Kheng Hua, who played Kerry Chu, mom to Wu's Rachel Chu. During our chat, we covered a wide range of topics including: how the movie is adding to the discussion about diversity and inclusivity, why there's no such thing as a "big break," what it was like working with this all-star cast, and why the film's setting, Singapore, is just as much a character than the ones played by actors and actresses.

A PLUS: What is it like showing the world your beautiful country on the big screen like this?

Tan Kheng Hua: I think my country has very often been misunderstood. The general knowledge of it is that it is very strict. That's the most popular stereotypes of how people have thought about Singapore.

What is very wonderful about Crazy Rich Asians is you get to see a very loving portrayal of some details about Singapore and about Singaporeans, not just visually. You get to listen to some unusual lingo, or the way Singaporeans speak English. You get to see some of our very, very gorgeous food, which is very multicultural and Southeast Asian. You really get to see how east-west we are, and I think this is all presented with detail. Any sort of detail that fosters understanding is a wonderful opportunity for bridging cultures. That's what I'm excited about. I want people to see details. Whatever details are being introduced to you by a romantic comedy like Crazy Rich Asians, if it gets you to come over to our country for real to experience it for yourself, other than watching it from a screen, I would say, "Wow, that's really the icing on the cake."

A lot of times movies treat Asian countries as a destination to satisfy the plot, not to showcase it. Do you think “Crazy Rich Asians” being a very human story breaks that stereotype?

Yes, absolutely, because the story, if you've read the book, is written specifically about a particular demographic which is found in Singapore. I come from that demographic. It's a demographic of an English-speaking Chinese community. English is spoken as a first language, not as a second language. Already that, as a detail, is so unusual and something that we'd love to share with the rest of the world. There are a whole bunch of Singaporeans and they could be any of the main races: Malay, Indian, Chinese, or any mix of any other race that are residing in Singapore. And they speak English as a first language, just like myself. I think in English, I express myself in English, I dream in English, and I understand the world in English. That is something quite unique to Singapore.

Credit: Sung Lingun

As you know, one of the big talking points for “Crazy Rich Asians” is how it is starting a big conversation around Asian representation in Hollywood. Does that conversation have equal weight in Singapore?

Well, first of all, I think the rhetoric of diversity and inclusivity is something that is of worldwide importance and worldwide necessity. As a Singaporean Chinese, I walk out into the streets and I am a majority in my own country. I may not experience firsthand exactly what the Asian American community is experiencing here in this particular country. But I sure empathize, understand, and feel the need to extend this dialogue for a long, long time.

I need to look outside of my own experience, which is actually what art does. Art can exist in so many different forms .... and I feel that it is important to look outside of my own experience of being a majority raised in my own country and to emphasize and to add to this dialogue, which is very necessary for many other communities all around the world. It is a privilege to be able to have a platform to do that. And that platform for me currently is Crazy Rich Asians so I'm proudly a part of that dialogue and I proudly extend that dialogue. For me, as a Chinese in Singapore, I may not have firsthand experience with what the minorities are experiencing here in America, but you don't need that to be able to add to and extend the dialogue. You don't need that to be able to empathize with what is necessary to be talked about.

I read you studied at a university here in the U.S. and that is where you fell in love with acting. I’m curious how it feels to kind of be having your “big break” in America?

I think that, for myself, I don't really believe in the concept of a "big break" or the concept of "making it." I'm 55, I'm not a young actress. I've been doing this for more than 30 years of my life. My motivation that goes into every single project, including Crazy Rich Asians, is the character — how good the character is that I've been offered, how attractive it is for me. Also the story, how attractive the story is, and the cast and crew that I'm going to be working with. Certainly all the projects that I say yes to, one of them being Crazy Rich Asians, they are of many different proportions. It could be like a play that I just finished in Singapore which had six people in it, was completely different, and it ran for two and a half weeks. It was a much smaller type of project but the sort of joy that I feel is very similar because I get to be a part of a project that is wonderful. I get to be with people who I respect, who I love, and who I get to work intimately with and learn from. I think that is really great.

I look at all projects, no matter what proportion, the same way because I think that is the way to enjoy the process. And enjoying the process rather than the end result is, I think, the root to joy and happiness in life because you never know how the project is going to turn out. From the first day to the day that it's given out into the public, you just never know. I don't know how people are going to take Crazy Rich Asians when it comes out and, to a certain extent, it doesn't matter to me because at every step of the way this project has continually reinforced in me why I said yes to it. It continues to give me such great joy.

Credit: Sung Lingun

You mentioned your character, Kerry Chu. I thought it was actually quite a beautiful character in the film — a very grounded and centered, strong and self-made single mom. What was it like playing a role like that and connecting with your onscreen daughter, Rachel Chu, played by Constance Wu?

For the first part of the question my answer would be that the identification of the empathy for the character was immediate when I read it off the page because I myself have a 20-year-old daughter. She's my only child, and the relationship between myself and my daughter is very, very much similar to the one that Kerry has with Rachel. We're very, very close but we're close not as friends. I am her mother, she is my daughter. However, I respect her as an individual. I respect her individual dream. I'm not the type of mother who dictates how she should live her life or what she should do with her life. I respect her choices, but I am there when she falls. Just like how Kerry was there when Rachel needed her. I am there to answer her questions if she's ever in a state of confusion. I don't profess to be able to prescribe that my answers are always right, but I do prescribe to 100 percent have her interests always at the forefront of how I treat her. I think that ultimately is how I want to be seen as this parent, and how I want to parent my child. I mean, I don't want to speak for my daughter but I dare say I am very proud of my relationship with her.

