In 1993, Wayne Wang directed The Joy Luck Club, adapted from the best-selling novel by Amy Tan. It was the first Asian American-fronted film from a major studio and it was a watershed moment for Asian Americans in cinema — and it was a breakout role for Ming-Na Wen. Does this sound like a familiar story? It should because it’s a similar story to what is happening in 2018 with Crazy Rich Asians.
It’s a coincidence that The Joy Luck Club and Crazy Rich Asians are opening around the same point in the calendar 25 years apart, but there’ also a poetic symmetry to it (side note: actress Lisa Lu stars in both). The Joy Luck Club told a story about the relationships between Asian mothers and their American-born daughters, with Wen’s June at the center of it all. It explored cultural identity through an Asian American lens and paved the way for Crazy Rich Asians. As the star of the film, Wen was a trailblazer who led to the Crazy Rich Asians moment we are celebrating now — but it has taken a quarter of a century to get here.
“For me, it was a bit sad, in a way, to think that it’s taken 25 years for another major studio to back an all-Asian cast in a film,” Wen told Deadline. “I mean, for me, I’ve seen many films that weren’t specifically American films. It took me a second to say, ‘Oh my goodness! Has it been 25 years?’ Hopefully, it will change.”
Wen pointed out that Hollywood is on the right track with Disney’s forthcoming live-action Mulan, which includes an all-Asian cast (she kept us in the dark on whether or not she would make a cameo in the film). “We already know for sure that it’s not gonna take another 25 years for this to happen again. So, that’s kind of nice,” she said of the film.
After The Joy Luck Club, Wen continued her acting career which led to roles as the voice of the titular character in Disney’s animated feature Mulan, ER and now Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD. As an Asian American actress, she has seen the industry change but has been fortunate enough to not be typecast and land roles that would usually be for white actresses.
Wen sat down with Deadline to reflect on her experience in making The Joy Luck Club, what Crazy Rich Asians means for her and for the future of Asian, Asian American and other underrepresented voices in Hollywood.
DEADLINE: It’s been a long time since a contemporary Asian American story was told on screen and having starred in The Joy Luck Club, in 1993 you were a trailblazer on that front. With Crazy Rich Asians, Asian American seems to be having a resurgence. How does this moment feel for you?
MING-NA WEN: I mean, for me, it’s always wonderful to be able to celebrate new Asian talents across the board, whether it’s just a token Asian in a film or television show, or an animated character. It is a big deal to have an all-Asian film to represent us and have it be contemporary and have it be a romantic comedy. I mean, I loved Crazy Rich Asians. I thought it set up really well who these characters were, and it’s also a very universal theme.
DEADLINE: Why do you think it’s taken so long for a major Hollywood studio to make a movie like Crazy Rich Asians. We’ve had films like Better Luck Tomorrow, Gook, and The Big Sick, but those were independent and smaller scale films.
WEN: Well, that’s the clarification that we need to make, right? [Crazy Rich Asians] is being released by a big studio. It’s not like it has been a dry spell since Joy Luck Club. You know, there’s been other movies with Asian thematics like Memoirs of a Geisha. I kind of get a little confused, actually, because there have been other films. I was also very confused when they said it was a very historical moment. I’m like, “No, that would be Joy Luck Club, wouldn’t it?” Historical meaning “the first time.” So when they said “historical,” I was very confused at first. When they explained that it’s historical because it’s taken 25 years, I was questioning that as well.
Ultimately, it’s truly the first all-Asian cast contemporary film backed by a [major studio]. I mean, if we’re gonna put all those categories into its fold, yes, then it’s historical in that sense. But it is true, because even with Joy Luck Club, there were a lot of going back in time and another setting because it also talked about the moms when they were young. So there were a lot of referencing of Old China and the cultural differences between the daughters and the moms. [Crazy Rich Asians] is truly the first film where it celebrates contemporary Asians so that more people can relate. When Joy Luck Club came out, I felt like a lot of people saw it as a foreign film and not as an American film and it didn’t get the recognition or the accolades during the Oscars because, I think, so many people thought of it as a foreign film, even the Academy members.
