Constance Wu has had one surreal year. As Jessica Huang on the hit ABC comedy Fresh Off the Boat, Wu not only jumped from a relative Hollywood unknown to a Critics’ Choice nominee for Best Actress in a Comedy Series, she took a character — who could well have been, at best, annoying and, at worst, a hideous cliché — and made her possibly the funniest, most quotable, gif-worthy part of the show. We talk to Wu about how she’s like Jessica (and how she’s not), the most difficult scene to shoot and why she’ll always speak her truth, for better or worse.
Story by Ada Tseng
Photos by Jack Blizzard
Constance Wu says she can tell if someone is lying to her. “I study behavior,” says the 33-year-old actress who shot to fame earlier this year for her role as the strong-willed Taiwanese immigrant mother Jessica Huang on ABC’s family sitcom Fresh Off the Boat.
“I don’t just listen to the person’s words,” she explains. “I watch how they act, and I have a pretty good gut feeling for when people are being authentic or if they’re trying to push forward an agenda or image. And when it doesn’t come from a sincere place of honest, humble goodness, I can tell, and it turns me off.”
She’s talking about Adnan Syed, whose 1999 murder conviction was recently re-investigated in the podcast Serial. When Fresh Off the Boat, loosely based on celebrity restaurateur Eddie Huang’s memoir of the same name, was shooting its first season back in late 2014 (this was before they knew they’d inspire a fanbase passionate enough to ensure them a second season, which premieres September 22), members of the cast and crew were captivated by the other Asian American story that had taken the country by storm. Serial was a podcast that singlehandedly brought the audio storytelling medium into the mainstream, as listeners debated and obsessed over whether they thought the likeable Syed was serving a life sentence for a murder he did not commit. But Wu wasn’t buying his good-guy persona.
“Oh, he’s guilty,” she says, without a doubt in her mind. “I know he’s probably fooling a lot of people, but he’s not fooling me.”
“She’s extremely assured in her beliefs,” says Randall Park, who plays Jessica’s optimistic and good-natured husband Louis on Fresh Off the Boat. Park, who followed the podcast just as closely, is less inclined to assume Syed’s guilt, but he admires his co-star’s conviction. “There’s something really comforting about people who are so confident and so sure, and Constance is very confident in a lot of ways.”
It’s a trait she shares with her on-screen persona, who, despite initially not fitting in with her new clique-ish Caucasian neighbors in Orlando, Florida, knows who she is and is unapologetic about it. Wu remembers meeting the real Jessica Huang for the first time before they started shooting the show: “She yelled in my ear at dinner, ‘My sons tell me I need to be quieter because I’m too loud. You know what I told them? I told them they need to get used to it.’” Wu laughs. “I was like, ‘High five to that.’”
Showrunner Nahnatchka Khan remembers when Wu first came in to audition. Khan and the other producers, Melvin Mar and Jake Kasdan, immediately thought Wu was too young to play the mother of three preteen boys. “But when she got into character, she transformed herself,” says Khan. “She was so funny, and she really elevated the mom character and made it her own.”
Park thinks Wu shares a lot of similarities with her character. “She’s a really tough, strong person, and she’s very opinionated, which is very Jessica,” he says. “But also like Jessica, deep down, she’s very warm, and she holds the people she loves really dear.”
Wu has a knack for making Jessica Huang an over-the-top, disciplinarian mother whom you actually cheer for. Despite the character’s stern exterior, Wu always invokes humor and vulnerability, whether Jessica’s micromanaging the employees at Louis’ restaurant, taking the children’s afterschool education into her own hands, chasing down hooligans who have disrespected her husband and hitting them with her car (or as Jessica says, “You hit my car with your bodies”), or pummeling her son Eddie with a stuffed bunny as a lesson against date rape. In short, Wu’s Jessica has the power to deflate Eddie’s straight-A-earning pimp walk with a single disapproving stare, and yet surprise everyone weeks later with a gif-worthy pimp walk of her own.
“In a lesser actress’ hands, the character could be very unlikeable,” says Khan. “But there’s an honesty in her performance, so you always know where Jessica is coming from, even if you don’t agree with her. Constance can also switch gears within a scene and go from being very loving and supportive to angry and sad and make it seem so effortless. So once we realized she had all these levels she could play, we started writing towards that.”
Wu didn’t always have such control over her emotions. “As a kid, I was so emotional, to the point where it was crippling,” she remembers. “When I was around 4, my family used to reward me if I went through one day without crying, because it was a huge accomplishment. I didn’t like that about myself, because it was embarrassing.”
