by Shoba Viswanathan
I am the parent of an avid Marvel fan, and this has led me to serendipitous comic and TV discoveries—which is how I stumbled upon the world of Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage. With Luke Cage it was more than just a matter of being in the room when the show was on; I transitioned to interested viewer and took notice of the various ways in which the show was pushing the envelope and tweaking expectations. A big part of that was the thrill of the character Connie Lin. In the portrayal of Connie and Jin Lin, a married couple who own Genghis Connie’s, a Chinese restaurant in Harlem, it was a delight to see Asian American characters normalized—”SO refreshing to see an Asian character in a Marvel show that isn’t a ninja or a gangster or has a thick accent,” as a fan pointed out on Twitter. The Luke Cage-Connie Lin bond in particular stands out, and actress Jade Wu earned a whole new batch of fans with that role.
Fame and success may seem like overnight miracles, but perseverance and grit are always at the foundation. Wu has been working in the industry for a long time. Her journey reflects the challenges of being an Asian American actor—finding any role at all, battling stereotypes, and elevating given roles with nuance and depth. Creative professionals always struggle with finding an audience, but the layers of challenges for people-of-color (POC) actors can be monumental. So it’s particularly exciting to see Wu finding more roles in which her ethnic identity is only one aspect of her character, if at all. Her presence on both stage and television raises cautious optimism in those of us looking for more diverse representation across the board.
I was delighted to have the opportunity to interview Jade Wu via email and learn more about her personal journey, as well as her insights on the entertainment industry today. Wu’s optimism and enthusiasm for what lies ahead, backed by her willingness to shape the conversation, heartens those of us wondering about the direction of creative spaces. Her journey is a demonstration of how to be clear-eyed toward the road travelled, while focused on moving forward.
Shoba Viswanathan: Is there variation in opportunity trends across television, film, and theater? I’m talking specifically about opportunities for people of non-white racial and ethnic backgrounds.
Jade Wu: The paradigm has definitely shifted since I entered the industry over forty-five years ago. I believe I was the first Asian American to be accepted into a U.S. graduate theatre program, my alma mater being UC San Diego and having theatre icons Alan Schneider, Eric Christmas and Arthur Wagner as my mentors. I had the training and the student loans but no work. People of color barely existed in the theatre, television and film landscape. If characters popped onto the screen, they were relegated to heavily accented, broken-English speaking, stereotypical roles as slaves, laundrymen, maids, prostitutes, geishas or gang members.
When television and film burst into everyone’s lives in digital format, production became more cost-effective. People of color had an opportunity to tell stories that no one had heard before.
Independent platforms like Sundance nurtured untold stories—simple, poignant and real. Playwrights started writing heritage stories, introducing the world to cultural differences. Then, the stories grew more personal, which put struggles and challenges as universal experiences, despite cultural background. People of color became human, like everyone else.
Today, the younger generation of actors and artists have roads paved for them to follow and ride. Most recently, I was mindblown by my friend Justin Chon’s 2017 Sundance Award-winning film, Gook, distributed by Samuel Goldwyn and released nationwide. Justin’s passion for storytelling and filmmaking shines in a raw, real and visceral way that audiences can’t help but be emotionally moved. And, that’s true artistic brilliance. Back in the day, we didn’t have the luxury of such creative freedom. We were too busy scrambling to land any role that dropped in the industry breakdowns.
Refreshingly today, television continues to expand its casting diversity. On network television this year, for the first time in my career, I play a recurring non-Asian named character, Judge Cara Bergen, on CBS’s primetime episodic Bull. The character does not have an accent and is in a power position. Progress. The episode has re-aired three more times in the same season, an anomaly in primetime network television.
There are some projects that warrant accents, but that should only be used to enhance the story that may require cultural flavor or nuance. Stereotyping is not good storytelling. Good stories are about human flaws, triumphs, struggles, uncontrollable consequences, people. And, sometimes those people have accents.
In theatre, we are beginning to see a shift but the move is slower. The writing is much more challenging, in my opinion. The characters require deeper development. I just workshopped a play that I truly adore, The Betterment Society, written by Mashuq Deen, at the well-reputed Page 73/Yale Summer Residency for Playwrights. All female roles, two are older and living away from society atop a mountain. I have an Appalachian accent. I love it. When we had our reading at workshop’s end, I don’t think there was a dry eye in the room. That is good writing.
I feel so grateful to live in the creative world today, to experience its growth and be a part of the opportunities ahead. I may never be cast as Blanche Dubois in a Broadway production of Streetcar Named Desire or Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? but the door is open for me get an audition for those roles these days, because I’ve decades of dues-paying under my belt. I never would have had that opportunity forty-five years ago.
