Oxford law degree in hand, and a near professional-level violinist, Gemma Chan was poised to become a top-notch London lawyer, when instead, she did an about-face and threw herself into acting. One of the reasons she cites for that decision is a desire to move the diversity needle through storytelling, but at drama school, she was warned that being of Asian descent, she may not get auditions, since the UK leaned heavily toward period pieces. And now her role of Bess, Elizabeth I’s right-hand woman in Mary, Queen of Scots, has refuted all that. She’s also Astrid Leong in the all-Asian industry-changing blockbuster Crazy Rich Asians, and this year she’ll star as Minn-Erva in the female-led Captain Marvel–the first of its kind. As she prepares to head to the Critics’ Choice Awards, Chan calls for more female directors, reveals her hopes for Crazy Rich Asians’ follow-up China Rich Girlfriend, and discusses the challenges of getting into Marvel makeup at 3am.
With both Mary, Queen of Scots and Crazy Rich Asians in the awards conversation, you’re moving that needle.
Well I feel really lucky and really grateful that I am part of this change that’s going on. And I really feel that it’s only been in the last year, or two years, that things have really shifted. I have been fortunate that I have always worked, but both of those films I think I could never imagine them being cast the way that they were, and even being made, to a certain degree. I couldn’t imagine them being made about five years ago. I don’t think studios would have taken the chance. So I’m really happy that things seem to be shifting, and it feels like it’s not just a trend; I feels like we’re here to stay. I’ve been talking a lot with Michelle Yeoh, Awkwafina and Constance (Wu). I’ve seen them quite a bit over the start of awards season, and we’re saying we don’t want special treatment. I think all that anyone wants is equal opportunity and a seat at the table. And I feel that we’re finally getting to that point. There’s still work to be done. But yeah, I just feel really, very proud, very grateful to be part of this change.
And making that change was in your mind when you set out to be an actor? What were all the reasons you chose this path over being a lawyer?
I think the appeal for me was several different things. I was quite shy when I was a child and I’d always done drama and music and that was really my outlet where I felt I could be really free. I’ve always been really interested in other people, and other people’s lives, and as an actor you get to experience, to a certain degree, walking in other people’s shoes and seeing things through their eyes. That, for me, was what appealed, I think initially.
And then I suppose beyond that is the ability to tell stories, and I don’t want to overstate the power of films and theater and television, but I think you really can have an impact when you find a story that means something to people. You can really touch people’s hearts in a way that I think, especially now that facts don’t seem to matter as much and don’t seem to have the impact that they should. It seems that storytelling is all the more important. And I’m not saying every single job that I’ve done has been that kind of story, but when I have been part of those projects where it has been something meaningful, it’s so incredibly satisfying.
When you talk about facts not meaning what they should, are you talking about the political climate?
Yes. I think we can’t underestimate the power of storytelling to influence a wider society’s idea of who we are. I think a big problem with what we’re seeing today with things being so divided, it’s a problem of both education, and the way we teach history. I think if we taught the history of, for example, empire and colonialism, I think we would understand much more why we are where we are, why certain countries are where they are. When black people get told to go home, or about the Windrush generation. I wasn’t taught anything in school either about the British Empire. They are here because we were there. That’s the truth. So I think people would be a lot less prejudiced and a lot less hostile if we understood history better. I think you can do that through education, but you can also do that through storytelling. There are so many stories that have been lost to history, and what I want to do is to try and find those stories. Often history’s written by the winners. I’m interested in the stories of the losers. Telling those stories and really helping to bridge that gap, and rather than people seeing it as ‘us and them’, widening the idea of ‘us’, the definition of ‘us’, to include more people.
I think it’s been such an amazing year–you’ve got films like Black Panther, BlacKkKlansman, If Beale Street Could Talk. I don’t see things as just from an Asian American perspective, a win for Asian Americans, or the Asian diaspora. It’s about more than that, I think. I really wish such success for all of those other films as well, because I think it benefits all of us, white people included, not just minorities. It really is for the benefit of all.
Another ground breaking thing about your work this season has been highlighting women. You’ve got a big period piece with a female director–Josie Rourke–and female-led cast on Mary, Queen of Scots, and now Captain Marvel, a female-fronted and directed Marvel film.
On the one hand it makes me a little bit sad. I finished drama school 10 years ago and I can count on one hand the number of female directors I’ve worked with. Which is really sad for a decade of working in the business. So on the one hand it feels a bit overdue, but at the same time it feels wonderful that it’s finally happening.
There’s no reason why women shouldn’t be in those positions, having a seat at the table, making decisions, leading projects, and it’s been a really wonderful experience to be surrounded by these women. In my experience so far, there’s been no unnecessary drama, there’s been a bit of no sense of ego. It’s been just people wanting to do the best work. But I’ve worked with amazing male directors as well, I should say.
But I think, again, it’s about this access to opportunity isn’t it? In the past the excuse has always been, ‘Oh, we can’t find the talent, we can’t find a female director who’d be able to handle this kind of budget.’ Well, you know what people? You don’t find them if you don’t give them that chance. It’s that Catch-22 situation. So, now that we’re giving women the shot at helming these projects, I just think it’s going to go on from there, and studios won’t be able to make that excuse anymore.
Your role in the Crazy Rich Asians sequel China Rich Girlfriend is set to be much more central, as Astrid’s marriage hits the rocks. Are you excited to dig into that project?
Yes, I think we’ve really got a gift in Kevin Kwan’s novels because there’s such a wealth of material there. I don’t know exactly what they’re going to do in the sequels, but I think if they want to explore more of Astrid’s back story, the history of her marriage and her relationships, and also what she’s doing with her life, I think it’s really exciting. You leave her at the end of the first film and you know, anything’s possible. I’ve loved it. I love playing those kinds of parts. What you see with Astrid is not necessarily what you get. There are layers to her. She’s someone who seemingly has it all together, but yet there’s a whole lot of stuff going on beneath the surface. So that’s been great. I’m really looking forward to diving back in there. I think it’s some way off though. [The Director] Jon Chu’s is a very busy man. So I doubt we’ll get to it until 2020 or thereabouts. Whenever we manage to get back together to do it, I’m really looking forward to it.
How has the Captain Marvel experience been? I heard you had to be in make-up at 3am…
It was very different to any other job that I’ve done. I enjoyed the physical challenge of it. I had to train for it. I loved working with Brie (Larson) and with (directors) Anna (Boden) and Ryan (Fleck) and the rest of the cast. They’re all brilliant. I think the caliber of the people and the talent that Marvel can attract is what’s really attractive to me. I think it’s going to be fun. I haven’t seen it. I’ve heard a rumor that we’re not going to be allowed to see it. I think it’s Marvel policy, so I guess I’ll find out what makes the final cut when I see it with everyone else. But it was fun to play something completely different. I mean, the makeup side of it was challenging, having to get there so crazily early, and then being one of the last to leave because the derig takes another hour after you’re finished, so that was really tough, but, I loved it. Brie’s a wonderful actress and she’s just a really good sort. I think Marvel’s got such an amazing team. An incredible amount of work goes into it, and they really took care.