Even now, she sees her sensitivity as a mixed blessing in terms of her work as an actor. She remembers actually breaking down in tears while filming an episode where Jessica is remembering how she never got the Sparkle Time Beauty Horse toy she wanted as a kid, despite how hard she had worked.
“I wasn’t trying to be funny,” she says. She remembers while filming the scene, she kept pressing her knees together, looking down and rubbing her hands really slowly, which is what she does in real life when she’s trying not to cry. “It was just upsetting me so much, and I was like, ‘I can’t cry! This is a comedy!’” She laughs. “Jessica’s not Constance; she’s not going to get super weepy at the steakhouse.”
Wu grew up in Richmond, Virginia, which she describes as a genteel type of Southern city. “Historically, it was the capital of the confederacy, and it has a long tradition of debutante balls,” she says. “But even though they’re conservative, they speak from a point of education, which is really valued. And there was the Southern hospitality and manners. People there were very welcoming and polite.”
A second-generation Taiwanese American, Wu is the third of four daughters. Her father is a biology professor, though she emphasizes that he went into the sciences for passion, not for profit. (“He’s so obsessed with science that he breeds his own orchids and clones them for fun,” she says.) Her mother was a computer programmer, and her sisters are all accomplished. (“They’re all very smart,” she says. “My oldest sister has a J.D., my second oldest sister has a Ph.D. in policy analysis, and my younger sister is getting a Ph.D. in comparative literature.”) It’s no wonder that Wu, who studied at The Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute and graduated from State University of New York Purchase College’s Conservatory of Theatre Arts with a degree in acting, is extremely well-read. References to Franny and Zooey and Hamlet roll off her tongue. She once directed a magical realism short film with puppets called “My Mother Is Not a Fish,” the title being a play on one of the chapters in William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. She even spent a summer in a Buddhist monastery in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, because her college self wanted to “go to the woods and live deliberately” like Henry David Thoreau.
When Wu first read the pilot script of Fresh Off the Boat, she actually related to Eddie’s 12-year-old character (played by Hudson Yang), because she remembers trying on different personalities when she was younger to see what fit best: She wanted to be an opera singer. She was a cheerleader for a year. She even went through an emo phase (still in it, she jokes). But once she started performing in plays, she gradually came to believe that acting was her calling, even though she hates it when people overly romanticize the life of a Hollywood actor. “It can be such an ego-driven industry, but in our work, you can’t be afraid to not be the hero and not be a saint,” she says. “It’s the dirty, ugly stuff that gets me going. Being glamorous or pretty or sweet or cool is not even on the table. I don’t even participate in it. It weirds me out, almost.”
In that sense, it must have been a surreal several months since Fresh Off the Boat debuted in February to both critical and ratings success, when Wu quickly went from being a relative unknown (the Logo TV web series Eastsiders may have been her most high-profile credit prior) to a nominee for both the Critics’ Choice Award for Best Actress in a Comedy Series and the Television Critics Association Award for Individual Achievement in Comedy. Now she’s not only having to navigate being recognized by fans but walking red carpets and posing for glamorous photo shoots (the shoot for this story included).
Wu only recently hired a publicist, who is encouraging her to step out of her fashion comfort zone in edgier looks. This past April, pre-publicist, she had gone by herself on a press tour to promote the show’s airing in Taiwan, and she remembers getting off the plane wearing pajamas and glasses, not realizing her hosts would show up wearing suits in 90-degree weather and handing her flowers. She was mortified.
Her fish-out-of-water experience continued, as she remembers feeling a little bit like Bill Murray in Lost in Translation as she did interviews in her American-accented Mandarin and navigated the slightly spastic world of Taiwanese talk shows. (“They do these sound effects live as they’re taping. It’s not done in post-production. There’s a DJ putting in laugh tracks and fart noises as you’re doing the show.”) She remembers a cheesy promo she was asked to shoot where she had to dust a house, look at the camera and say, “Do you know how to be a good mom?” One memorable moment of the tour involved her learning how to make Taiwan’s prized Din Tai Fung soup dumplings, which she realized was a big deal because there were photographs of Tom Cruise doing the same thing in 2013. (“It looked like I was holding two testicles,” she jokes, of having to hold up one soup dumpling in each hand for the cameras. “They were like, ‘Smile!’”)
Though it wasn’t necessarily her style, she went along with it. She figured she was already there, and Wu isn’t one to worry too much about her public image. “There’s this saying that you can’t cheat an honest man,” she says of her philosophy that extends to her sometimes controversial opinions. “But I stand by what I say, and if you conduct yourself to a standard of dignity that you stand behind at all times, then you can’t really slip up.”