For the second part of the question, my answer would be that Constance Wu is an amazing actress. She is certainly somebody whose talent is oozing out of her pores. She doesn't have to try very hard to be able to clinch what she wants from the scene. And I think being in a room of talent is something that really changes the color of the thing, you know? Yeah. To be in front of good talent, it really reinforces in you why you do the things you do, what you want to do with your craft, with your passion, and how you want to carry yourself. It certainly was a learning experience working with an actress like Constance.

And then I’d say your other big moment was a scene you shared with Michelle Yeoh's character, Eleanor Young. That look!

Yeah! We call it the death stare.

Totally, but I think there’s a lot of mutual understanding between two mothers in that moment as well. What was it like working with Michelle in that scene?

Michelle Yeoh is my queen. She is! She infuses everybody in the room with nothing but love and respect for her in such an easy way without really trying because she is just such a queen. She has such a good heart and is so good at what she does. She has a way with people that makes everybody feel so important. She sees everyone. She sees everyone in just the best way possible and when people see you in the best way possible you want to give the best you have inside you. I think that is the mark of a true leader. She takes away all fear. She makes people feel relaxed and happy to be in the room with her. She really deserves everything, every accolade she gets. Not just as an actress, but as a person, and as a person who has devoted so many years to this industry. As an Asian woman, as a woman, all those different labels that she is, she deserves everything she gets.

Being in the scene with her was wonderful because she completely understands Eleanor Young. Even though it may be just that one scene, it was joyous to act with her. Also, you know, she was right there in the scene for all of my takes. My takes were just on me, but she was right there for every single take. She didn't have to be, but she was. That's the sort of person that she is, you know? My character and what that look turned later into, you really hit it on the nail. At the end of the day, Eleanor and Kerry, even though it may seem like they're on opposite sides, they actually share one very important quality. They love their children to death and they want the best for their children. They may have different ways of achieving that and they may achieve that to different degrees of success but, really, the origin of their motivation is the same. And that is love.

As a mother myself, I know when mothers sometimes don't get what they need from their children, or what they want of their children, it very often doesn't come from a bad place. It's just sometimes due to, I don't know, missing a target or maybe not understanding enough. That's something very human. I understand because, for as many hits as I've had as a mother, I've also had many, many misses. That's one of the wonderful things about being a mother. You continue to strive and really, really work towards being a better person.

Credit: Sung Lingun

This isn’t even a question but I just have to express how beautiful the wedding scene was in the movie. It was just gorgeous — even though you weren’t in it.

You know, it's funny because the Singapore film industry is very small and the location of the wedding is actually my ex-school. I spent 16 years of my life in that school, which they eventually made into a series of restaurants and bars. When they decided to go with that choice … many people were very skeptical when the vision was to change it into an indoor garden and to have the bride walking down a stream, which was what you saw. When I saw the film I thought to myself, "For all the people who thought it couldn't be done: OMG, they did it." Not only that, but it was worth every penny.

Perhaps, my biggest takeaway from the movie is that I, a White person, walked out of the movie knowing that I only saw a few people that looked like me on the screen. I realized that this is what people who don’t look like me have felt like for pretty much ever. The roles are reversed and I feel like it’s been a long time coming. Did it make you feel like that at all?

So, here's the very interesting thing. For me — and, of course, I'm only speaking for myself — I know there's a lot of publicity and rhetoric about diversity and inclusivity with the all-Asian cast. But I don't know about you, but within about eight minutes —

You forget.

— I didn't care.

It's not like, "Oh, hey. Everybody's Chinese." Or, "Hey, where are the White guys?" Or, "Where are the Black guys?" No, I didn't care. In less than eight minutes, suddenly we are like, "OK. This man is in love with this woman." And, "Oh, what's going to happen?" You just get caught up with the characters and with the story. You know what? That is the big success. The big success is that your story and the characters are so compelling that you look beyond the race and you look beyond the cultures.

You know, that ultimately is the big success. Look beyond all the politics and get into good stories. Get into good stories. The funny thing is for everybody that has bought the book and made it into the bestseller's list in so many countries, I'll bet you in many ways people are not only picturing all these Chinese people inside their brains. They're just getting caught up in the story. By the time Awkwafina steps into the movie screen, you don't think to yourself, "Oh, what sort of accent is she speaking?" She's so compelling and funny as a character. She's such a good friend to the Rachel Chu character. That's what you see and that's her success as an actress, because she's not playing Chinese. She doesn't need to play Chinese. She's playing what is necessary, which is a really good and devoted friend who is going to, in any way she can, help her good friend get what she wants in the best way possible. Ultimately, that's the success of it, right? Nobody directs me to act Chinese.

That's a really interesting way to put it. It’s certainly a great thing, a positive thing, but it’s not the defining thing. Just to wrap it up, what do you hope audiences walk out of "Crazy Rich Asians" feeling or having experienced?

I want them to laugh. I want them to cry. I want them to be very curious about my country, Singapore. And I dare say they're going to get all of it. I also want Singapore to get into their wish list of the top three destinations to visit. Come on over, get to know us. We're a really unusual, strange, unique, but very lovable people and place.

Watch the trailer for "Crazy Rich Asians" here:

Crazy Rich Asians is in theaters nationwide now!

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