DEADLINE: But It was a story about an Asian American girl connecting with her culture — “American” being the keyword.
WEN: It was written by an Asian American author of a very popular book about Asian Americans, produced by American production — and that’s how much we have progressed.
DEADLINE: Going back to when you first signed on to The Joy Luck Club what was that experience like? Did it feel like another day at work or did you feel a sense of a “historic moment”?
WEN: Lauren [Tom], Tamlyn [Tomita] and Rosalind [Chao] — we’re still close friends, and I still cherish all our moms. There was an incredible bonding experience for all of us. We went shopping together, we had dinners together, we played poker together — I initiated that. We knew it was a special project. Me, having been a huge fan of the book, I just remember having read it and saying, “If they ever made this book into a movie, I just want to be a part of it no matter what.” Whether I was a PA or whatever. I just wanted to be around it. It was a gift to have been cast as one of the main characters in the movie. That was incredible. Very, very special.
DEADLINE: The film was not only an Asian American story but also a cast led by an ensemble of Asian American females. That was very progressive for the time.
WEN: Historical, right?! I think that’s why it was so relatable to so many people. It’s a generational gap between the mothers and the daughters, a cultural gap, and also just normal issues that you had with family in general, whether it was keeping secrets, raising families, or marrying someone. It was just a family and I think that’s why it has held up and now schools show the film, which I love. I mean, for me, that’s timeless. That becomes something that will be passed on from generation to generation and that’s pretty awesome to be part of a film that has that kind of educational impact and not just an entertainment piece.
DEADLINE: Was there Asian talent behind the camera at The Joy Luck Club as well?
WEN: Well, Wayne Wang was the director, Janet Yang was one of the producers, and there were quite a few people that worked on the project that were also Asian. And also, before I forget, the wonderful difference, also, now having Crazy Rich Asians premiering this week, is that we have social media now. That’s what we didn’t have back then to promote, and get the community out and tell them to go see it and how important it is to see it the first weekend to boost. You know, all that stuff didn’t happen back then. All that stuff wasn’t available to us, and I think it’s wonderful that we can rally the Asian community, as well anyone who is a fan of Crazy Rich Asian book to go and see this movie the very first week. I think that’s a huge difference.
DEADLINE: After The Joy Luck Club, were people approaching you about the impact of June and her story?
WEN: To this day, I still get a great deal of that — between that and Mulan. It’s been really gratifying to know that something that I did 20 and 25 years ago still has such an impact. Not just on the people that watch it, but on their children. The moms come up to me and say, “You know, I love watching it with my daughter.” And it goes across the board. It’s not just Asian Americans. It’s incredible to have Asian Americans and even in Europe when I would do conventions or just travel and have fans come up and talk to me about it. These are the perks of being an actress. We’re not just here as entertainment value, it touches the heart, it touches the soul. That’s what it’s about. It’s about the community. It’s about sharing stories, it’s about sharing life experiences, and being represented.
DEADLINE: When The Joy Luck Club was released, there was hope that it would bring more Asian American stories to the screen. The same goes for Better Luck Tomorrow. But after they opened, they received critical acclaim, but it didn’t really resonate with Hollywood.
WEN: Ultimately, in the end, it’s about economics for Hollywood. If they can smell that something’s gonna make money, they’ll do it. I try not to take it personally on any front. I think for any minority group, there will always be a constant struggle no matter what. I think at the same time, we’re definitely making progress and that’s all that counts and I’m happy to have been part of paving the way, let’s say.
DEADLINE: Did your experience with The Joy Luck Club affect the way you chose roles and projects?
WEN: I’ve been so fortunate. I have not stopped working since I graduated from college and that alone is an anomaly — not just for an Asian actress, but for an actor period. So I take great joy in feeling like I was lucky enough to have kept working all those years.
DEADLINE: Were people typecasting you and offering you Asian roles?
