I recently spoke to Gemma Chan, Jimmy O. Yang, and author Kevin Kwan about the new film Crazy Rich Asians. Kwan wrote the book the film is based on. Chan plays Astrid with Yang playing Bernard. We discussed the differences between the book and film, an all Asian cast and much more.
I asked author Kevin Kwan how much he was involved with the adaptation of the book to film and the differences between the two. Kevin Kwan, “I was involved from the beginning. I chose the screenwriter, I worked with him. I helped to outline the story. I knew that he needed to make the hard choices because I didn’t know what babies to sacrifice (laughing). It was clear from the start we needed someone to make those hard decisions. Adapting 500 pages to an hour and 45 minutes, you’re going to lose storylines. You’re going to lose characters. I’m thrilled with how it came out.”
You don’t see many all Asian casts from Hollywood studios, they talked about the importance of that representation on-screen personally. Jimmy O. Yang, “As an actor seeing a script with an all Asian cast, I was surprised. I couldn’t believe this was getting made and I needed to be a part of this. It was a good, funny script. I auditioned for the Colin role, but ended up with Bernard which I was more than happy with. Then I started to listen to the audio books. When the movie started to shoot, landing in Singapore, the whole cast got along right away. ‘Oh you like Asian food too? Of course’ [Laughs] It was such a special bond that all of us have and still have and we’re still really good friends.” Kwan, “Which I’m told never happens. You see them and then you never see them again.” Yang, “Yeah, all the time. I maybe have one friend from each movie I’ve made. However, whenever these two are in L.A. or come to town it’s like ‘let’s hang’. We are each other’s priority because for me, culturally, I feel like I found 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. 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. It’s a great start and we are all very excited about it.”
Gemma Chan, “What excited me when I read the script, and the books, was that the themes in it were very universal: love, friendship, family, relationships, all the themes, conflict between old and new. I felt that all of that could be something that could resonate not just with Asian audiences but with non-Asian as well. It’s just about something that could speak to all of us. For so long the universal experience seems to have been white, this movie shows that it doesn’t have to be. Anyone that watches this film can identify and feel what the characters feel. That’s the significance to me.”
Yang, “Yeah, it’s an Asian story but at the same time it’s a very authentic story. Kevin actually knows all these people, it’s based off of experiences. I think it also encourages more authentic story writing and it’s not necessarily pushing Asian, Asian, Asian, Asian! Let’s encourage authentic storytelling from everyone.”
Kwan talked about talking to producers to get the film made and if he had to compensate on his vision. “There was that infamous producer that told us to switch the female lead to a white ‘Reese Johannson’ [laughs]. I didn’t even entertain that option. However, every other producer that came to us was interested in the idea of this film because of the story, which is really a story that transcends race. It’s called Crazy Rich Asians but it’s not just because they’re Asian. It’s a universal story. They saw the potential of this in the worldwide market.”
Yang, “We should look at this like Game of Thrones where this author had so much source material that he easily took you to this other world with these stories. We watched the first clip at the wrap party, just a little trailer that Jon (Chu, the director) made for the cast, I was like, ‘The colors, the people, the sets, the music!’ It felt like this wasn’t just a bunch of Asian people. It literally felt like it took you to Narnia or Westeros. It’s a whole new world that they set up that everybody can enjoy. It just so happens that everyone in this world is Asian.”
They spoke about authenticity and what I liked about the film is that it doesn’t shy away from racism and discrimination between different Asian cultures, different financial backgrounds, Asian vs. American and more. I asked if they hoped that audiences would see the messages about how they look at each other. Kwan, “I hope so. We certainly don’t bury it.” Yang, “The best reaction when I do stand up (comedy) is when someone says “Oh my god that’s so true’. So when they see the future mother-in-law doing that to Rachel hopefully they say ‘Oh my god that’s so true’. That’s how they can relate and get emotionally connected. I think Jon and Kevin did a great job of drawing the audience in.” Chan, “With Astrid, the complexity going on with her husband (he comes from a poorer background/doesn’t make as much as she does), he feels emasculated. That’s something interesting that transcends race. Any woman who earns more than her husband, that’s a tricky thing for some men to be ok with.”
Crazy Rich Asians is in theaters August 15th.