Crazy Rich Asians looks to be a significant film for the Asian community. I knew that before even seeing it, but I came to understand just how meaningful it actually is once I interviewed actor Jimmy O. Yang, actress Gemma Chan, and author Kevin Kwan. In speaking with them, I realized that it wasn’t just big in that it represents the first major Asian film to come out of Hollywood in twenty-five years. During the discussion, I learned how much it means to them to be able to be a part of a movie that shows them as relatable people while also giving them a chance to create a voice for their culture as well as showcase parts of their community that are rarely seen in pop culture.
How involved were you in the actual film?
Kevin Kwan: I was involved from the very beginning. I chose the screenwriter, I worked with him, I helped to layout the outline of the story.
Oh, so how difficult was it seeing parts of your book being cut out? Did you play a part in that?
Kwan: I knew that he needed to make the hard choices. I didn’t know which babies I wanted to sacrifice. It was very clear for me at the start that we needed someone to make those hard decisions and adapt a book that’s over five hundred pages into a movie that’s an hour and forty-five minutes. You’re going to lose storylines, you’re going to lose characters. Hopefully, we can do many more movies. I’m thrilled with how it was adapted.
Was there anything from the book that you wanted to keep in but couldn’t?
Kwan: Wow! So much. (laughs) There are so many characters and storylines are dear to me that didn’t make it in.
Gemma Chan: Astrid and Charlie.
Kwan: Yeah. Beginning with Astrid and Charlie. That’s a huge storyline. Her entire emotional arc was cut down severely although we did restore quite a bit of it as we went along, but there just wasn’t enough time. Only an hour and forty-five minutes.
Chan: Next movie.
Kwan: Next movie.
Chan: I’m waiting for the spin-off.
Was there anything that was filmed but not included that you wanted to see in the final cut?
Yang: The bachelor party. That’s actually way more ridiculous and improvised quite a bit. I was happy with how it turned out.
Kwan: The bondage scene.
Yang: Yeah. Kevin made a cameo.
What were you most excited to see brought to life visually?
Kwan: I think it was really cool how John M. Chu (the director) supersized things. I had a vision of an amazing, obnoxious bachelor party. In my book it takes place on a super yacht and he wanted to make in cinematic to a degree where people’s jaws would drop, so he did it on a super tanker. The wedding, for example, is only fifty million dollars in the book. I think he succeeded there as well. Not only is it a spectacle, but it’s so emotionally engaging. To me, those were the surprising moments.
What was your overall experience like with this project?
Jimmy O. Yang: I think seeing this script with a full Asian cast, it’s a surprise. I couldn’t believe it was getting made and really I wanted to be a part of it. Then I started realizing how great this project was. Just reading the script. It was a really good, funny script. And getting to audition. I auditioned for Colin first, then they offered me the Bernard role, which I was more than happy to play. Then I started listening to the audio books and hanging out with everyone. When we landed in Singapore and got into the hotel lobby we were like “Oh my God! You like Asian food too? You like karaoke?” It was like such a special bond that all of us had and still have and we’re still really good friends.
Kwan: Which I’m told never happens.
Chan: It’s rare
Kwan: You see them and then you never see them again.
Yang: Yeah, all the time. I might have one friend from each movie I’ve made that I kind of talk to. This was different because whenever any of these guys come in town it’s like “let’s hang!” We are each other’s priority because really for me, culturally, it’s very important but in a personal sense it’s like I found my Cree in my peers, which has been very hard for me as a comic and as an actor. So, hopefully the audience will feel the same way and they feeling like our faces and voices are being represented.
What excited you about the script?
Gemma Chan: What really excited me when I read the script, and the books, was that although this story was a specific story about these characters who happen to be Asian, the themes of it are very universal: love, friendship, family, relationships, the conflict between old and new, and different generations. I could feel that all of that could resonate and appeal to people regardless of their race or background. For so long, the universal experience has been assumed to be white, and I hope this shows it doesn’t have to be. Anyone who watches this film can identify and feel what the characters feel.
Yang: Yeah, it’s an Asian story but at the same time it’s a very authentic story. I think that’s why it’s so good. Kevin (the author) actually knows these people and had the experiences, so I think it encourages more authentic story writing. It’s not necessarily pushing “Asian, Asian, Asian, Asian!” or whatever. It’s just that we should encourage authentic storytelling to everyone which includes Asians and other minorities.
