WEST HOLLYWOOD, Calif.
In January 2017, the director Jon M. Chu announced an open casting call for Asian and Asian-American actors for his movie adaptation of Crazy Rich Asians. Recorded in the kitchen of his West Hollywood home (you can see his fridge in the background), the online plea instructed anyone interested in joining his all-Asian cast, from aspiring actors to "cool personalities with hidden talents," to post a two-minute video of themselves on social media. "We are looking for you," he beamed.
The call was an enticing one. The romantic comedy was going to be a major feature film, with a reported budget of $30 million; its inspiration, the bestselling novel by Kevin Kwan, had already sold millions of copies. And then there was the sheer singularity of it all. How often did a Hollywood filmmaker go looking for a whole bunch of Asians for anything? The last time a major Hollywood film set in the present day showcased a majority Asian cast was a whopping 25 years ago, with The Joy Luck Club in 1993. Many of the folks Chu was seeking now were not even alive then.
For Asian and Asian-American viewers, the film, which opened Wednesday, is important not just as something of a cinematic Halley’s comet — before Joy Luck Club, there was The Flower Drum Song in 1961, and then, what? There is also an eager hope that if this movie succeeds, it just might stave off another quarter-century drought. Producers use something called "comps" — recent films similar to the ones they are pitching — to help sell studios on their ideas and budgets. For the producers of Crazy Rich Asians, there were not any. For scores of Asian-themed films to come, the hope goes, Crazy Rich Asians could be that comp.
When Chu made his online pitch, the film seemed a godsend for Asian actors, aspiring or otherwise. Forget a few token parts here and there; in this one film, Asian actors would play everything: the romantic leads and sympathetic sidekicks, the comic foils and cads, the faces in the crowd. With more than 4 billion Asians on the planet, how hard could it be to cast this thing?
Pretty hard, as it turned out. The talent was there. But as roles were considered and cast, the filmmakers contended with questions about identity amid the Asian diaspora. Could an Asian play an Asian-American? Could a Malaysian play a Singaporean? And what about an Asian guy with a white mom or dad — could he even be in the running?
In Hollywood today, some of the most contentious debates continue to center on just who can play whom. In 2016, the lack of Asian male leads in movies was highlighted by the project #StarringJohnCho, which re-imagined The Martian, Avengers: Age of Ultron and other hits as if they starred the gifted Korean-American actor. Last month, Scarlett Johansson dropped out of the coming biopic Rub & Tug after her casting as a transgender man sparked a backlash from trans actors and activists. And Hollywood has gotten increasing flak for whitewashing, the practice of casting white actors in roles envisioned as Asian. Think of Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One in Doctor Strange or Johansson (again) as Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell.
Many of these debates would not be nearly as fraught "if there were enough roles to go around," said Nancy Wang Yuen, the author of Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism. She added: "We shouldn’t be fighting over scraps. We should be fighting for the system to expand, so that all of us can get access to roles."
Indeed, according to a recent study by Yuen and others, 64 percent of television series in the 2015-16 season did not have a single Asian-American regular; another report revealed that of the top 100 films of 2017, nearly two-thirds did not include a single Asian or Asian-American female character.
On a recent morning, Chu was here in his West Hollywood home, recounting the joys and struggles of casting his all-Asian feature. Sporting a white baseball cap and gray T-shirt, he talked about hiring legends (Michelle Yeoh) and relative unknowns (Henry Golding), Asian stars (Singapore’s Fiona Xie) and Asian-Americans on the rise (Awkwafina).
Chu also explained why he had cast such a wide net in the first place, supplementing the usual Los Angeles and New York casting calls with a five-continent search and an online open call. "We just didn’t want to miss anybody," he said. "I wanted this to be the Avengers of Asian actors."
The search began in 2013, when the producers Nina Jacobson (The Hunger Games), Brad Simpson (Pose) and John Penotti (Awake) secured the rights to Kwan’s book. In the story, Rachel, a Chinese-American professor at New York University, travels with her London-bred professor boyfriend, Nick, to Singapore, where he was born. Once there Rachel discovers two things: Nick’s steely mother, Eleanor, thinks Rachel is beneath her, and Nick — and the rest of his family — is obscenely, stupefyingly wealthy.
As it turns out, there were questions about casting even before the book hit stores. Kwan said a producer who wanted to option the book had suggested that he make Rachel white. Kwan refused.
"It didn’t surprise me," said Constance Wu, the Chinese-American actress who ultimately secured the role and who has been a vocal critic of Hollywood whitewashing. "I’m just glad that Kevin stuck to his guns. It takes a lot of courage to say no to something, especially if you’re scared that everything might slip away if you don’t say yes."
Early on, Jacobson and Simpson had certain actors in mind, like Yeoh, who was on everybody’s wish list for Eleanor. Unlike most of her castmates, Yeoh had appeared in dozens of films with all-Asian casts, like the Jackie Chan classic Police Story 3: Super Cop and the Oscar-winning Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, so, in some ways, this was nothing new. But those were not Hollywood productions. "It was very important for me to see an all-Asian cast here," she said. "Twenty-five years? I don’t even understand why it’s taken so long."
For other roles, the producers sought the help of veteran casting directors with connections to actors throughout Asia, like the Canada-based PoPing AuYeung (The Forbidden Kingdom). They also looked at stage actors in New York and London, and checked in with some of the world’s top drama schools, particularly in their search for the man who would embody Nick. "Ordinarily when you’re casting and maybe looking to break somebody, you go to the big theater programs," Jacobson said, adding, "But they were like, we have not had a male Asian graduate in years."
