It’s a chilly night on the rooftop of a New York City strip club when four words entice Constance Wu’s newbie dancer Destiny into the maternal, couture-lined fold of Jennifer Lopez’s glamorous Ramona in “Hustlers”: “Climb in my fur.”
Alas, Destiny’s hunger for cash and connection has a cost in the true-crime female-empowerment movie of the season, opening Sept. 13 following a world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival the weekend prior, in which a stilettoed sisterhood of ex-strippers scheme to steal from their Wall Street clients after the 2008 financial crisis. (The real-life tabloid-ready tale ended in arrests, as documented in the 2015 New York Magazine article on which “Hustlers” is based.)
To fans who know Wu best from television, playing an exotic dancer-turned-criminal might seem like quite a detour from Jessica Huang, the suburban sitcom mom she’s played for five seasons and counting on ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat.” It’s only her second lead film role after portraying plucky rom-com heroine Rachel Chu in last summer’s “Crazy Rich Asians,” the Golden Globe-nominated hit that sent Wu’s Hollywood star skyrocketing.
But Wu, 37, wanted the role so strongly she put herself on tape for writer-director Lorene Scafaria, to the mild bewilderment of her own agents.
“I was looking for a movie with a character that was deeply lonely,” she said on a recent afternoon in the Times office, relaxing in a sundress and denim jacket, a cap pulled over her hair. She had noticed, and perhaps even felt herself, an overriding sense of isolation swirling in the zeitgeist.
“I feel like loneliness right now is pervasive because of social media,” she said. “Some people aren’t connecting as much, or they don’t know how to do it in real life.”
There was something else she was looking for too. After zooming into the spotlight as a rising Hollywood star and the anchor of two groundbreaking Asian American hit projects, she was on the hunt for roles that were multidimensional, human, complex.
“In every project I choose, I want a character that gets to run the gamut of a full spectrum of an arc,” said Wu, whose “Hustlers” character, like the women around her, contains multitudes: The daughter of immigrants and a single mother herself, she’s a ladyboss in the making — until she’s left holding the designer bag. “Destiny has moments where she’s really funny, and moments when she’s really sad. Moments where she’s irresponsible, moments where she’s the only one who is responsible. That complexity is what I seek in any role, and this script really afforded her that journey.”
In every project I choose, I want a character that gets to run the gamut of a full spectrum of an arc.
Scafaria (“Seeking a Friend for the End of the World,” “The Meddler”) wrote the screenplay, imagining Lopez as the perfect Ramona, the ringleader set on turning the tables on the sleazy suits who underestimate women like her. Signing Lopez was the first piece of the casting puzzle for “Hustlers,” which STX acquired for production after a struggling Annapurna put the film in turnaround. (Annapurna head Megan Ellison remains an executive producer on the film.)
The search for Destiny led to Wu, and then to the stacked ensemble, which includes Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart, Julia Stiles, Mercedes Ruehl, Madeline Brewer, Trace Lysette, Lizzo (and her flute) and Cardi B.
“Constance connected with this and wanted a shot at doing something that is obviously so different from anything we’ve ever seen her do,” said producer Jessica Elbaum, who optioned Jessica Pressler’s original article for Gloria Sanchez Productions.
As soon as they met, Scafaria and Wu clicked. “I saw that she has a fragility and a vulnerability and a sensitivity and a very deep core,” said the writer-director. “She’s obviously a very gifted comedic actress, and she brought me to tears in ‘Crazy Rich Asians,’ so she is an incredible dramatic actress too. But I think she has weight and chops. And when I met her, I felt that.
“I couldn’t be more proud of her,” Scafaria said of the actress. “She put herself out there; she tweezed those eyebrows up to 2007!”
Filming began in New York this spring before STX, which has recently endured a series of flops including “UglyDolls” and “Poms,” fast-tracked “Hustlers” for a fall release. (Early tracking suggests the film could debut to the studio’s highest opening weekend gross ever.)
To prepare for the role, Wu studied hours of interview tapes of Destiny’s real-life inspiration, former dancer Roselyn Keo, playing them on a loop in her trailer for reference. “When a culture at large judges you, in a way, there is camaraderie amongst each other because we know who we are even though they don’t,” Wu said of meeting real-life strippers for research.
“Hustlers” aims to do justice to the unseen dimensions of these women’s lives. “That’s why we make movies like this. These women are trying their best in a world that has not always been fair to them. That’s the hustle: trying to get that dream when you started out 10 steps behind everybody else.”
She impressed costar and producer Lopez during a scene in which their characters, who become both business partners and close friends, begin to disagree on the limits of their increasingly volatile scam operation.
“There is a scene in the movie that we filmed early on where Destiny and Ramona get into a fight, and Constance really went for it,” said Lopez in an email. “And I was like, ‘Wow! OK. She is a gangster. We are going to do this movie.’ I think their story lines are fascinating because they start very similarly — same desires, same goals. But as they come more into their power and into more ‘success,’ their stories and thus their friendship really starts to diverge.”
