How were you cast as Rachel, and had you read the novel Crazy Rich Asians beforehand?
A few years ago, an agent told me to read the book because it was so popular that it was inevitable it would be adapted into a film. So, I read it, A few years later, I learned that [director] Jon M. Chu and [producer] Nina Jacobson were going to make the film. I had a meeting with them about it, but I couldn’t do it because I was filming [the American television series] Fresh off the Boat for most of the year. I was disappointed that I couldn’t be a part of Crazy Rich Asians, but I was glad they were making it.
A short time later, I reconsidered, thinking that if I don’t express what this film means to me, I am going to regret it. So, I emailed Jon: “Hey, I understand that the timing doesn’t work out, but I want you to know that if you wait for me, I will put my entire heart into this project because it means so much to me.”
I didn’t think anything would come of it, but then they waited for me [laughs]. After a few screen tests, I got the part of Rachel.
How did you approach the character?
From the beginning, my goal was to bring as much depth as possible to Rachel. I do that with every role, but it particularly matters to me with Asian-American characters. We didn’t want Rachel, or the film itself, to be just fun and cute. We had to do some real work to make sure it also had guts, emotion and heart. I spent a lot of time exploring those aspects of Rachel.
I also appreciated how Rachel is the portal into the story and its world, for the audience. Her mom was a waitress and a single mother. Everything that Rachel has was earned through hard work, and she’s remained humble and appreciative.
That’s not to say there’s not a lot of fun and funny characters and moments in the film; there are. I’m the film’s “straight man”, but there are some terrific comic actors in Crazy Rich Asians.
What does Henry Golding, a newcomer to acting, bring to the role of Nick?
Henry was terrific. The second he walked on the set, he was Nick. Henry kind of just had to be himself because, like Nick, he is so charming and lovable that people will fall in love with him. I love Henry’s natural charm and dashing British accent. I also love that while he grew up in England, he made the choice to live in Singapore, where our story is set. So, he really understands that culture.
What was it like to work with Michelle Yeoh, who plays Nick’s judgmental mother Eleanor Young?
Michelle did not disappoint at all. She embodies dignity, respect, grace and professionalism. I really enjoyed working with her. I compare working with Michelle [who starred in Crouching Tiger/Hidden Dragon] to a tennis player being coached by Roger Federer. What Michelle offers impacts you in such a way that it really improves your work.
How was working with Awkwafina, who plays Rachel’s friend, Peik Lin?
It was great because she’s from New York and I used to live in New York. So, though we are very different, we share similar experiences and know a lot of the same stuff [laughs].
I always try to complement the person I am sharing a scene with. We don’t have to have the same energy, but we must complement each other. In many of our scenes together, Rachel was not the dominant character. I tried to let that affect me, and I think that’s how Awkwafina built the strength to become a dominant and hilarious character. It’s fun playing with other actors’ rhythms.
What do you hope audiences experience when they see Crazy Rich Asians in the cinema?
I think they’ll experience a wonderfully moving and fun story about love and families.
Crazy Rich Asians is in cinemas now.