The Great Read
In her memoir, “Making a Scene,” the actress reveals her isolation, racism in her career and how she’s moving on.
Credit…Amy Harrity for The New York Times
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For Constance Wu — like many regrettable moments in modern day life — it all started with a tweet. Or several tweets, actually.
This was in the spring of 2019. “Fresh Off the Boat,” the television show that Ms. Wu, 40, had starred in for the last five seasons, was up for renewal. It had been a landmark series — the first network show in over 20 years to center around an Asian American family, based on the 2013 memoir of the same name by Eddie Huang, the writer, chef and television personality.
Ms. Wu played Jessica Huang, the fierce tiger mom inspired by Mr. Huang’s real-life mother, becoming one of the show’s breakout stars. But with its dwindling ratings, the show — which, at its peak, reached close to 7 million viewers in its first season — was limping to the finish line. Ms. Wu, expecting it to be canceled, said she had gotten ABC’s blessing to pursue other projects. Her co-star, Randall Park, was also exploring his options. Even its showrunner, Nahnatchka Khan, was leaving to work on something else.
During this same time, Ms. Wu had also become a bona fide movie star. She had just starred in Jon M. Chu’s film adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s “Crazy Rich Asians,” which had become a critical and box office success. Her new film, “Hustlers,” where she played a stripper named Destiny opposite Jennifer Lopez, was premiering that fall. She was the future of Asian American cinema, people said. She was a true leading lady. She could go the distance.
So when “Fresh Off the Boat” was renewed, Ms. Wu was crushed. She was about to take on two new exciting projects, an Off Broadway play and a movie with an Academy Award-winning actress — the kind of work she said made her feel alive — only to be contractually obligated to do something she already knew. Another season meant being locked into filming for the rest of the year. It wasn’t that she disliked playing Jessica Huang — in fact, she loved the character — but she had been equally excited about what was ahead.
She took to Twitter to express her disappointment, writing that she was “so upset right now I’m literally crying. Ugh.” Her tweets, impulsively fired off, were peppered with expletives. The backlash was instant. Ms. Wu was accused of being privileged, insensitive to struggling actors, to underpaid actors, to out-of-work actors, to Asian American actors, to her cast and crewmates, to the people who loved the show for what it meant for Asian people and to Asian people, generally. Rumors began to circulate online that she was a diva, unpopular on set and difficult to work with.
“I was so alone,” said Ms. Wu. We were sitting in a quiet corner of the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles.
She publicly apologized, but it wasn’t enough. Her tweets had become a story that began to feed on itself. She was shamed. People demanded atonement. While some wrote to see if she was OK, the silence from others was deafening. One night, upset and isolated, feeling unsupported by even her closest friends, she attempted to take her own life. Fortunately, a friend was there to save her. She spent the night in a psychiatric hospital, under supervision, until she was released the next day.
“I was punished for being ungrateful,” she said.
Quietly, she sought help and went off social media. She had started writing a book in 2016, but had lost momentum.
“I’m glad I got through it,” she said, silently crying. “It took a long time. I was in therapy every day for a bit, under observation.” She has learned how to sit with her emotions, she said, to find the tools to manage those bigger, more complex feelings.
“Her experience made me have a bit more empathy,” said the actor Chiké Okonkwo, 40, a close friend of Ms. Wu’s. He had checked in on her after the internet pile-on had occurred. “My eyes are much more widely open to anyone going through a tough time. I think it’s really good for us to take a second to think before we tweet, to consider the human being on the other end before we send.”
In the fall of 2019, she returned to work, where she apologized in person to her colleagues at “Fresh Off the Boat.” They finished the final season of the show. The next year, the pandemic happened. The world shut down. And she finished writing her book.
All this and more is recounted in the 18 essays in “Making a Scene,” which will be published Oct. 4 by Scribner. These are stories, Ms. Wu outlines in her introduction, “that shaped my humanity and determined the direction of my life.” There’s one about her love for her pet rabbit, Lida Rose. Another about a college summer spent at a Buddhist monastery in Taiwan, where Ms. Wu participated in a weeklong silent meditation retreat. She describes tender childhood memories, various love affairs, even her fondness for baking bread. The book is a portrait of a young woman’s life and of a young artist, struggling to find her way.
It also tells the story of being the child of immigrants. Ms. Wu grew up in Richmond, Va. She was the third of four daughters (“I don’t really believe in astrology but I do believe in birth order because I’m very much a typical middle child”) to Taiwanese parents who had moved to the United States in the 1970s. Her mother initially stayed at home, raising the children, but later found a career in computer programming; her father, who received a doctorate in biology and genetics, was a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University. They divorced when Ms. Wu was 18 years old. In one of the more poignant essays in the book, Ms. Wu explores the fractures of her parents’ marriage, revealing that she and her mother had a dramatic falling out shortly after “Fresh Off the Boat” catapulted the actress into celebrity. “I didn’t know how to handle the public scrutiny and I took it out on my mom. Paranoia and anxiety made me say regretful things to her,” writes Ms. Wu. For almost five years, the two were estranged.