Did you meet any resistance in getting this turned into a film?
Kwan: We really didn’t encounter too much of that. After the initial wave, there was one producer that infamously suggested that we change the lead to a white “Reese Johannson” or something. (laughs) I didn’t even entertain that, but every other producer that came was really truly interested in the idea of this film because of the story, which is one that transcends race. It’s called Crazy Rich Asians but it’s not just because they’re Asian. It’s a universal story, and they saw potential with this in the worldwide market.
Yang: I think people should look at this like Game of Thrones or something since this author has so much material, it takes you to a different world. When we watched the first clip at the wrap party, I was like “Oh, my God!” The color, the people, the sets.
Kwan: The music!
Yang: The music! It felt like this wasn’t just a bunch of Asian people, this is like taking you into Narnia or Middle Earth or Westworld. It’s a whole new world that was set up so that everybody can enjoy. It just so happens that in this world, everybody is Asian.
Do you think people will find the message in this when it comes to the racism and classicism within the Asian community?
Kwan: I hope so. We don’t bury it. We make it quite blatant.
Yang: I think it’s interesting to see it and to learn that, but it doesn’t have to be Asian. The best thing is that even when doing stand-up, they’re like “Oh my God, that’s so true!” So hopefully, when they see the mother-in-law (played by Michelle Yeoh) doing certain things to Rachel (played by Constance Wu), that they can relate, react the same way, and get emotionally connected.
How was it shooting in Singapore and Malaysia?
Chan: It was hot!
Yang: It was like a hundred and fifteen degrees. The bachelor scene was at an empty parking lot in the middle of nowhere in Malaysia. They built all these cargoes and there’s a functioning helipad. I got sunburn from my gold chain. I had like a bikini line from my gold chain, but we couldn’t have shot that anywhere else. It was actually brilliant.
Kwan: You needed to feel the heat.
Yang: You needed to feel the whole experience, right? And eat the local food. It was a whole immersive experience. You could not have done this in a sound stage. Really throwing us out there and having us explore Malaysia and Singapore on our off time helped with that. And it was great to have local celebrities and actors there to take us around to the local spots to really show us how they live. We actually ran into some real crazy rich Asians. They seem normal to us.
Kwan: There were a lot of set visits. Malaysian princes coming to see what’s happening. Billionaire kids from Singapore coming around. It became like the hot thing to do. My mom was actually in Singapore most of that summer. She was trying to get onto the set. She was asking me and I was like “No!” (laughs) So, it became quite the thing.
You want to change the perception of Asian accents. Did this movie help with portraying Asians and your accents on your own terms?
Yang: I did somewhat of an accent on my own terms. I chose to do kind of like a touch of a Hong Kong accent. He went to an international school and everything. I had a conversation with John and was able to do that. It was great.
Kwan: He did grow up partly in Hong Kong too.
Yang: Exactly. And he’s kind of street. He never took to school and learned that proper international English that everybody likes. The most frustrating part is that if some American actor like Brad Pitt does a British accent really well then people be like that’s “art,” he should win an Oscar and we couldn’t even tell he was an American. When an Asian actor does an authentic Mandarin accent or Cantonese accent people are like he’s “misrepresentation” or whatever. Are you serious? How come we’re not judged on our skills and our acting abilities? Instead we are judged a lot of the times on how good of a representation we are, which is frustrating. I understand where that’s coming from, because there aren’t a lot of us so each of us carry a lot of weight. But that’s what’s great about this movie. There’s a spectrum of us. Ronnie Chen, who inherently has an accent, a Malay accent, all the Singaporean actors had a Singaporean accent, Gemma has a British accent, all these accents just coming together allows us to serve the story instead of serving ourselves as Asian actors. With this movie, the liberating part is that people will be able to judge our performances and judge the film cinematically instead of trying to only see it as “Are they good Asians or bad Asians?” How about “Are we good filmmakers or bad filmmakers?” “Are we good actors or bad actors?”
How do you want Asians around the world will react to this?
Yang: I hope that when Asians see this movie they will be like “Oh, finally our voice is being represented and our faces are being represented. Hopefully this is one of many more movies to come that feature Asian casts, I hope we will open some doors.