Crazy Rich Asians: The personal stakes for director Jon M. Chu and the cast

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“Crazy Rich Asians” director Jon M. Chu tells Press Play that his movie cannot represent every Asian person in the world. “It cannot be the only thing we have. It has to only crack it. So it’s good business. And then better stories, better scripts, better actors… Because by having more roles, everything diversifies, and you get more experience. That’s what we want.”

The movie is based based on Kevin Kwan’s bestselling novel by the same name. The story follows an American-born Chinese woman named Rachel Chu as she goes to Singapore with her boyfriend Nick Young. They’re there for his best friend’s wedding, and so that he can introduce her to his family. But he never told her his family is insanely rich. When she arrives, she clashes with his traditional mom Eleanor — and all the other local women who want to take her down.

Constance Wu as Rachel Chu and Henry Golding as Nick Young in “Crazy Rich Asians.” Photo by Sanja Bucko. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

“At the end of the day, it is about an Asian-American going to Asia for the first time,” says Chu, who’s the youngest of five kids, and whose parents came to the U.S. from China and Taiwan.

“It’s something that I personally have experienced: that feeling of coming home to a place that you didn’t expect and don’t know is your home; and realizing that they treat you like their son at that store… and then they call you something like gweilo , which means “white devil.” And you’re like ‘Oh, I don’t belong here.’ And then you go home, and you feel like you have to choose between these two things.”

Interview Highlights

How Jon M. Chu’s upbringing influenced his career

Chu: “My parents, they came without speaking a word of English to America. So they were enveloped in that, and knew how it felt to be the outsider. So they made sure that we did other things. We never let us work at the restaurant. They put us in dance classes, in sports camps, in  animation classes. Drums, saxophone, violin, guitar, piano — I played all these things. And so I never had to really deal with it. I just sort of focused on the work.

… But at a certain point, as I got older as a filmmaker, all this uproar online about white-washed out, and lack of diversity and representation, I agreed with that. And I looked at — yeah, what’s wrong with Hollywood? And then I saw myself. And I was like, I’m part of that problem. If I am not even doing it, then who else understands this culture, this dilemma the way that I do? And so, I took it upon myself. It was a sort of change in my brain to focus on something that would be very personal, and deal with culture.

Jon M. Chu at KCRW. Photo by Amy Ta. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Being in Kwan’s novel made Jon M. Chu realize he’s meant to direct this film

Chu: “When I got the movie is when Kevin and I met. And he didn’t even reveal it then. But he’s friends with my cousin Vivian Chu. And she would tell him stories of the Chu’s of Cupertino, where we were from… We were a big crazy family. And so he wrote a lot of the stuff from her story. One of the cousins is a director in Hollywood. And I remember reading that line, being like, that’s weird. That’s so like me. But I read a lot of things that you sort of think is you. But to find out that actually is — is a very strange, strange moment. And that’s actually when I knew I’m meant to do this movie. Win or lose, I’m supposed to do this movie. And it actually gave me a lot of confidence that I could just lay it out there.”

On Michelle Yeoh playing Eleanor Young, a traditional mother who prioritizes her family, and is critical of Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) for pursuing her own passions.  

Chu: “The American way and what I grew up in was: follow your dreams… And at the same time, my parents also taught me: family first, sacrifice your own happiness for the group. So there are these two conflicting ideas that both had legitimate roots. How does a kid manage those two things?

And even Michelle… when I first called her for this… she said to me, ‘If you want me to play a villain in this movie, then I’m not going to do it. I have to defend my culture in the way that I know it. And otherwise I won’t be able to go home.’ She said, ‘You defend the American side the way you know you would talk to your mom about it, and let’s see what happens.’ And it was such a beautiful recipe.

… And Constance in that scene where they face off, Michelle first said, ‘Oh just so you know, in the script, I wouldn’t ever let her say that to me. I would squash her’… And then for Constance, she was like, ‘Oh I would not let her talk to me like that. I would say this.’ So in a weird way, we had two different scripts going on at the same time for that final confrontation. And when we shot it, we just let them go. And when you see the fierceness in their eyes, and both standing their ground, that is the power of our whole movie.”

Nico Santos as Oliver and Michelle Yeoh as Eleanor. Photo by Sanja Bucko. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

How Constance Wu fought for the role of Rachel Chu

Chu: “We were wooing her, and we found out that our dates didn’t match up. She was on her amazingly successful show [Fresh Off The Boat]. So we moved on. And then I got an impassioned email from her one day. She was on an airplane, and she said she didn’t want to let an opportunity go by unless she said this out loud — that how important to her, making a movie, her first studio movie, about a strong Asian female, for all females, all Asians all around, how important that was to her. And she said, ‘Please wait for me, I’m meant to do this part.’ And it took a very short amount of time for me to talk to the producers and the studio, where they were like, ‘Let’s hold everything. She is the center rock for this movie.’”

Constance Wu as Rachel Chu in “Crazy Rich Asians.” Photo by Sanja Bucko. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Turning down a huge offer from Netflix to release the film in theaters

Chu: “I love Netflix. The only thing for this project in particular, at this era — to put something up on the screen, which takes marketing dollars, bigger budget, and you have to convince people to leave their home, fight traffic, stand in a line …spend money, and say tell me a story, and sit there for two hours — that sends a signal to everyone when big corporations say it is worth your time. This Asian love story is worth your time and energy. It is in the action of a studio that is paying tens of millions of dollars to market this.

…I want 10 years from now to this not be a thing. So we look back, and we’re like, ‘Oh Crazy Rich Asians was the first? That was a thing back then?’ And I hope that people don’t remember that, actually.”