The Lenny Interview: Constance Wu

The Asian-American actress talks about breaking down stereotypes, and also bunnies!

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In 1994, I was 11 and TV was a direct portal to all my dreams, supplying endless high-jinks-filled plots to all the romances and friendships and family dramas that hadn't happened to me yet but surely one day would. Like a lot of kids my age, I took my cues from television, modeled myself and my dreams after the fictional characters and worlds I tuned in to every night. In those worlds, people like me mostly did not exist except as occasional punch lines —comedic relief, usually in the form of broken English.

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In rare instances, we made cameos where our "Asian" appearance was not the basis for a crude joke. That was the same year All-American Girl aired on ABC, and just seeing Asian Americans on my TV screen playing the lead in their own plotlines made the tiny wings in my soul grow and flap with ardor. Maybe, I thought, this is the beginning. But the show was canceled after one season, and the tiny opening made by Margaret Cho and the rest of cast closed up again for more than 20 years.

When I found out that ABC was developing a sitcom inspired by and named after Eddie Huang's memoir Fresh Off the Boat — it would be the first network sitcom to prominently feature an Asian American cast since All-American Girl —I felt euphoric, but also tentatively wary. Would people love the show because we had been dying of thirst for the last two decades and that first taste of water, no matter what, was guaranteed to be so, so sweet? Or, after two decades of invisibility and marginalization, would we expect too much and place the burden of representation too heavily on the shoulders of a single sitcom? Or could we watch this show as if it were any other show, no qualifiers or decades-long pressures at stake?

The first season was a total hit, and it was renewed for a second. It did the tricky thing of showing us how this Taiwanese American immigrant family saw America from their perspective: as a land of persistent underachievers, delusional wannabe pop stars, nutrition-less diets, and weird customs. And after decades of stereotypes — dragon ladies, submissive china dolls, overbearing tiger moms — it was a relief to see Constance Wu shine in her role as the confident, authoritative, and endlessly capable matriarch of the Huang family. She imbues her character, Jessica Huang, with humanity and hilarity, often creating humor out of situations where she's exposing the mediocrity and daftness of the white people around her. Like many fans of the show, I loved her and was giddy to finally have a female Asian American character whose badassery was both inspirational and aspirational. I spent a Sunday afternoon talking to the 33-year-old actress about the filming of the second season, which premiered on September 22; the burden of authenticity; being a bad bitch; and the importance of not lowering your voice.

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Jenny Zhang: How's the filming of the second season so far?

Constance Wu: It's going well. I feel more comfortable this go-around. Last year, I hadn't really done network television before and was relatively inexperienced with comedy. On top of all that, there was a lot of talk that it was the first Asian American show in 20 years. I was anxious and nervous and therefore quiet on set. That's what I do when I get anxious, I just get quiet. This year, I feel a little more familiar. My voice doesn't shake as much when I ask for something that matters to me. Whereas last year, I wasn't always sure if I was allowed to. I thought, Who am I? Just some actress who's never done anything before.

JZ: Now that you've been playing your character, Jessica Huang, for a full season, do you feel more entitled to say "I don't know if this is right for her?" Or "Maybe she should be doing this?"

CW: Now that I have one season under my belt, I'm less nervous about giving my input on small details. I'll be like, "We're showing generic Asian food in this scene — if you change the food to a 1,000-year-old black egg with tofu and scallions, it will be a little more specific," and specificity is just better for character, and it's more interesting than, say, tofu and rice. Those kind of little tweaks I will say.

It's nice to know there are people who have enjoyed the show even though I know there are some people who definitely did not. It's nice to know you've resonated with some people, but you can't win them all. It would be like trying to get out of a hole by digging yourself deeper.

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JZ: You can't win them all, and when you debut after 21 years of neglecting to include Asian American characters as protagonists of their own stories, the level of expectation is so high that I don't know how any show could ever live up to what people want.

CW: That's the thing — we won't live up to what everyone wants, because everyone is different. If we try to make our story unique and special and individual to one family, it will ring truer than if we had tried to satisfy the largest quantity of people. With the "21-year drought," I understand people having anxieties. It's like, when you write your very first screenplay at 21, you probably won't be as good of a screenwriter at 21 as you would be at 31, but you had to put it out when you were 21 to get to the place you will be when you're 31. So hopefully that can happen. We put it out, it gets enough money/attention/acclaim that other investors will start investing in other Asian stories, and with each new iteration of stories, there is a new nugget of truth that appeals to a new group of people who feel recognized, and maybe those who don't will see themselves in the next iteration after that. It's about getting the ball rolling, and the best way I can do that is to be really fucking good and specific now.

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JZ: Do you feel like that pressure is off now that you had this first season? Is it even more intense? Or are you just kind of like, Fuck it, I'm not even going to think about it.

CW: I was sort of like, Fuck it, I'm not going to think about it, more so than on the first season, not because it doesn't matter, but because you serve the community best when you are serving the work. If I had let the anxiety of representation dictate my portrayal of Jessica, then her character would have become a watered-down, people-pleasing version of generic coolness instead of a real person. I tried to focus on just the character and the story and making sure every character choice I made had a lot of fucking roots. The pressure is off in a financial sense, so that's quite freeing.