SV: It was a pleasure to see the way Luke Cage celebrated Harlem. The cast’s diversity felt integral to the story-telling. Do you find this noteworthy?
JW: Cheo Hodari Coker, the show’s Creator and Showrunner, was intent on Harlem’s world—which is rich in history, gentrification and evolution—to revolve around truth, despite this series swimming in a fantastic SuperHero universe. Harlem is diverse, so Luke Cage had to live in that world. Because Cheo’s background is also heavily seasoned as an iconic journalist in the Hip Hop arena, all the episodes’ theme songs were written and performed for the show, and the episode’s music score title was also the title of the episode. Diverse casting was also paramount. [This is] brilliant and revolutionary for an episodic series. Cheo is a genius.
When I auditioned for the show, I was in Washington, DC, acting in the U.S. premiere of Lucy Kirkland’s West End hit, Chimerica. So, I couldn’t physically show up for the audition and submitted a 53-second self-tape that was sent to LA. Without a callback and physically sight unseen, I booked the role of Connie Lin. This was a role that could have easily shaped into a stereotype, but I was adamant not to have an accent, and the costume designer, Stephanie Maslansky, dressed me in elite designer dresses, a definite anti-stereotype shift. Connie is powerful, vulnerable, yet real and most importantly, Luke Cage’s friend, another anti-stereotype of Blacks and Asians bonding, a truthful reflection of the real world. I could not be more proud and pleased that Cheo chose this direction for the character.
SV: We have had the conversation about whitewashing—i.e. white actors being cast to play characters of color—for a while now, and it’s good to see it get more air-play. Do you think the debate has had any significant impact?
JW: After Ed Skrein‘s Twitter announcement about dropping out of the role of Maj. Ben Daimio in Hellboy (a character written specifically as Asian), because it’s the “right thing to do,” I would say the airplay has finally hit its mark and is exactly the wake-up call for studio decision-makers.
I find the whole notion of whitewashing abhorrent. The repertory of high caliber, uber-talented Asian and Asian American actors can fill an Olympic-sized pool. I never understood the whitewashing concept, which stems from fear, too much of a financial risk for a multi-million dollar project to bank its success on an unknown, unrecognizable actor. I fully embrace financial responsibility, but studios need to be reminded that A-listers were not always A-listers. They started as unknowns and were molded into blockbuster commodities.
With Skrein’s move, we will see a noticeable tectonic shift in studio casting decisions. To drop out of a major studio project with so much income and notoriety attached is a courageous and honorable move. Bravo to him. I’d rather divert from past studio whitewashing faux pas, which all resulted in box office disasters, and move forward, embrace this new direction and authority in integrity and continue to support “doing what is right.”
SW: How often have you had to struggle with the dilemma of being offered a stereotypical role?
JW: In the span of my career, I’ve taken the stereotypical roles because that’s all that was offered. I have no regrets. Without that experience, I would not have grown as an artist. Humility is a key ingredient to success. Many young actors are so entitled. I think struggle is necessary to appreciate opportunity. What I don’t relish are times when I have to confront a struggle that I never expected to happen in 2017.
My agent sent me out for a commercial audition a few months ago. A cattle call, meaning there were dozens of people, the usual suspects in the green room awaiting their turn. When I was called into the room, the dialogue was hand-written on a large foam core poster board mounted on an easel. The casting assistant’s first question to me was, “Can you read English?” For a minute, I was caught off guard. Instead of visibly reacting, I steadied myself and in a composed response said, “Yes. Can you?” Then, I walked out without auditioning. In that moment I had to adhere to integrity.
Another audition, over a decade ago, was less insulting and somewhat comprehensible. It was for a recurring role on the soap One Life to Live. The character’s name was Judith Pinkham. I knew that I certainly didn’t look like a Pinkham, so realistically I also knew that I would not be cast. When the casting director asked me to repeat the audition scene, but in an accent, I nodded. I understood what “accent” meant. I did the scene in a Southern accent. I already knew that I wouldn’t be cast, so I had nothing to lose, except I probably should not have been so haughty about it. That afternoon, my agent called to tell me I booked the role and ABC was changing the name of the character to Judith Chen. Progress.
Though changes have happened, the struggle to play against stereotype continues, but the battle these days is less scarring.
SV: You are also a playwright. Tell us about your development as a writer. How do you see your dual roles as writer and actor work in expanding diverse representation?
