Fuse is celebrating Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month by looking at a variety of rising forces who are creating Future Asian and Pacific History before our eyes. Today we're looking at Constance Wu, the star of Fresh Off the Boat, the first network sitcom to center on an Asian American family in more than 20 years, now in its third season on ABC.
Wu, 35, grew up in Richmond, Va. with three sisters, the children of a biology/genetics professor father and computer programmer mother, both Taiwanese immigrants. As a high school student she attended a program at NYU's Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute, then went on to get a bachelor's in acting from Purchase College. Her role as Jessica on ABC's adaptation of celebrity chef Eddie Huang's memoir has led to her becoming one of the foremost public advocates for diverse representation onscreen, and for accountability for whitewashing and other unconscionable systemic obstacles for oppressed people. She's also one of the clearest voices about working in Hollywood as a Taiwanese American actress.
In April, Wu made Time's 100 Most Influential People list (just like this fellow) and got a writeup from her acquaintance Lena Dunham, who praised Wu's "giving nature, her monstrously big heart, her passion for change and the careful way she lets everyone around her share the challenges of their own identity."
Wu's interviews and social media commentaries are prolific and potent. Consider her 2016 remarks in the New York Times about the "highly pressured situation" of landing roles in Hollywood:
"An Asian person who is competing against white people, for an audience of white people, has to train for that opportunity like it's the Olympics. An incredibly talented Asian actor might be considered for a leading role maybe once or twice in a lifetime."
Knowing that truth makes it all the more remarkable how boldly and thoroughly Wu criticized the Academy Awards for awarding Casey Affleck the Best Actor Oscar considering his two sexual harassment lawsuit settlements. "I’m in this career, not for awards, but because the treatment of human life matters to me. So I stand the fuck up for it," she wrote in a lengthy note she was advised against sharing.
Asian-originated roles being whitewashed by Hollywood is a topic that's echoed throughout the culture progressively louder in recent years, and Wu is at the vanguard, writing on Facebook last year that she, Ming-Na Wen and Lynn Chen are "sisters together against this bullshit. Ghost in the Shell, Dr. Strange, Aloha, Pan, Gods of Egypt, I could go on and that's a crying shame, ya'll." Speaking about "hero bias" at the time of 2016's Great Wall movie starring Matt Damon, she pleaded, “We have to stop perpetuating the racist myth that only a white man can save the world. It’s not based in fact." She said monetary, box office–related reasoning "is the lamest excuse in the history of being human," and steered blame away from individuals and toward society and the industry's...
"...repeatedly implied racist notion that white people are superior to POC and that POC need salvation from our own color via white strength. When you consistently make movies like this, you ARE saying that. YOU ARE. Yes, YOU ARE. YES YOU ARE. Yes, dude, you fucking ARE. Whether you intend to or not."
Constance Wu also highlights the importance of differentiating the Asian experience and the Asian American experience, of showing the everyday, non-exoticized/otherized humanity of Asian people. She explains that our stories need not only depict modern Asian characters but to have those narratives come from Asian creators, and to result in significant roles rather than more and more of "the best friend or the assistant to the white person." She told Time two years ago:
"I wouldn't say that just visibility is important. I would say visibility as the stars of a show is important. That says that our stories matter. We're not here to do the taxes of the white person, or to be the chipper best friend to the white person. It's important to see Asians in those leading roles because it changes what I'm calling the anglo-heteronormative status of TV."
Next up for Wu comes the novel adaptation Crazy Rich Asians, from director John Chu (Now You See Me 2, Step Up 2 and its sequel) and featuring Michelle Yeoh, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Sonoya Mizuno, Jimmy O. Yang and Chris Pang. She's a headliner in at least four other upcoming films, one horror, another called Low Budget Ethnic Movie. In You and Me Both she'll play an addict on a road trip to meet her birth mother in Alaska; in The Feels, a lesbian engaged to a white woman.
And, of course, pending Season 4, 5, 6, etc. on ABC, Fresh Off the Boat's wonderful, quotable Jessica Huang will hopefully continue lighting up our TVs every week for some time to come—which sounds like something Wu would cherish. “It’s fun to play a character that gives zero fucks,” she told The Cut. It's fun to watch, too.