She described herself as an emotional and extroverted child. She liked writing, but after being falsely accused of plagiarizing an essay about Beethoven by her 8th grade teacher, she turned her attentions toward local theater. “I love community theater,” she told me, swearing she’d go back to it now if she could. After graduating from SUNY Purchase, where she studied drama, she moved to New York City to become an actor, where she worked as a waitress between auditions. She amassed credit card debt. She fell in and out of love. In another frank and intimate essay about that period of her life, she describes a date that ended in the kind of non-consensual sex that she would later understand to be rape.
She wrote “You Do What I Say,” her essay about her tweets and “Fresh Off the Boat,” last. She said she had resisted writing about that experience altogether, but after several prompts from her editor, she began to transcribe her thoughts, telling herself she was only doing it as an exercise.
“I didn’t want to sully such a great beacon of hope for Asian Americans in the television landscape. I didn’t want to stain that,” Ms. Wu said about why she was reluctant to address her time on the show.
That’s because there is more to the story, she said.
In her book, Ms. Wu alleges that during her first year on “Fresh Off the Boat,” she was sexually harassed by a senior member of the production team. Naming him only by an initial, she writes that he controlled her, demanding that she run all her business matters past him and telling her what to wear.
Ms. Wu put up with it. In the beginning, she tried to see him as her friend and protector. But she was also afraid of the consequences if she didn’t.
“‘Fresh Off the Boat’ was my first-ever TV show,” she explained. “I was thrown into this world. I don’t have parents in the industry. And because I was 30, people thought I knew what I was doing. It made me paranoid and embarrassed.”
One evening, she writes, after she and the man attended a sporting event, he placed his hand on her thigh, his hand ultimately grazing her crotch. She found a way to politely stop him from touching her again, and the two seemingly brushed off the incident as if it had never happened. This was in 2015, she reminds the reader, before #MeToo.
By the time season two arrived, Ms. Wu began to feel more secure on the job. The show had garnered her fame and accolades. She felt empowered to say no to his demands. In the book, she recalls that after an explosive argument over whether or not she would attend a film festival with him, their relationship soured. Soon, they were no longer on speaking terms.
ABC, through a spokesman, declined to comment.
Ms. Wu said she isn’t interested in pointing fingers, and writing that essay wasn’t about blaming the man or demanding accountability — except for herself. But, as she explains in the essay, “Fresh Off the Boat” might not have been the wonderful, joyful experience that people thought it was for her. Maybe those tweets, she said, were a release valve, the culmination of negative emotions and frustrations at being forced to pretend that everything on the show was actually OK. “I felt betrayed and trapped,” said Ms. Wu.
“I was genuinely moved by the honesty in her book,” wrote the actor Nora Lum, 34, otherwise known as Awkwafina, in an email. The two had both starred in “Crazy Rich Asians” and have since become good friends.
“There is a generosity and a compassion in her writing. And that translates into her work as an actor,” said the director Christopher Makoto Yogi, 40, who cast Ms. Wu in his 2021 film “I Was a Simple Man.” Mr. Yogi shared that his “experience has only been positive” working with Ms. Wu.
“I try not to make myself out to be a hero,” Ms. Wu said. “I try to make myself out to be a pretty normal person who has flaws like everybody else. I’m not really into the actor memoir where it’s like, ‘I overcame the odds, and I’m this person who was humble and just kept working. I was the victim.’ It’s less black and white than simply victim and perpetrator.”
“I’m relieved to have this book out. I feel like it’s more representative of me than the me that is on a press tour for a movie that’s breaking barriers for Asian representation,” said Ms. Wu a few days later. She was relaxed and cheerful. We were sitting across from one another at Alcove, a coffee shop in Los Feliz.
In person, Ms. Wu was empathetic and curious. She was quick to laugh but also quick to swear. Her face was expressive and her emotions tended to float close to the surface. She was the first to admit how easily she cries. She acknowledged she can be reckless and impulsive, but those might be the very same traits that lend themselves so well to acting. In August 2020, she gave birth to her daughter, whose name she preferred to keep private. Her boyfriend, the musician Ryan Kattner, is the father. She loves motherhood, because it makes her feels more like herself than she has ever been before. It makes her be present, like the best moments in acting do.
The actor Chris Pratt, 43, who stars in the Amazon series “The Terminal List” with Ms. Wu, recalled in an email how hard she worked on a night shoot as a new mother: “She had fake blood all over her face and a massive monologue of expository dialogue she ripped through without a hitch and two minutes later she’d be crashed out on her set chair in a back alley. Then we’d move the cameras and she’d get up and deliver again. And she wouldn’t complain about it. Just got the work done. She’s a pro. Half the men I’ve worked with would have complained the whole time. And they certainly aren’t breastfeeding.”