JW: I’ve been writing since I could read. In my first year of college, I failed English Composition 101. The professor didn’t like my use of words that required dictionary referencing. In other words, my words had too many syllables and she tired of having to look up the definitions, so my writing in her opinion was atrocious and lacked fluidity and structure, which I’m sure it did then. Despite her degrading reaction to my writing, I continued to write. I have an affinity for the bizarre, theatre of the absurd, the avant garde art movement, being influenced by the plays from Eugene Ionesco and Jean Giraudoux. When I watched 1920’s films The Cabinet of Dr. Calgary and Un Chien Andalou, I was hooked on expressionist art and the surreal.
I’ve since grown out of that genre, but some of my writing still injects some of the surreal world, which isn’t so far-fetched because much of nonfiction tends to be more incredible than fiction.
The only writing in my repertoire that includes me as a character or multiple characters is my solo docu-theatre piece which is still a work-in-progress. The premise is a montage of women whom I’ve had the fortune of knowing and whose lives have the common thread of violent struggles either in war, domestic relationship, or in the one’s own mind. It’s the most difficult piece I’ve ever tackled.
In terms of dual role-playing as writer and actor, I shy away from acting in what I write. However, since acting has been my financial mainstay, I’ve had to hone my writing, directing, and producing skills to maintain a part of the industry’s creative pulse. Reinvention is an understatement for an artist. We have to go with the flow without losing integrity, personal and creative.
I have written screenplays, television series, made documentary films. I have grown into a Jill-of-all-Trades, which is something that I believe boosts credibility and reputation in this industry. It’s almost a requirement these days to create work as much as act in others’ work.
SV: Tell us about one of your favorite experiences as an actor. Does any one play or show stand out as having been a remarkable learning experience?
JW: The most memorable theatre experience was playing one of only four female roles, The Farmer’s Wife, in The Public Theatre’s Central Park production of Mother Courage and Her Children (adapted by Tony Kushner, directed by George C. Wolfe, scored by Jeanine Tesori, starring Meryl Streep and Kevin Kline).
I nearly wasn’t in contention for the role because my mother had had a near fatal fall and emergency surgery for a fractured femur. I had to pass on two audition calls, but The Public Theatre was intent on having me audition for George. When my mother was out of ICU and in rehab, I took a dawn train from MD to NYC, auditioned, and went back immediately after.
Being so exhausted, I never imagined my audition would ever be rehearsed and good enough, but I delivered as best I could. This was a lifetime opportunity to play one of the most coveted roles in the theatre world at the time. A few days later, my agent called. I booked the role. When rehearsals began, I savored every second of watching and learning from Meryl. Her dedication, generosity, and passion for acting were beyond imagination. I learned more in a few months of breathing the same air as she than I had in all of graduate school and my career.
It’s custom to give your cast mates an opening gift or card to launch the spirit of a successful run of a play. What could I possibly give Meryl Streep? I wrote a poem about her struggles, discoveries, and process for each scene in the play, printed it on parchment paper and had it leather bound. With thirty-three actors in the cast, I was sure my gift would get buried. Then, in Act Two, as we both sat on the picnic table backstage of the open stage, awaiting our entrances, a raccoon slithered past us. We screeched and laughed aloud. She embraced me, a tear in her eye, and said, “You are a writer. Thank you.” I told her I wasn’t a writer. She said, “You are. Don’t stop writing.” We made our entrances and never made mention of that moment again. I continue to be fueled by her support and will always write, until I can’t.
SV: What insights would you like to share with other artists, Asian Americans in particular? What are the to-do things you’d recommend?
JW: In film and theatre, the biggest support comes from butts in seats. Buy tickets. See shows. As many as you can. For film, the first week of box office determines the life or death of movie. For theatre, it’s the same. Make friends. Network. Seek mentors. Social media has become the fog horn for announcing and supporting work. Use it. Spread the word. Get butts in seats.
As for television, and now this new media distribution stream, again, advice is to spread the word on social media. Entertainment industry marketers follow these posts. It’s the best focus group study for major projects. It’s intimate and public simultaneously, and free.
Start creating your own projects, writing your own stories. With so many distribution channels, the market is hungry for content. Build your team of collaborators with whom you can work well and seamlessly. Join organizations that nurture those skills, i.e. Asian American Film Lab, Center for Asian American Media (CAAM), Asian CineVision (ACV), all Asian American film festivals, etc., and apply for grants to get your work into the creative, recognizable pool. Swim with those with whom you can learn different strokes.
Shoba Viswanathan is a writer and editor based in NY. Her long-standing philosophy of understanding the Other Side, has developed a new urgency these days. She can be found on Twitter @shobavish.
Images via ZSC Entertainment