This ability to distance herself from press hoopla and Internet chatter was helpful when Fresh Off the Boat, as the first network television show about an Asian American family in over 20 years, struck a nerve within the Asian American community, many of whom had plenty to say — good and bad — about the show almost a year before it premiered, even when all they had seen of it was a three-minute trailer of the pilot.
She found some of the early criticism constructive, but most of it irrelevant: “When I was younger, I was more insecure, but now I can say, ‘Yeah, you know what? You’re right. I could’ve done better. Next time, I’ll do better.’ But other times, I’ll read something and think, ‘This poor person. They’re just bitter and bitchy.’ And you feel sorry for them.
“I honestly think that all of that is deeply rooted in our experiences of shame,” she says, of Fresh Off the Boat’s critics. “Their fear that we were going to be exploiting the very things that other people have made us feel ashamed of and giving them a free pass to hit on these old wounds. I was the yelling [immigrant] mother, and the gut response was that I was going to be a stereotype — even though there are yelling mothers in Italy, Greece, Colombia, everywhere.”
But Wu believes in confronting these false assumptions head-on. “I was talking to a guy friend the other day, and he said when he was a kid, these bullies would make fun of him and call him gay,” she remembers. “And I was like, ‘So? Why is being gay an insult?’ It’s like if someone accuses me of being tall. It’s not true, but I’m not insulted by it. And he was like, ‘It’s different in the South. You don’t know.’ And maybe it is, but the way that we stop that is by not letting it be something that’s insulting.
“In the same way, there are going to be some people who are mad that the character has an accent because, from a Hollywood metric, a Chinese accent is something to be used as humorous fodder,” she continues. “But why are we using their metric? I don’t even dignify that metric with a response. I didn’t exploit the accent. I based my accent purely on character work and the truth of a real person.”
She says sometimes interviewers will ask her to do the accent, but she refuses. “I don’t care if it makes me seem like an asshole,” she says. “It’s not a party trick. I’m not going to do it just to make you giggle. If they want to laugh [at the accent], that’s their business, but I’m not responsible for catering my performance to other people’s idiocy. That’s like kowtowing to the Hollywood metric again, being too PC at the risk of your own authenticity. And if you have to sell out the very colors of yourself to be accepted, then I don’t want to be accepted.”
Before Fresh Off the Boat, Wu admits she didn’t put a lot of thought into the politics of Asian America in the media. She had prided herself in making her own living and not depending on her parents financially after college, so she didn’t have the luxury of being picky about her roles. But nowadays, contributing to the goal of achieving greater representation and more nuanced roles for Asian Americans is a responsibility and opportunity she takes very seriously.
“I’m really interested in supporting talented Asian filmmakers,” she says, though she’s not shy about stating that there are some projects that speak to her and others that don’t. (“I have a very strong sense of what I think is quality, courageous work,” she says.) She recently reached out to a couple filmmakers whose projects were selected for the 2015 Sundance Directors and Screenwriters Labs, including Christopher Makoto Yogi for his feature I Was a Simple Man, and Yung Chang, the critically acclaimed documentary filmmaker (Up the Yangtze) who is working on his first narrative feature, Eggplant. She is also excited about a feature script by writer-director Jennifer Cho Suhr called You and Me Both, which was the recipient of 2015’s Tribeca All Access Grant.
“I’d rather do that kind of movie for free than do a supporting, thankless role in a big budget Hollywood movie,” she says. “So these are the choices I’m trying to make now. That doesn’t mean that I’m only going to do Asian American films, but I’m trying not to take supporting roles. Because I think we should tell Hollywood, ‘No, we’re not just going to be your checklist so you can pat yourself on the back and say you hired an Asian in the second supporting role. I’m going to make you hire me in a leading role. Because we can carry a story, even though you think we can’t. And the only way we’re going to prove that is by not legitimizing their preconceptions.
“Once you’re not trying to cater to this white Hollywood idea of cool, you accept your own level of cool,” she continues. “It’s why Empire is such a success. They’re embracing their own legacy.”
And then comes that glimmer in her eye that seems so Jessica Huang. “Asians have our own level of cool,” says Wu. “We’re good at everything.”
Cue the pimp walk.
Styling by Sarah Kinsumba
Hair by Derek Yuen, Starworks Group
Makeup by Tamah, The Wall Group
Manicure by Kait Mosh
This story was originally published in our Fall 2015 issue. Get your copy here.