Vulture Festival: Constance Wu On Feminism & Asian-American Representation On-Screen

~Fresh off~ the success of Crazy Rich Asians, Constance Wu has become one of the hottest names in the industry. Many viewers may also know her as Jessica, the fiercely independent and strong mother in the popular sitcom series, Fresh Off the Boat. Wu has risen in her influence as an Asian-American actress, where diversity and representation are still lacking on-screen. While the actress has received much support and respect for her roles that embody strong female characters, she has also had to face much criticism online. On November 17th, Her Campus at UCLA had the opportunity to hear Wu share some of her experiences at Vulture Festival Los Angeles. Dealing with online trolls, overcoming financial struggles and remaining confident in her own identity, Wu was open about the numerous struggles she has encountered, and her honesty made the atmosphere feel intimate for the audience. 

When asked about roles that are more 3-dimensional and whether that can only happen if the creators are Asian-American themselves, Wu responded, “Who sets the standards? Everyone wants to be the hero of his or her own story.” She added, “You are influenced by the way your environment treats you.” In Fresh Off the Boat, her character speaks with a thick accent, and Wu recalls that when she was younger, she did not want people to associate Asians with accents. Seeing Asians on screen, she wanted the accents to “go away” and for Asians to “be cool.” She explained, “When Fresh Off the Boat got so much attention, it made me realize that the Asian-American identity, to say that it has no influence on character, is not true. And I think that it can actually be kind of harmful to how you view that side of yourself. So it really made me want to take on roles where the Asian-American identity was not only part of my character, but also a part that shaped my experience. Something that I would really want to express.” She emphasized that Jessica’s accent is a part of her story, it was not added in to be a funny joke. And looking back, Wu wonders, “Why did I let someone else’s superficial ridicule of my parents’ speech matter more than my real lived experience? That’s how it feels to be a minority. And it takes a lot to create your own skin, and create your own house instead of just playing by someone’s rule book.” 

Due to scheduling conflicts, Wu almost did not take on the role of Rachel Chu in Crazy Rich Asians! But she realized that “life is too precious to, if not fight for the things you love and desire, at least express them.” When asked about her proudest scene in the film, she spoke about her mahjong scene with Michelle Yeoh. “In this scene, all of Rachel’s issues with identity come to an end. Rachel ultimately stands up for herself and says, ‘Yes, I am this way that you think I am, and I’m proud of it.’ And I was crying in almost every take *tears up* because that line where I say, ‘I know I’m enough’ is really just hard to say. I think that for women in America, to search your worth and declare it in a way where you’re not apologizing for it, is scary because we’ve been chastised so much and told to be humbled or self-deprecating.” 

On the topic of feminism, Wu referred to punctuation and the difference she feels in using exclamation points versus periods. She explained that sometimes, she feels the need to use exclamation points to sound more animated and to soften the tone. The worry of perception can peer pressure a person to change the way she might speak, but Wu insisted, “It’s not necessary. Just say the words. Why is it threatening for a woman to write ‘Thank you.’ with a period?” She commented that “in a way that’s insulting to the person you’re speaking to, not giving this person your authentic voice.” 

Having to face criticism from online trolls, Wu declared, “I am completely okay with my choices and why I make them, I’m very confident with that. So if someone needs to target me in order to be a part of their longer journey of trying to figure out how they feel about themselves and their place in the world, I think that’s fine. I support people expressing freely how they feel. Of course, hateful things don’t feel good, I don’t love it. But I understand it enough, not to justify it, but to at least understand.” She encouraged the audience to allow others to be heard. “You can hear people without being defensive and still have your own set of values.” She addressed men that have become defensive in the midst of the #MeToo movement: “This isn’t about you and whether or not you’re being blamed. You should not ask me to soften my experience for the sake of your discomfort. Because that’s what you’ve been doing for so long. We’re not trying to make you feel uncomfortable, we’re just trying to explain our experience. You should want to hear these stories because it’s not about you.” 

Towards the end of the conversation, the panel was opened to the audience members and we asked, “What is a piece of advice you would give to college women that are hoping to pursue a career in acting?” Wu responded, “Watch everything. Go to the theater like every weekend, watch movies, watch actors talking about films and go out there and practice. While there are all sorts of talk about acting techniques, I believe that there is one right technique for each person individually, one that you can only discover through exposure and experience.”  

Constance Wu’s quirky and down-to-earth attitude made it impossible not to fall in love with her. We had a wonderful time listening to her speak at Vulture Festival Los Angeles and cannot wait to see what the future has in store for this beautiful and confident woman.