REPRESENTATION MATTERS

Hollywood initially wanted “Crazy Rich Asians” to cast a white lead actress

Constance Wu plays the economist Rachel Chu in Crazy Rich Asians
Constance Wu plays the economist Rachel Chu in Crazy Rich Asians
Image: AP/Chris Pizzello
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Constance Wu seems so well-suited to her role as Rachel Chu in the box-office hit Crazy Rich Asians that it’s hard to imagine any other actress playing the coveted part.

But in an alternative reality, the role could have been given to a white actress. As Kevin Kwan, author of the novel upon which the movie is based and executive producer of the film adaptation, told Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross in a recent interview, one of the producers who initially approached him to option his book said the offer was contingent on rewriting the role of Asian-American economist Rachel Chu as a white girl.

Kwan didn’t bother responding, but he wasn’t particularly surprised. As he told Gross:

This was back in 2013. So this was way before the whole Hollywood whitewashing movement began, before all the waves of outrage that happened — justifiably so, with the casting of Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell, things like that. So it was early days yet, and I knew that this movie would be a challenge because I knew it needed an all-Asian cast, and so I knew that a lot of traditional Hollywood would find it to be not a viable project, and so that’s why I chose to go the team that I did. We thought we would really produce this outside of the studio system and it would be an independent film. … It’s taken on a whole other life that I never dreamed was possible.

The producer’s original offer speaks to the degree to which whitewashing is ingrained in the Hollywood mindset. It’s also perplexing, given that a large degree of Kwan’s plot explores the tensions between Rachel, as an “American-born Chinese,” and her boyfriend’s pedigree-obsessed family in Singapore. Had Rachel been white, much of the plot’s incisive exploration of Asian identity would have been lost entirely.

And, of course, the film likely wouldn’t have been considered such a triumph of representation in white-centric Hollywood. Kimberly Yam, the Asian voices editor for HuffPost, recently summed up the significance of the all-Asian cast in a poignant Twitter thread.