by: Jay Carlson – Editor-in-Chief
“Crazy Rich Asians” is a contemporary romantic comedy based on the acclaimed worldwide bestseller by Kevin Kwan. The story follows New Yorker Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) as she accompanies her longtime boyfriend, Nick Young (Henry Golding), to his best friend’s wedding in Singapore. Excited about visiting Asia for the first time but nervous about meeting Nick’s family, Rachel is unprepared to learn that Nick has neglected to mention a few key details about his life. Not only is he the scion of one of the country’s wealthiest families, but also one of its most sought-after bachelors. Being on Nick’s arm puts a target on Rachel’s back, with jealous socialites and, worse, Nick’s own disapproving mother (Michelle Yeoh) taking aim. It soon becomes clear that the only thing crazier than love is family, in this funny and romantic story sure to ring true for audiences everywhere.
Directed by Jon M. Chu, “Crazy Rich Asians” features an international cast of stars, led by Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Gemma Chan, Lisa Lu, and Awkwafina, with Ken Jeong and Michelle Yeoh. The large starring ensemble also includes Sonoya Mizuno, Chris Pang, Jimmy O. Yang, Ronny Chieng, Remi Hii, Nico Santos, and Jing Lusi.
Gemma Chan plays one of the book’s most beloved characters, “Astrid’s story is so big, we had to be very strategic about which parts of it to include,” Chu acknowledges. “Casting was also challenging because Astrid is so flawless, you wonder how such a person could exist on this planet.” In sync with many fan-site wish lists, the director’s search led to Gemma Chan. “She’s so elegant and warm. She can appear both relatable and untouchable at the same time, which is, I think, the trick to playing Astrid with all those facets to her personality and upbringing. Gemma was the
absolute embodiment of the role,” he says.
Bernard Tai, enthusiastically portrayed by Jimmy O. Yang. Not technically related, Bernard nabs the honor of staging Colin’s bachelor party via his father’s business ties with Colin’s dad. In other words, they’re stuck with him. Yang calls him “a billionaire playboy not doing much with his life except partying and having fun. He’s kind of a douche, but he loves himself and he loves life. Imagine an 18-year-old who just graduated high school with a billion dollars.”
Author, Kevin Kwan served as an executive producer on the film and makes a cameo in the montage where the gossip over Nick and Rachel’s imminent visit goes viral. He consulted on myriad details from character to costumes, locations to design, opened up his private family albums to inspire the design teams and even put the filmmakers in touch with a private watch collector who lent the production a prized high-end timepiece that arrived with its own security escort. “He was the best creative partner,” Chu attests.
I was fortunate to speak to author Kevin Kwan, as well as Gemma Chan and Jimmy O. Yang on their recent stop in Boston.
The following interview has been edited for content and clarity.
By virtue of the process there are always differences between a book and film. Going into it were you told they were going to change some things? Did you have input even though you weren’t the one adapting the book for the screenplay?
Kevin Kwan: I was involved in the very beginning. I chose the screenwriter and worked with him. I helped to really lay out the general outline of the story and I knew that HE needed to make the choices, the hard choices. I didn’t know which babies I wanted to sacrifice. I’m glad I didn’t play that role. It was very clear to me from the start that we needed someone to make those hard decisions and really adapt a five-hundred page book into an hour and forty-five minutes. You’re going to lose storylines, you’re going to lose characters and hopefully we can do many more movies so THAT gets covered. I’m thrilled with how it was adapted.
What does this movie mean to you? It’s the first big studio film in a quarter century to feature an all Asian cast and there’s not enough of these being made. Did you feel the added weight of that responsibility to make sure the film was great so that there would be more opportunity for Asians going forward?
Jimmy O. Yang: I think as an actor and seeing the script with a full Asian cast, it’s so surprising that you think, “Oh my god, I can’t believe this is getting made and I NEED to be a part of this.” Then I start uncovering more and more how great this project actually is. Reading the script, it’s a good, funny script and getting to audition, I auditioned for Colin first and then they offered me the Bernard role which I was more than happy to play. Then start to listen to the audio books and hang out with everyone. When we landed in Singapore, in the hotel lobby and we’re all like, “You like Asian food, too?” like, of course. “And you like karaoke?” It was just such a special bond that all of us have and still have. We’re still really good friends, all of us.
Kevin Kwan: Which never happens, right? You see them and then you never see them again.
Jimmy O. Yang: Yeah. All the time. I might have one friend from each movie that I still kinda talk to. THIS is different. When Ronnie (Chieng), whenever he comes from New York to L.A. or Gemma (Chan) is in town, when Kevin (Kwan) is in town… it’s like, let’s hang. We are each others priority, because really… for me culturally, yes, of course, it’s very important. In just a microcosm in a personal sense, it felt like I found my creed in my peers, which has been very hard for me as a comic and as an actor. Hopefully the audience will feel the same way, watching this movie they will finally feel like our voice is being heard and that our faces are being represented. Hopefully it’s just one of many to come and this is to just open up the doors. I think it’s a great start and we’re all very excited about it.