She currently has a few projects in development. She’s planning to perform in a play called “2:22 — A Ghost Story” this fall with Center Theater Group. “Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile,” the live-action and animated film she stars in, will be released next month. The last she heard about the next “Crazy Rich Asians,” Mr. Chu was working on both it and the Astrid Leong spinoff with Gemma Chan. The hope, she said, is to start shooting the anticipated sequel next year.
“She’s very soulful, considerate and invested,” said Will Speck, 52, the co-director of “Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile.” “When you’re making a musical, it helps to have an environment that feels joyful and fun because the rule is that you could always break out into song to express what could otherwise be said with words. Whatever reputation had proceeded her, we tried not to let that inform any of our interactions and we only had positive moments along the way.”
She became animated discussing literature. She enjoyed reading Roxane Gay, Lily King and Elena Ferrante while she wrote her book. “She’s so fierce,” she said about the latter. “I love her writing. It’s unapologetic. It’s very real.” Between answering my questions, she slipped in a mention of the editor Gordon Lish and expressed her admiration for Elizabeth Strout’s “Olive Kitteridge” and Sally Rooney’s “Beautiful World, Where Are You.”
Because she was both in “Fresh Off the Boat” and “Crazy Rich Asians,” Ms. Wu was often seen as more than just an actor, but an ambassador for the larger conversations around representation in Hollywood. And it’s true, she spoke eloquently about race and identity. When I asked her if she had ever faced racism in her career, her response was honest and nuanced: “Whenever I didn’t get a part, I never thought it was because I was Asian, I always thought it was because I was not pretty enough or not talented enough. Now that I’m in Hollywood, I don’t think that’s the case. I see how the machine works. I think those casting decisions have more to do with public perception, social media numbers. But I think race plays into all of it.”
Still, this kind of talk puts Ms. Wu in a certain light. “Fresh Off the Boat” was a family show, after all.
“I had a public image that was not very much like myself. I’m not really that wholesome of a person,” she admitted. She has an immature side. In the shortest essay in the book, she writes a blanket apology for scribbling the word “penis” whenever she had to be filmed writing anything on “Fresh Off the Boat.”
But as countless celebrities of color have pointed out before, there is a tendency to hold the accomplishments within your community sacred, to not criticize the work — be it a film, a series, a character — that broke boundaries and that was so difficult to achieve in an industry that is so resistant to change. Still, Ms. Wu feels like this mentality can place unfair expectations on an actor.
“When I spoke beautifully about representation, everyone loved it. But the second they had a chance to find a crack in my facade…” said Ms. Wu, her voice trailing off, tears welling up in her eyes. “It’s funny. It was almost gleeful. It was almost like they couldn’t wait to tear me down. I think the Asian community in Hollywood is still hyper-focused on positive representation, which to me is an illusion. Whole, human representation is more complex. And I think it’s interesting to me how, at that time, when I most could have used their help, they were the people who shamed me.”
Ms. Wu knows that what she’s written will be taken out of context. She had been following the press around the director and actor Olivia Wilde and her new film “Don’t Worry Darling.” There had been rampant speculation that Ms. Wilde and her star, Florence Pugh, don’t get along. Much attention has been given to the fact that Ms. Wilde and her other star, Harry Styles, were in a relationship.
“I’ve checked my own tendency to be curious about it,” she said. “How many times has a male director not gotten along with their actor? When women aren’t perfect pictures of grace, when they have conflict, it somehow feels salacious. The key to stopping that type of gossip isn’t stopping your curiosity, because your curiosity is just that. It’s removing any unfair expectations you have of a woman’s behavior and being aware of when you assign that.”
A few days earlier, Ms. Wu had texted me a quote by the writer Marilynne Robinson from a 2008 interview in The Paris Review: “The most destructive thing we can do is act as though this is some sign of cultural, spiritual decay rather than humans just acting human, which is what we’re doing most of the time.” Ms. Robinson was addressing the question of beauty in modernity, but it had resonated with the actor nonetheless.
“What I hope I ended up doing and what I think I ended up doing — I don’t think I tainted the reputation of the show — is that I gave it a bit more space and context to be more human and less about upholding the myth of the model minority,” she said.
Not too long ago, Ms. Wu returned to social media to promote “Making a Scene” as well as some of her more recent film work. She posted a video on Twitter and Instagram of herself a few weeks ago unpacking finished copies of her book for the first time. She looked happy and excited. Twitter, she told me, can still be a scary place. Some days are better than others, when she can just post and log off. There are still the occasional late nights when she starts scrolling. But she prefers to read a good book instead.