‘Fresh Off the Boat’ Star Constance Wu on Taking Action for Asian-American Visibility in Hollywood

Constance Wu On Filming 'Fresh Off
Brinson+Banks for Variety

As the star of ABC’s ’90s-set family comedy “Fresh off the Boat,” Constance Wu has emerged as one of the most critically acclaimed leading ladies on TV. The show’s third season launches this week, with an episode filmed partly on location in Taiwan.

How does it feel to be heading into season three?
When you start out as an actor, you try to establish a history for your character so all your choices have some roots. Now, not only do I have the history I created with my imagination, but I also have the history of playing her. It feels a little bit more intuitive for me. The toughest part for me doing a show, having never done even a pilot before is navigating the endurance that is required to do 22 episodes and take care of yourself in a physical and mental health type way. That’s a negotiation that I think only happens with experience. No matter how many people told me how to handle it you only learn how to carry a show by doing it. I feel like I’ve found that balance, which is good for my work and my health and my life.

Last season you had to do 24 episodes, is that when you learned that balance?
I think from both years, you learn how to negotiate self care and endurance over a long period of time. I was so used to doing indie movies — the filming schedule for those lasts a couple of weeks. It’s easy to keep up your energy for that because it’s an exciting three weeks. That’s not to say my show isn’t exciting, it is, but after three months that adrenaline is not enough. You actually have to participate in self-care to keep that energy.

What was it like filming in Taiwan for the season premiere?
The crew was wonderful; we brought a skeleton crew from America and used a lot of local talent. It was fun for me as an actor to navigate this experience of my character going back to her homeland but realizing her home has evolved into something else, and also still having an appreciation of her childhood home. That had some real strong ties to the immigrant story.

So often when we talk about Asians in media, people expect Asian-Americans to be placated by Asian content. They don’t distinguish between Asian and Asian-American content — they’re very different, and that’s not to place a higher value on one or the other. It’s just to give an awareness to people that to lump us together as the same story is reductive to our experience. The fortitude it took to come here as an immigrant, with no support system in a new place, sometimes not even speaking the language, and what it must take to have the courage to build that kind of a story and home from scratch — it is a different experience. When Hollywood executives think Asian-Americans are placated by simply Asian roles, I think that’s reductive to what it means for our immigrant experience and how unique and special that is to us. Asians and Asian-Americans — not better nor worse — just different.

Alan Yang recently used his platform at the Emmys to shine a light on some of that — that Italian-Americans and Asian-Americans make up the same percentage of the U.S. population but Italian-Americans have so many more diverse and highly acclaimed portrayals in pop-culture. And yet in the reactions to his comments I read things like, “Asians have ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,’” which miss the exact point you just made. It’s not remotely the same.
It’s not the same. There are many Asian-Americans who don’t even speak Chinese, the language of “Crouching Tiger.” They speak Korean or Japanese, and yet they’re expected to be happy with that representation? And they’re Americans — Korean-Americans or Japanese-Americans. I think what Alan Yang did was especially brilliant because one of the lazy excuses that people often give Asian-Americans is, “You only make up a small percentage of the population and that’s why you represent a small percentage of narrative content.” What Alan Yang did is he didn’t make it about black or white, he made it about the culture.

It is true that Italian-Americans, though they are white, also have a wealth of content. Within that wealth there are things some Italian-Americans probably think doesn’t represent them, and some they think do represent them. But the main point is they have so many different narratives from which to choose. If you’re Italian-American, you are at the same percentage in America that Asians are, and you can probably find something that speaks to your experience. I am certain that “Fresh Off the Boat” does not speak to every Asian-American experience — some for sure, and for that I am proud and very grateful. But what he said was absolutely true, and wasn’t trying to pit anybody against anybody. It’s trying to make us think outside of color and think of culture and stories and narrative scarcity.

It feels like there’s at least a growing awareness and a lot of discussion about this. Do you feel there’s also action?
I definitely think there’s action being taken but action takes many forms. For some people action is writing blogs and essays or engaging in Twitter wars and for some action is making content, on YouTube or Vimeo — whatever platform you can — or writing your own short stories. For some action means having conversations with close family members who may not understand the implications of bias on the Hollywood financial market. The market was born in bias, and having those private conversations are a type of action. Sometimes we think only the people who have loud actions are truly active, but there are plenty of Asian-Americans out there making really incredible work on all sorts of platforms and I applaud that. It’s happening, but almost nothing happens overnight. The myriad ways we approach it, whether it’s by creating work or Tweeting about it — neither is better or worse, they’re just different ways of chipping through a barrier to shed some light on s—, you know?

Jessica Huang is one of TV’s great moms. How has it been watching your young co-stars, like Hudson Yang, 12, grow up these past few years?
It’s opened up my memories of what I was like when I was that age. I started in the theater when I was Hudson’s age. I remember how things felt. It’s awakened a dormant compassion in me, which I think is always good for any actor or artist. The richer your compassion and empathy is, the more reach you have. Being around them has really opened me up. Even being around parents, my peers don’t really have kids, so I don’t get to interact with parents. Randall has kids and the parents of the kids on the show, interacting with them is like a new experience for me. It’s good for me and I’m glad for it.

You don’t have children but you do come from a family with three sisters. Do you draw on any of your personal family experiences for the show?
No. Another thing [the show] has opened to me is how different the experience is growing up as a girl than it is as a boy. I don’t have any brothers. I didn’t even grow up around male cousins or nephews. The male childhood experience is one I only know through having been an adolescent, but at that time I’m boy crazy so it’s a different story. It’s very different, even the way the three boy actors interact with each other is very different from me and my sisters. I think if you look into the work that Geena Davis’ gender institute is doing, we plant those structural seeds very early on, in our cartoons and everything. It’s very hard to draw on my own personal experience because my family was so female heavy. I had male cousins but they lived in Canada and Taiwan.

Do your younger co-stars ever ask you to explain the show’s ’90s pop-culture references?
They don’t ask me; they have an acting coach they’ll ask. A lot of these ’90s references they use are hip-hop references. When I was a little girl, I wasn’t into hip-hop. I still don’t know much about it. But if they have a ’90s-girl teenager I might remember some of my own stuff. I don’t know if this line will make it into the show, but there was an Ani DiFranco reference recently — I was like, “OK, that one I get.” I was explaining to Hudson about “Little Plastic Castle” and everything.

Some people may be surprised that you have a passion for musicals. Do you have a recent favorite?
I always veer toward older musicals; I’ve always liked the Rodgers and Hammerstein kind of stuff. I’ve done a couple of Off-Broadway musicals, but I don’t promote myself as a singer. When I tell people I can sing, I think they think, “She’s one of those people who says that but can’t actually sing.” I actually went in for a meeting with one of the producers of “Little Shop of Horrors,” and I was like: “Test me. Try me. I will kill it for you.” I am never above auditioning. That excites me. I want to earn my place, show my salt.