Gemma Chan: What really excited me when I read the script and the books was that although this specific story was about these characters that happen to be Asian, the themes of it are really very universal. Love, friendship, family, relationships, the conflict between old and new and different generations. It excited me that I could feel that that would be something that would resonate and would appeal, hopefully, to people who aren’t Asian.
Kevin Kwan: Absolutely.
Gemma Chan: If you’ve ever felt like you didn’t quite fit in or that you’re an outsider, that that’s something that would speak to you. For so long the universal experience has been assumed to be white and what I hope this shows, this story, is that it doesn’t have to be. Anyone should be able to watch this film and identify and feel for these characters. That’s the significance for me.
Jimmy O. Yang: Yeah. It’s an Asian story, but at the same time it’s a very authentic story, I think that’s why it’s so good because Kevin actually knows these people and has had the experiences. I think it encourages more authentic writing from everyone, which includes Asians and other minorities.
Did you find that because of Hollywood executives might make the argument that because you have non-white leads and a non-white cast that you had to compensate in any way to make the film especially appealing.
Kevin Kwan: We really didn’t encounter that, actually. There was one producer that suggested we change the lead to a white Reese, Johansson or someone like that. I didn’t even entertain that. Every other producer that came was really truly interested in the idea of this film because of the story. The story is one that transcends race. It’s called Crazy Rich Asians, but it’s not just because their Asian. It’s a universal story. They saw the potential for this in the worldwide market.
Jimmy O. Yang: I think people should look at this like a Game of Thrones, this author has so much source material that takes you to a different world. When we watched the first clip at the wrap party, just a little trailer that Jon (director Jon M. Chu) made for the cast, I was like, “Oh my god, the color, the people, the sets-”
Kevin Kwan: The music!
Jimmy O. Yang: The music! It was just like, oh this is not just a bunch of Asian people. This is literally like taking you to Narnia or Middle Earth or Westeros. It’s a whole new world that they’ve set up that hopefully everyone can enjoy. It just so happens that in this world everyone is Asian.
Was there anything from the book that you wanted to keep in the film that didn’t end up in the script?
Kevin Kwan: Wow. So much. There’s so many characters and storylines that were dear to me that didn’t make it in.
Gemma Chan: Astrid and Charlie.
Kevin Kwan: Beginning with Astrid and Charlie. That’s a huge storyline that her entire emotional arc was very severely cut down. Although we did restore quite a bit of it as we went along. But there was just no time. An hour and forty-five minutes.
Gemma Chan: I’m waiting for the spin-off.
What were you most excited to see brought to life from the book? Was there anything that surprised you in the film?
Kevin Kwan: I think it was really cool how Jon supersized things. I had a vision of an amazing, obnoxious bachelor party, for example. In my book it takes place on a super yacht and he was like, how can we make this cinematic to a degree that people’s jaws will drop? So he did it on a super tanker. The wedding, for example, in my book it’s only a fifty million dollar wedding and that’s old hat at this point for the really, truly rich Chinese. So how could we take that and really convey that in a way that would be spectacular? I think he succeeded. I watched it and my jaw dropped in the wedding scene when the bride enters. Not only is it a spectacle, it’s just so emotionally engaging. The music, everything, it all worked. To me, those were the surprise moments.
What was it like shooting in Singapore?
Kevin Kwan: Singapore and Malaysia.
Kevin, Gemma: It was hot.
Jimmy O. Yang: It was like one-hundred fifteen degrees.
Gemma Chan: It was SO hot.
Jimmy O. Yang: The bachelor party scene was in an empty parking lot in the middle of nowhere in Malaysia. It had a functioning helipad that was three stories high. I got sunburned from my gold chain. We couldn’t have shot that anywhere else. It was brilliant.
Kevin Kwan: You could feel the heat.
Jimmy O. Yang: You need to feel the experience, right? And eat the local food. It was like a whole immersive experience. I do not think we could have done this movie on a sound stage in L.A.
There was obviously material that was excised when adapting the book to a screenplay, but were there scenes that you shot that you were bummed to see cut?
Jimmy O. Yang: There was a lot of the bachelor party that was edited out. That was actually way more ridiculous than (what was in the film). We improvised quite a bit. I was happy with how it turned out. We got some of it back in the wedding with the scene of me and Chris Pang and Colin. That was completely improvised and I’m glad they kept it in there. I know that the character serves the story and I gotta come off the bench and hit a couple shots, you know? Because everyone is so good in this romantic, great plot and I just need to get some laughs in the serious moments to cut it up and I get that. It’s no hard feelings, everybody else is so great. If everybody else sucked and they cut out my great scenes I would have had a problem, but this whole movie was such respect for each other and everybody pulled their weight. Even when scenes got cut we were happy to see other people shine.
Gemma Chan: I really thought that the whole cast did such a great job. Every character, no matter how long their screen time was were distinctive and had their moment and did shine. It was amazing to watch. Same as Jimmy, I did do scenes that did not make it into the movie, but when I saw the film I was completely happy and understood why that had happened and this just means there is a wealth of stuff we can put into the sequel.
Be sure to check out the delightful Crazy Rich Asians in theaters today!