Wu could have taken easier roads after her “Crazy Rich Asians” success. The Richmond, Va., native had chased the classic actor hustle for years, working in theater, on TV and in indie films before scoring breakout status on “Fresh Off the Boat” opposite Randall Park and Hudson Yang.
Premiering in 2015, it was the first Asian American-led sitcom to hit prime-time in 20 years. By 2017, Wu had been named one of Time’s Most Influential People, buoyed by her vocal activism online and in the Time’s Up movement. The same year, she was cast in “Crazy Rich Asians,” which also made history as the first Asian American-centered studio film in a quarter century. In the wake of “Crazy Rich Asians,” Wu is now able to get projects green-lighted, such as the upcoming novel adaptation “Goodbye, Vitamin,” in which she’ll star and executive produce.
But with great power and over 1 million followers on social media comes great accountability, a lesson Wu admits she was still learning earlier this year when she posted negative reactions on Twitter and Instagram to the news that “Fresh Off the Boat” had been renewed for a sixth season.
The blowback was immediate. Wu quickly apologized and provided context, saying she was upset that she’d have to forgo another project. “My words and ill-timing were insensitive to those who are struggling, especially insensitive considering the fact that I used to be in that struggle too. I do regret that and it wasn’t nice and I am sorry for that,” she wrote in a lengthy Instagram post.
Though she didn’t go into detail at the time, it wasn’t another film but a play she’d been hoping to do — one in which she would have played a “not Asian-specific” role and likely worked for scale — that Wu had to give up to return to her show, for which she is under contract for another two years.
“I had this moment of heat where I got upset because I had to give up a job I had been looking forward to and had been chasing for a while,” she said of her self-described “Twitter fiasco.” “It was moving to me how many people from the show reached out to me, and even on set ... to say, ‘Just so you know, we love you and we know who you are, and you didn’t deserve any of that stuff.’ Because they also know that I’m an actress — I can be dramatic.”
Actors admitting they’re dramatic? A rarity! She laughed. “I mean, that’s our toolkit, right? I’m dramatic. I’m emotional. But they also know that that doesn’t represent me because they have a hundred episodes of behavior that proves otherwise.”
She also learned a lesson from the backlash: Her platform affords her a greater reach than she realized. “I’m not beating myself up for it, because I know me,” said Wu. “But I don’t think I realized that people were paying so much attention to my Twitter.”
At the time, she wasn’t sure the show would get renewed for a sixth season. Now, a part of her worries she’ll be blamed if Season 6 is its last. Still, Wu says, she regrets that her tweets affected others, including castmates, colleagues and ABC president Karey Burke.
“I like that people are expressing their feelings about it, because it improved my awareness of what it means to be a ... public figure,” She paused, turning over the phrase. “I’ve had a back-and-forth about it. It’s the line between being a role model but also authenticity.”
“I think a lot of why people are lonely in this world is because they go through these Instagram feeds and everybody’s life is perfect,” she said. “Nobody trips up. And sometimes I think, might it be good to see our heroes mess up a little bit and not always be perfect?”
Imperfection is a quality seldom afforded those who carry the added mantle of representation. If Wu’s Asian American fans were particularly disappointed by her tweets, it may be because they were rooting for her to succeed, an emblem to champion in a Hollywood that’s still so slow to change. Can the public allow Wu to be fallible and human, still speak her mind, and learn as she goes?
“There is an expectation of the way that I ought to behave, and not just of perfection but of graciousness. And I am grateful. But am I elegant?” she said with a laugh. “No. I think I can be verbally eloquent sometimes, but as a human, am I an elegant person? No.”
Me getting to play a fully human experience as an Asian American, that shouldn’t be historic. But it is.
As a wise oracle once sang, “A diva is a female version of a hustler.” Yet Wu, who just filled out her summer by paying her own way to Hawaii to act in an indie film for an emerging Asian American director, found herself at the center of headlines during the “Hustlers” promo tour describing her as a “diva.”
Wu considered the label. “A woman owning her power rather than being like, ‘Who, me?,’ I think, is a threat to the patriarchy,” said Wu. “I know some people were like, ‘Constance demanded top billing.’ No, the script had me as the lead. But it’s a juicier story to say the other stuff.
“I am grateful for my entire career,” she said. “But the fact that my career has been historic shouldn’t necessarily be a call [to say to] me, ‘You should be so lucky’ — it should be a call to pay attention to the fact that this kind of thing shouldn’t have been historic. Me getting to play a fully human experience as an Asian American, that shouldn’t be historic. But it is. Let’s talk about the system, not whether or not I deserve to be in it and how I need to feel about it.”
Wu reiterated that her platform, even if it comes with public scrutiny, is not something she takes for granted.
“I do think when you have a platform, you ought to make sure you use it as well and responsibly as you can,” said Wu, who returns to TV with the season premiere of “Fresh Off the Boat” on Sept. 27.
“But,” she continued, flashing a wry smile, “I want to be careful not to blow up my profile any more. If it happens as a natural extension of me doing the thing that I think I am meant to do, which is to be an actor, then I welcome it and I’m grateful for it. That’s not the part of myself I’m seeking to put energy into ... but it teaches me.”