In “Crazy Rich Asians,” we journey halfway around the world through the eyes of New Yorker Rachel Chu, the self-made daughter of a single-mom immigrant played with aplomb by Wu. A trip abroad to meet her boyfriend’s family becomes a bewildering foray into the high society milieu of Singapore’s oldest, richest — and snobbiest — families.
Television audiences know Wu from her critically acclaimed ABC sitcom “Fresh Off the Boat” — at the time of its debut in 2015, the first American network prime-time sitcom to center on an Asian American family in more than two decades — where her portrayal of hilariously pragmatic matriarch Jessica Huang made her a household name.
Now, Wu’s turn as the plucky heroine of “Crazy Rich Asians” from director Jon M. Chu marks another milestone for Asian representation in Hollywood — and one the Richmond, Va., native hopes will open doors for those who don’t yet see themselves reflected on screen.
In your own words: What’s your Hollywood story?
I am from Richmond, Va. The theater became my second home, so much so that I made the some might say irresponsible decision to go to drama school and study acting at a conservatory. I was in New York for a few years being a theater actor — but actually more being a waitress.
I booked a ticket one way to L.A., and then I continued to be a waitress. Then I auditioned for a show called “Fresh Off the Boat” and it was huge to so many people.
It was the first network show in over 20 years to center on an Asian American family’s experience. There was a lot of talk and noise and buzz around it, but at the end of the day the thing that I loved about it is that it’s something that kids can watch with their families and feel like their stories matter.
When the opportunity came to do “Crazy Rich Asians” I was so happy that it was happening and I wanted to be a part of it — but I just wanted it to happen. And I’m really lucky that I got the part of Rachel and that Jon believed in me, and that he had such a great vision for it, and hopefully it’ll do really well.
When you were young, did you see yourself reflected on screen?
I definitely saw myself reflected on screen, in the form of George Clooney. Obviously! No. I’m just kidding: No, I did not. My biggest role model was Mister Rogers. Still is. If I’m having a down day I still go to YouTube and I type in “Mister Rogers words of wisdom” ... and it makes me feel better. He is the epitome of goodness to me. And also Oprah, because I mean — she’s Oprah.
I never thought I’d be considered for something like [“Crazy Rich Asians”] because I’d never seen any Asian American be a lead.
“Crazy Rich Asians” is the first movie of its kind in 25 years. What does it mean to you to be at the center of it all?
I definitely felt that sense of importance from the start and it only built on itself as I got to know the other actors and the other crew members who were involved in it. We became a family and we’re all passionate about creating something that was more than a movie, that like Jon says, was a movement.
How did “Fresh Off the Boat” prepare you for the platform you now have to advocate for underrepresented voices with “Crazy Rich Asians”?
I couldn’t have anticipated it, but it was really illuminating. “[“Fresh Off the Boat”] sort of woke me up to a lot of things that I hadn’t been consciously speaking about, because I’d just been focused on survival. And part of the reason I can and do speak out on these issues is because I have the privilege – I have some equity, I have some stability with my show.