Want farsighted currency in the creative world? Have the courage to be uncool, warts and all. Those are the stories that stick with us.

But the remaining pressure is simply my own standards of the quality of my work. I care a great deal about that. I'm sure there are things I haven't touched upon that the gracious people of the Internet point out. But I do listen to them and I try to see if they come from a place of bitterness, or if they come from a place of genuine observation, and if they do, then I swallow a bit of pride and I do think about it. It makes your work better, biting from that humble pie. And it's not too bitter of a pill to swallow if your goal isn't approval based. The goal is to serve the human character I'm portraying. Not to make her perfect or cool, but to make her REAL. It's like that great Lester Bangs quote from Almost Famous: "The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you're uncool." Want farsighted currency in the creative world? Have the courage to be uncool, warts and all. Those are the stories that stick with us.

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JZ: And you are so good! The whole cast is so great and charming. Have you seen that Rihanna video "Bitch Better Have My Money," by the way?

CW: No, I haven't. Am I like Rihanna?

JW: Yeah, it's an amazing video. The title explains it all. Rihanna is trying to get her money from this corrupt white guy. She exacts this really intense revenge fantasy. She does it with a lot of charm and charisma even though she's basically going on a murder spree to get her money back. She's a bad bitch. She's always ten steps ahead. She's smart, she's capable, she's sexy, and to me, Jessica is a total bad bitch. She's better than a lot of the mediocre white people she's around and she knows it, but she's also an immigrant with an accent, so she has to prove to people that she really is that good. That's what I love about what you do with that character. Her vulnerability stems from her circumstances — no matter how smart, talented, and witty she is, she's also still an immigrant, struggling to make it in this country, trying to raise three kids. How do you find that balance between her power and her vulnerability?

CW: I'm glad you mentioned that. For me, the work I do for every episode is to find the little nugget of vulnerability and heart in her character. I sit down with my acting coach, I'm like, "OK, we know what this scene is. We know this is a scene where she is screaming, where she's haggling, where she has really high standards." Then we try to dig deeper. "This comes from a place of wanting to get the best deal so no one takes advantage of her … What happened in her life that made her feel taken advantage of? Or not heard? How did that feel to her? How does she now deal with it?" We create character histories. I know they don't always show. That's OK. I don't do it for the recognition.

Take, for example, the stereotype that Chinese kids are good at math. Does that mean if I'm a Chinese student that I should purposely fail all of my math tests because I want to fight against that stereotype? Of course not. You want to be yourself. And that applies to characters on TV shows too. Defying stereotype for the sake of bucking against stereotype and not for the sake of the story … well, that is just another form of cowering to the haters. We didn't get into this to please the haters. We got into this to tell our stories because they matter and because honestly, these fucking haters probably made us feel shame for these same stories when we were younger, but now we are older and have a firmer stance on this earth and in our own voices. Those very same fucking people who made fun of our parents' accents contributed to us feeling embarrassed by our parents when really, we shouldn't have been embarrassed because our parents know two languages. That's actually a cool thing! They know a language that is both phonetic, like English is, and one that is ideographic, like Chinese is, and tonal. Do you know how hard that is? But when we were kids in a majority-non-Asian schoolyard — which is a uniquely Asian American experience, not a mainland-Chinese experience — we were shamed about that.

JZ: My mom wanted me to tell you that you are her favorite character on the show, and she wanted to know what you think about Jessica's style of parenting. I don't want to use the phrase "tiger mom" because it's such a reductive phrase and doesn't capture who she is, but as a mom, she has super-high expectations for her children. She's very involved. Is that something you relate to? Do you find value in it?

CW: Disclaimer: I haven't read that tiger-mom book, so I don't have a lot of legitimacy to speak on what the phrase means. But in terms of a difficult, pressured upbringing, I don't think I had one so much. As far as whether I think it's good or bad for children, gosh, I don't know. I've never been a parent, but I imagine that parenting is very difficult, and I imagine that having a young child and worrying about their safety and security when you are gone is a legitimate fear. So those high expectations are born out of that fear of "Can they fend for themselves when I'm not there anymore? I can control that fear by ensuring they earn good employment through education and hard work." But I also know that trying to control an outcome leaves little room for, well, magic. There will always be hardships you can't prepare for, even with the most carefully laid plans. So when you take away the magic to avoid hardship? It doesn't work. I do think that can be harmful. But then again, I'm sure there are tiger-parented kids who become adults with happy, full lives … so who knows? I have a bunny, and that's the closest I have to a child.

JZ: I've seen a lot of really cute pictures of your bunny on Instagram. Have you always been a bunny person?

CW: Yeah, I've always been a bunny person. Here's a perfect example: I've loved bunnies since I was little, but I never got one because I was scared of the pain that would happen when the bunny died. It sounds so silly, but it was rather symbolic of me to throw myself into having a bunny with abandon even though you know the inevitable is going to happen. My friends were like, "You have bunny paintings on your wall, you have bunny earrings o why don't you actually have a bunny?" I was like, "I don't know. Don't talk to me about it!" And then I did it, and I'm so very glad.

Jenny Zhang is the author of Dear Jenny, We Are All Find, Hags, and The Selected Jenny Zhang. She writes for teen girls at Rookie magazine and occasionally tweets @jennybagel.

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