It was more progressive I feel, back in the ’90s, when there was more color-blind casting. Then we kind of took some steps backward a little bit. I kind of like to stay under the radar in many ways. For me, it feels comfortable. But to answer your question, it really was coming to Hollywood with my citizenship with Joy Luck Club and it did certainly open doors. But ultimately, I still had to audition and prove that I was worthy of a particular role.
With ER, they weren’t looking for an Asian American. I was the only Asian in the room full of blondes, brunettes and Caucasian actresses. It was only after I got the part that she became Dr. Deb Chen. That’s no different than my current job on Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD. The part that I played in The Single Guy, that wasn’t an Asian-specific part — I don’t think any of them were, really. They were not looking specifically for an Asian. It was an all open casting. Ultimately, it gets down to the basics. They liked you, they liked your audition, they feel you’re right for the part. It’s all about getting into the door. That’s all — and that has to do with casting people, directors, and producers wanting to see everyone and not just a specific type. Like I said, back then, people were much more into open casting and color-blind casting — or whatever they wanted to call it. There was so many names under the sun. And basically, it was just diversity. Just looking at anyone other than a white person is basically what that meant. And back then, I feel there was more enthusiasm to want to cast with diversity. I mean, that’s how I felt. Maybe I was just one of the lucky few because I was going in for roles of all different characters that were not written specifically for Asians.
DEADLINE: The Joy Luck Club started this Asians-in-American-movies movement 25 years ago. How do you hope Crazy Rich Asians builds on its legacy?
WEN: I think it’s already done its job. I think the excitement, talking about it, Warner Bros. spending money, publicizing it — with the support and buzz that Crazy Rich Asians has been getting, we’ve already won in leaps and bounds. There are new Asian faces out there and everybody did an amazing job in the film.
I really think we’ve already achieved so much, even before the movie comes out. And now all it needs to do is just really do well in the box office and that will just encourage more of us being able to get in the door. Whether you’re a writer with an Asian American or Asian-specific story that you want to tell, whether you’re a director — it’s not just about actors. It’s all across the board. Hollywood loves to bank on something that they feel is the new trend.
DEADLINE: Hopefully it’s not a trend and not just “niche”.
WEN: For me, I feel like I’ve already seen that. I have young kids and I grew up the last decade or so with them, watching animation and I was always so happy because the majority of them always had an Asian animated character. I was like, “Wow. This is awesome.” And then you start seeing more Asians in television shows and in films. And then you start seeing them in commercials more and more. And so, for me, I feel like it’s been a trend — I don’t want to say a trend. It’s been a pattern that has accelerated because China’s a huge market and we have a lot of huge production companies in China wanting to work with Hollywood. And then once again, I go back to economics. If you don’t take it personally, and you realize that there’s going to be more of this pattern moving forward, it’s an exciting time. And I’m welcoming it.
DEADLINE: And now that The Joy Luck Club is 25, can we expect any sort of celebration to mark the anniversary?
WEN: I know the Academy is doing a special screening of it August 22. I’m hoping to, if I’m working that day, to be able to at least make it to the Q&A panel after the screening. But Wayne Wang, Amy Tan, Ron Bass and Janet Yang and a bunch of the actresses are going to be on the panel.
DEADLINE: That’s good to know that it’s being celebrated. There’s just something about The Joy Luck Club that affects a very specific generation of Asian Americans.
WEN: It was the first time a movie was telling our Asian American experience, really. You have to hand it to Amy Tan for being able to tap into it so well and so beautifully, with such lush images and historical accuracies about the kind of culture that happened back in China when the moms were growing up and what the contemporary American women who were their daughters were experiencing trying to cope with what we coped with — which was trying to fit in and trying to be part of the American society, and yet always feeling a bit like foreigners. That’s what was so brilliant about Amy Tan’s book — was that it really told our experience. I remember reading that book and going, “Oh my goodness. For the very first time, somebody also lived my life in so many ways.” It never even occurred to me or dawned on me that another person experienced similar things that I did.