Constance Wu certainly has every reason to celebrate right now. Her August romantic comedy, Crazy Rich Asians—Hollywood’s first major studio film in 25 years with a majority Asian-American and Asian cast—has become a smash hit, grossing more than $165 million domestically, with a sequel already in the works. But while Wu, 36, is thrilled about the movie’s success, she wants to make sure that Hollywood continues to address its considerable lack of Asian-American representation on both sides of the camera, and not think that one hit movie makes up for decades of neglect.
“It’s like how sometimes I will be like, ‘All right, I’ve cleaned my kitchen. I’m done; the kitchen is clean.’ But it’s not! It takes maintenance,” Wu says. “Life goes on after that, and you’re going to have to keep cleaning. A lot of people have this idea of, ‘I finished this big thing; it’s done forever.’ And that’s not how anything works at all!”
Wu has made a career out of helping correct Hollywood’s decades of cultural negligence. Three years before Crazy Rich Asians—in which she plays Rachel, an NYU economics professor who discovers that her boyfriend (Henry Golding) is a member of one of Singapore’s most successful families—Wu began starring in Fresh Off the Boat, the first U.S. prime-time sitcom about an Asian-American family in two decades. The ABC series was a success, with Wu’s performance as fearsome-yet-loving matriarch Jessica Huang singled out in particular, but the actress—who had never appeared on a TV show before—struggled with her newfound fame. “It messed me up emotionally in a way I didn’t even understand that caught up to me later,” she says. “It’s really lonely, because it’s the type of strain that you’re incredibly privileged to have, and therefore it’s even harder to talk about it, because you never want to seem ungrateful.”
She worried it would happen again with Crazy Rich Asians—ahead of the film’s release. “I was really scared. I had a lot of panic attacks,” she admits—but her fears seem to have been unfounded. “Fresh Off the Boat was a great primer for all the anticipation and noise that has surrounded Crazy Rich Asians,” she says, noting that filming Season 5 during the movie’s release helped keep her grounded, as well as the decision to turn down invites to the types of “crazy, amazing parties” she frequently attended after Fresh Off the Boat’s debut. Those gatherings “didn’t hold my attention, and I felt weird,” says Wu, who instead has been celebrating in the wake of Crazy Rich Asians more privately with “the community that built me,” including friends, other filmmakers and her acting coach.
In other words, she’s doing it her way, which has been a staple of her career. Wu has been outspoken for years about everything from Asian-American representation in Hollywood to other hot-button issues: In January 2017, nine months before the #MeToo movement, she was one of the loudest—and only—Hollywood voices objecting to the Oscar nomination of Casey Affleck for his film Manchester by the Sea because of his past sexual harassment allegations. “It was a tipping point where what would have felt worse to me was not speaking out, because nobody else is talking about it,” she says of Affleck, who went on to win Best Actor. “I had to do it and I definitely lost some opportunities, because sometimes when there’s a woman who’s assertive, there’s a certain idea of how she might be to work with.”
For Wu, activism and acting go hand in hand. “I’ve been outspoken about things long before I was famous. People just think it’s new, because I’m new to them. They didn’t hear me in high school,” she says. “Part of the reason I’m an actor is because I’m very passionate about things that affect humans, which is why I tell human stories. Activism is something that’s intricately tied into what my craft seeks to do in the world.”