Speakeasy with Awkwafina, Ronny Chieng, and Nico Santos
The cast of “Crazy Rich Asians” open up about what it means to take part in a film depicting Asian people and culture
It has been 25 years since Hollywood produced a film featuring and starring an all-Asian cast. That feature, The Joy Luck Club, based on Amy Tan’s best-selling novel, was a critical and financial success but did not motivate studios to invest in this rich and lucrative market. Now Warner Bros. is releasing Crazy Rich Asians, a film adaptation of the international best-seller by Kevin Kwan. This romantic comedy follows a young couple Rachel (Constance Wu) and Nick (Henry Golding) as they head to Singapore for the wedding of Nick’s best friend. Rachel has no idea her boyfriend comes from one of the wealthiest families in South Asia and must navigate through the difficult cultural and financial biases that unexpectedly arise.
During a recent interview at the Fox Theatre’s Marquee Club, Creative Loafing spoke with cast members Awkwafina, Ronny Chieng, and Nico Santos about being a part of an all-Asian cast and the cultural importance of Crazy Rich Asians. In the film, Awkwafina plays Rachel’s best friend Peik Lin. Chieng plays Nick’s status-obsessed cousin Eddie, and Santos is Nick’s flamboyant cousin Oliver.
Director Jon Chu went on record saying that Crazy Rich Asians is not just a movie, but part of a movement. How do you feel about the film and the statement it makes?
Nico Santos: You see it with movies like Black Panther and Get Out — movies that center around people of color are starting to do really well because people are yearning for these stories. I hope Crazy Rich Asians will add to that chorus of people wanting to hear authentic stories. Rising tides lift all ships, and I hope our movie opens the floodgates for people of color and queer people to tell their stories and be the center of their own stories.
It must be refreshing to see Asians in title roles rather than being stereotyped.
Ronny Chieng: My favorite thing about the movie is that people understand this intellectually, but we've never seen Asian people playing multifaceted characters with complicated lives and in positions of power. I think this movie showcases that very well, and it shows Asians don't have to be the sidekick, the punchline, or the villain who gets killed by Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible 6 or whatever. Nobody is doing Kung Fu. We get to be more authentic.
I read that Kevin Kwan was on set a lot. Did he offer any input to shape the characters?
Awkwafina: We had his book as a blueprint, but Kevin was there and he was very respectful of the process. He is an amazing guy, and I think that he is very pleased with what happened. These are his characters, so he had every right to come in and say, “This is not what she would do.”
Chieng: I feel that everyone was cast pretty close to the characters. I felt like there wasn't anything that Kevin needed to give input on. I think he could have, but I felt like everything was moving the way it should.
I've never heard this term “Singlish.” What does it mean?
Chieng: In Singapore where I grew up, the fact that people speak English surprises some Americans. They don’t know that it was a British Colony, so English is one of our languages — but the Singaporeans made it their own. I guess it's like Ebonics or how they speak in Queens.
What it was like for you to experience Singapore the way it was portrayed in Crazy Rich Asians?
Awkwafina: You have some extremely luxurious places, but there's another side: street markets — local food all over and a cool local scene. We spent time in Kuala Lumpur and it was like we were living the movie. It was very good, and very, very real.
Chieng: My parents live there so I go there all the time. This movie captures the essence of it very well. They don't just show the glitz and glamour of Asia that Hollywood shows in James Bond movies. They show everything from street food all the way up to the Marina Bay Sands Hotel. It’s funny, people at a screening thought the ship on the building and the trees at Gardens by the Bay was CGI, but that's really Singapore.
Ronny, your character Eddie was a “tiger dad.” That’s not something I’m used to seeing.
Chieng: People are complex characters. You can be angry and be a shitty husband. Maybe someone has trouble seeing Asian men in positions of power and being dicks, you know. So that could be it.
Santos: I know a lot of tiger dads — my dad was like that. I grew up with it, and my friends’ fathers completely acted that way.
I know this is a stretch, but I gotta ask. Were you able to keep any of the clothes from the movie?
Santos: You don't get to keep the clothes, but the glasses I’m wearing in the film are my own. I didn’t care about my clothes. I was looking through the women’s clothing, saying, "Valentino, Saint Laurent, somebody got Dior — oh my God, put me in this!" And they were like, "That's a dress!" and I was like, "I don't care!"
Crazy Rich Asians. Rated PG-13. Directed by Jon Chu. Starring Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Gemma Chan, Lisa Lu, Awkwafina, Ken Jeong, Ronny Chieng, Nico Santos, Chris Pang, and Sonoya Mizuno.