In Crazy Rich Asians, the character Astrid Leong is a beautiful and kind Oxford graduate, model, fashion icon, and humanitarian. When casting for the role, director Jon M. Chu had to find someone who could embody Astrid, the perfect woman who had many layers to her and would have to deal with her perfect world crashing and burning. Chu found that person in British actress Gemma Chan.
Her character actually isn’t a far stretch from reality. The British beauty is a former model with a degree in law from Oxford. She has been praised for her fashion choices and her activism for the Time’s Up movement and Save the Children. When I praised Chan for her similarities to the Crazy Rich Asians character, she blushed, “I don’t know about fashion icon.”
The actress, who stars in AMC’s Humans and this summer’s Crazy Rich Asians, is taking all of the excitement in. It has been 25 years since a major studio has had an all-westernized Asian cast, with the Joy Luck Club.
“I feel so happy and proud,” says Chan. “I’m honored to be part of it. I feel like it’s been a long time coming and maybe a little bit overdue. I am so happy that it’s happening now. I feel like there is a whole generation who grew up never really seeing themselves being represented on the big screen or the small screen. I hope that’s going to change for this next generation coming through. I hope it’s just a start of more diversity and inclusive storytelling.”
After university, Chan was on track to become a top-notch lawyer at one of the most prestigious international law firms in the UK, but turned it down to pursue acting at Drama Centre London. After acting for almost 10 years now, the actress has become a bit of an icon for British Asians and Asian Americans who are looking to shy away from the traditional paths their parents want for them and to pursue their passion. “You don’t ask to be held up as a role model. I don’t consider myself to be some kind of spokesperson with superior knowledge than anyone else. To be honest, I’m still learning all the time. I want to listen and learn and grow more. I also feel on the other hand, if you have a platform, which I have a limited platform, then I want to use [it] for good.”
Chan is also using her fame to shine a light on causes and people that don’t necessarily have a voice of their own. Back in November, Chan participated in a documentary called Britain’s Forgotten Army, about 140,000 Chinese soldiers who fought alongside the UK army during World War I and were erased from history. She mentioned a mural in Paris that initially had the Chinese army in it, dedicated to the war effort. Then the United States got involved and the Americans were painted over the Chinese soldiers.
“That kind of thing is really important to me because it completely affects the perception of who you are and your right to be in a country,” Chan said passionately. “Your sense of self, I feel knowing that the Chinese were part of the war effort in World War I. It was really emotional.”
Another campaign Chan recently participated in highlighted the Time’s Up movement in the film industry. Written by Olivier-winning playwright Jessica Swale, Leading Lady Parts is a 10-minute BBC short featuring well-known actresses auditioning for a serious role, who must also deal with the typical expectations of Hollywood.
During Chan’s “audition,” she was stopped by the casting directors and asked if she could be “more white.” Chan drew this character from her own experiences when she first started out when the “landscape was quite different.” Many times, Chan could not even get an audition because she was considered “too exotic.”
“It’s hurtful when you feel that you don’t even get a chance,” says Chan. “Your talent doesn’t really get a chance to be considered. And to also feel that you’re not considered to be properly British. That comes into it too –– not being so properly British and not being so properly Chinese. So, you fall somewhere in the middle. But I think things are moving. I think things are getting better.”
Chan hopes she can continue to shine a spotlight on the important issues and is more passionate than ever about them. She smiled as she drank her tea, “I think now is the time to speak up for the things you believe in.”