Except for one failed pilot for Amazon, Constance Wu never had tried TV comedy when Fresh Off the Boat came along. So it comes as a surprise to the 33-year-old actress to find herself a TV critics’ darling and breakout star of the series about a Taiwanese immigrant couple and their all-American kids, based on the memoir by Eddie Huang. Maybe her comedy-free career—Wu began acting in community theater, studied at New York’s prestigious Lee Strasberg Institute and holds a BFA from the SUNY Purchase Conservatory of Acting—has served as the perfect training ground for portraying tiger mom Jessica Huang, who is at her funniest when the character just doesn’t get the joke. Wu spoke with AwardsLine about comedy, family, and how embracing her Chinese-American heritage has become her most recent career move.
Why did you audition for Fresh Off the Boat?
I was pretty new to comedy. I wasn’t necessarily attracted or not attracted to comedy—I was just interested in working, obviously, because I’ve been on my own financially since I was 18. My parents did not pay a cent for my education, they didn’t give me a car or furniture—I did that 100% on my own. I had to pay back a lot. I was looking for a great job and it was a lead. If I (audition) for a series regular it’s usually the best friend of the lead, or the assistant to the lead, or the secretary to the lead. (At first) they said I was too young, but (at the screen test) I just sort of changed it up; I just kind of carried myself in an older way.
Do you try to play the humor in the character?
I do think there are some actors that can get away with trying to be funny and they’re still funny because they’re just likeable and you want to see them. Me, though, when you see me trying to be funny, it’s like the worst thing in the world. It’s needy, it’s cloying, it’s manipulative—it’s bad. If the writing is good then the writing is already funny. All you have to do is make this funny writing true to the very deepest of your heart, and the fact that you are capable of making this true will be hysterical.
Although your parents hail from Taiwan, you were born and raised in Richmond, Virginia, so you’re culturally more like the children on the show than the parents. How did it feel to inhabit a character with an immigrant’s perspective?
It’s an interesting shift that I’m certainly trying to make with regards to my Asian-ness. In the past I wanted to play a romantic lead that had nothing to do with my ethnicity; I thought that would be progress. I’ve changed my mind on that. I actually think that was me thinking that an Asian has to aspire to a white level of cool, a white level of sexy in order to be accepted. I think what our show does is sort of revel in our differences from the white culture. I think that’s an important mental shift to make.
Are you comfortable with Jessica’s heavy accent?
Well, I am an actor first and foremost. I don’t aspire to just play things that are like me. Whether the accent is Taiwanese or British or Canadian—that is the very craft in which I was trained. It is my absolute privilege and honor to do that.
Why do you think Jessica is so popular with viewers?
She is not perfect—she’s loud and she’s reactive and she kind of doesn’t accept any way but her own. People admire that. (For women) there’s such a culture of shame in America. We’re told to be sweet and kind and not make a row. And I also made sure when I was creating the character to really play the areas in which she had vulnerability. It helps her escape from a stereotype.
It sounds like you are tough, too. Why no support from your parents during your education?
My parents were divorced when I was 18. I was the last thing they were focused on, not because they were mad at me or hated me, but there was so much drama. Also, I’m really stubborn and I have a lot of pride. Even once I graduated, asking for help and asking for money was sort of, like, I’d rather be homeless first.
Eddie Huang has been very outspoken in his criticism of the series, tweeting that he no longer recognizes his edgy memoir.
I think the reason why he’s an interesting and important figure is because he’s very human, and that means he’s reactive and he’s vulnerable, and sometimes he messes up. I think having an Asian person out there who is incredibly human (provides) perspective. Is he giving us a bad name, is he giving the show a bad name? I don’t think so. He’s just being a person in a public space; navigating that is hard for anybody. He’s not perfect. I talk to him a lot, and I know that he’s figuring it out. If you look at Eddie’s book, he was bullied a lot he didn’t feel like he fit in. Same with me. When I found theater—I am willing to bet that in any town you go to anywhere in the world, the theater actors are some of the most accepting and intelligent and curious people you will ever meet—it really was a place where I felt like I was home.