Constance Wu is something of a perfectionist. In that respect, she’s a lot like the character she plays on TV, Jessica Huang. Wu portrays Jessica to eerie perfection — several Asian-American friends of mine have indicated how close to home her portrayal of parenting hits — on ABC’s Fresh Off the Boat, now in its second season. The actress has arguably become the sitcom’s breakout star as the family matriarch, a Taiwanese immigrant who recently moved her family to Orlando, Fla., where she strives to make friends, jump-start her real estate career, and raise the neighborhood’s smartest kids. What succeeds in Wu’s performance, which has launched countless memes (a sample line: “No one seems to appreciate how I’m good at everything I do”) is her deft balance of toughness and sensitivity — exacting but tender with her children, blunt but loyal to her friends.
The plaudits (and Emmy buzz) for her work couldn’t be more well deserved, if not somewhat surprising, considering FOB is Wu’s first regular foray into television work. Born in Richmond, Va., the 33-year-old began in theater, doing local community productions in Richmond before earning her BFA in acting at SUNY Purchase. From there, Wu acted in regional theater, smaller independent films, and dabbled in TV (an episode of Law and Order, one of Torchwood, and a pilot for Amazon that wasn’t picked up). It wasn’t until Wu landed the role of Jessica Huang, however, that she got her first glimpse of what it meant to be a star on a big network show – and all the attendant expectations associated with that, especially considering that before FOB’s premiere, it had been more than 20 years since an Asian-American family was the focus of a network show, when Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl lasted just one season.
“When I first got the script, I thought it was really cool — but also impossible,” says Wu, because they never center even one show on an Asian character. “The Asians are always in the supporting roles — the funky, hip girlfriend or the scientist — but this was a show that Asians claimed ownership of.”
When I ask a clarifying question that sketchily sums up her answer, Wu chooses her words carefully. “Just to be clear, I didn’t say that Asians didn’t claim ownership over their own narrative, but I think producers who finance and create content did not invest their time or money into shows that had Asian ownership of their stories,” she says. “I think Asians have always been interested in telling their own stories, but they just haven’t been given the platform to do so.”
It’s clear that the show, simply by doing something that hadn’t been done for decades, faced an enormous set of hopes, scrutiny, and burdens. It’s pressure that Wu was certainly aware of when the show premiered, and one she had no choice but to shake off.
“I do know that there was added pressure because of that, but I didn’t let that affect my work because my job isn’t to please people,” she says. “My job is to be true to the character — and, in an ironic way, it’s only when you let go of needing to please people and become authentic to the character and the story that you end up pleasing them.” And yes, besides being a fan favorite, Wu was widely buzzed about for an Emmy nomination (and was also asked how she felt after being snubbed). It feels, though, as though the praise is beside the point — what Wu really cares about is this notion of authenticity. Which leads me to ask her about the origins of Fresh Off the Boat, the memoir by Eddie Huang that the sitcom is based on, about growing up as a Taiwanese kid with hip-hop tastes in the ’90 in Florida.
If you ask Huang, that’s where the similarities end. The Baohaus restaurateur famously wrote an insider take on the network TV bastardization of his life story, which was roundly disseminated as a bash of the show and an ungrateful example of biting the hand that feeds you. What was it like working on the show when its progenitor was negatively reacting to it in real time?
“It was actually very exciting and inspiring that he had the courage to say what he did,” Wu says without hesitation, “but it was very unsettling to me the way other people received his voice, as if there was one naysayer who was the creator of the show, and that means he’s a jerk or doesn’t support the show. I think if you look at it objectively, this is a person who had never done network television, and now he’s having the story of his life told to a nation — and they’re not giving him any creative control of it.”
“Of course I understand the corporate landscape, and if anybody has their life story told on network television, you’re going to go through some growing pains,” Wu adds, “but I was upset because I think people were very unforgiving of his journey. Yeah, it was a little rough, and yeah, he didn’t always saying the most sugar-coated things, but it was just his figuring out how to have his voice in a new medium. And I applaud him for that. I might be the only one on my show who thinks it’s great, but I continue to talk to him all the time. I think I might be one of the only ones on the show who still talks to him, but we’re close.”
It seems to hit it on the nose to suggest that maybe we were getting a sense of how Wu may have responded in a similar situation, and what she values more in a debate of this nature (personal truth vs. corporatized pabulum; toeing the line vs. rocking — sorry — the boat), but her take on Huang jibes nicely with her ethos as an actor: It’s about what’s real.
It’s probably no surprise, then, that beyond FOB, Wu has her own stories to tell. When I ask what else we can expect from her, the scripts she’s written are the first things she mentions. There might be a few movie roles coming up too, but until then, the security of a regular gig has been a nice thing for Wu, even if it means flying from L.A. to New York on the red-eye, back-to-back interviews and shoots, then back to L.A. for 6 a.m. shoots the next day.
“It’s like any job where you have to do your paperwork and the necessary things,” says Wu, “but you want to do it because you love the show and you want to support this thing you’re part of.”