When Chu announced his open call, thousands of videos poured in. Working actors from the United States, Singapore and elsewhere submitted auditions alongside those outside the industry who figured they had nothing to lose.
Among the hopefuls was Cheryl Koh, better known as the YouTube singer Cheryl K, whose videos have garnered more than 1 million views. Although she was trying out for a role, any role, it was her 15-second, a cappella snippet of Jessie J’s Mamma Knows Best that persuaded the filmmakers to give her a shot at singing the song under the opening credits, a Mandarin and English version of the Beatles hit Money.
"When I got the news that Jon wanted me to do it, I couldn’t stop screaming," she said.
The cast soon became increasingly international. There was Gemma Chan and Jing Lusi from Britain; Chris Pang and Remy Hii from Australia; Pierre Png, Xie and a host of others from Singapore; Ronny Chieng and Yeoh from Malaysia; Lisa Lu and Jasmine Chen from China. Nico Santos had spent his childhood in the Philippines before moving to the United States and co-starring on NBC’s sitcom Superstore; Chieng was born in Malaysia and had gone to school in Australia before getting a regular gig on The Daily Show. Among the American-born crew, there were actors who hailed from Detroit (Ken Jeong); Queens (Awkwafina); and Richmond, Va., (Constance Wu).
"Ken Jeong had to fly out to Kuala Lumpur just to shoot for a couple of days, and it wasn’t a ton of money," Jacobson said. "But he was like, I want to play any part that you have for me in this."
With the entire world to pull from, the filmmakers faced several concerns about who they could cast to play what. There were the accents, of course. Whoever played Nick had to nail a British accent, which left out many of the Chinese box-office draws under consideration.
And then there was the Singaporean sounds of Nick’s friends and family. "This is the only accent I can do," said Chieng, who grew up in Singapore. "I don’t know if you’ve heard many people with this accent, but it’s pretty specific, let’s put it that way."
With much of the action taking place there, there was a push to get as many Singaporeans as possible. If that was not possible, the producers said, they wanted to understand when a non-Singaporean could fill a Singaporean role.
"We definitely always had Memoirs of a Geisha in our heads," said Jacobson, referring to the 2005 film that starred three prominent Chinese actresses as Japanese women. (Unlike Crazy Rich Asians, that film, directed by Rob Marshall and based on a book by Arthur Golden, was a period piece, set in Japan before and after World War II.)
In the end, only a handful of YouTube hopefuls got parts in Crazy Rich Asians — a woman in a text messaging scene here, a groomsman there. But now, said Chu, he has "the most amazing database of Asian talent that can speak English."
One of the last actors to be hired was Henry Golding, who auditioned for Nick. On paper, he was perfect. He was handsome and charismatic. Born in Malaysia to a mother from the Iban tribe there and a white British father, he had grown up in London, where he had acquired the requisite British accent, then spent much of the rest of his life in Asia, where he had worked as a travel host for BBC and Discovery Channel.
The fact that he had never acted before seemed to only add to the Cinderella charm of his story, which went something like this: With just a few months to go before filming started and no Nick, an accountant with the production in Malaysia told a line producer about this sexy travel host "all the girls were gaga over." From there, Golding’s name went up the chain.
But when his casting was announced, the actress Jamie Chung, among others, criticized the decision. Chung, who is Korean-American, had been told by Chu that he was looking only for Chinese-Americans for the role of Rachel, so casting of a half-white actor as Nick seemed like a betrayal.
Asian-American journalists and bloggers wrote about the controversy, noting Hollywood’s historical preference for biracial Asian actors (such as Nancy Kwan and Keanu Reeves) and hinting (sometimes more than hinting) that biracial Asians were not "real Asians." The controversy became so heated that Golding and other stars were compelled to address it in interviews and online posts.
Chung walked back her comments soon after — "I am sincerely sorry about the ignorant comment I made earlier in the year," she tweeted — and apologized to Golding.
"I think it’s fair to question motives of why they’re choosing me instead of someone else," Golding told me. "It ensures that the studio knows, that everyone creating the story knows, that people are watching."
Even so, he said, "I never felt I wasn’t suitable for the role because I was half-white. I’ve always seen myself as Asian, so I never had any qualms about that. I was much more concerned if I could act."
For a while, Chu admitted, the questions about casting disturbed him, particularly the questions about Golding. "And then I realized that I was only getting angry at the people who felt that they had been burned. They were people like me who had watched Hollywood whitewash things, and watched roles go away because someone said an Asian man can’t be the lead of this or that."
Much of the current whitewashing, Yuen said, stems from manga and Marvel films that "draw from these Orientalist tropes, whether it’s Asians in the past or Asia in the future. But Hollywood doesn’t know how to incorporate Asians or Asian-Americans into that. It’s like they want our look and our stories and our martial arts, but they don’t want Asians."
With more and more people talking about diversity in casting and calling out examples of whitewashing, Chu sees positive developments, particularly for Asian-Americans. Last week Netflix will began streaming To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, a coming-of-age tale starring the Vietnamese-American Lana Condor. And on Friday, two years after #StarringJohnCho began hyping the actor as "the star we deserve," there’s Searching, a thriller starring, yes, John Cho.
"If we make a decent showing on that first weekend, there are like six Asian-American lead movies set up at different studios," Chu said. "They’re not greenlit. Everyone’s waiting to see how this one does. But if this one does well, we’ll immediately have more chances. And if it doesn’t, we’ll just have to do it again."