“You literally have to have tough skin,” the actress told Refinery29 over the phone. “Not just your hands — you have [calluses everywhere.] You grip the pole with your inner thighs, you might have them on the backs of your knees, or even the crook of your elbow. There are many different places where you grip the pole.”
Wu plays Destiny, a so-so stripper who finds her luck turning when she meets the glamorous and talented Ramona (Lopez), who takes her under her wing — literally, she opens up her massive fur coat and tucks her in it upon their first meeting. Suddenly, a life of VIP clients, Gucci purses, and surrogate sisterhood beckons.
And then the 2008 financial crisis hits, sucking all the Wall Street guys out of the clubs, and leaving our girls with fewer and fewer options to make money. That’s when Destiny and Ramona come up with a plan to get even: They’ll team up with a network of former strippers, and beat the players at their own game. That sound you hear? It’s the credit cards of bad men being maxed out.
Adapted and directed by Lorene Scafaria from a 2015 New York Magazine article by Jessica Pressler (played by Julia Stiles in the movie), Hustlers turns a female lens onto a narrative that’s long been dominated by men. Thus, that opening scene in the trailer, which could have been yet another opportunity to display these beautiful women’s bodies, instead turns into a display of strength and discipline.
Ahead of Hustlers’ World Premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, Wu opened up about why she took on the role, the best advice about stripping she got from Cardi B., and the one detail she hopes people pay attention to.
Refinery29: What was it that drew you to the role of Destiny?
Constance Wu: “At the time I was reading the script, I was really looking for a project that was about loneliness, because I think it’s really pervasive right now because of social media and political polarisation. It’s interesting because you might think , ‘Oh, it’s a stripper movie,’ and you might instantly have these preconceived notions about it, but what I loved about it is that it’s actually a human story about friendship, and for Destiny, a story about loneliness and abandonment, and the way the culture can make conditions such that you sometimes have to make choices that more privileged people don’t have to make.”
People are going to go into this movie expecting one thing, and come out with a totally different perspective.
“Wall Street and strip clubs are two different sides of the same coin. Our culture teaches men that they are as valuable as the size of their bank accounts. And our culture teaches women that they are as valuable as their sexual attraction. It’s understandable that people are going to exploit the systems that they’ve been told since they were little is how their gender is valued. So yeah, these Wall Street guys do really illegal stuff in order to make their bank accounts bigger, and these women are also trying to make their bank accounts bigger. In a way, they’re taking ownership because they’re exploiting the very sexist culture that’s around them — at least they’re making money off of it.”
Do you think it was important to have a woman director tell this story?
“I am so glad that it was Lorene. I think for the story that I wanted to tell and that Jen wanted to tell, it was very important to have a woman director. It’s a gaze thing, there’s the male gaze, and there’s a female gaze. In a stripper movie, it’s very easy to fall into the male gaze. Lorene says that she thinks of these girls as athletes. If you think about it, they’re using their bodies to make money — that’s what athletes do. They’re both playing games. We have a scene where Jen teaches me how to pole dance, and we’re in sports bras, like we’re not being sexy, this is hard work. These girls are working. So having a female director is what really enabled us to focus on the work that goes behind the optical part, and the humanity that informs it. And Lorene had a keen understanding of both. Women have that understanding.
What kind of research did you do to get into character?
“I definitely went to a bunch of different clubs in various cities, and I befriended a few women who were strippers. I listened to the interview tapes of Roselynn Keo — hours of these tapes. A lot of stuff wasn’t in the article, but I just listened to it on loop, just hearing her voice and talk about the experience. But what was really helpful to me was knowing some of these women and becoming friends with them.”
It feels very significant to have an Asian-American actress in top billing for such a gigantic movie. Were you disappointed at the discourse around that, especially the reports that you had somehow demanded it?
“The script was always written with the character of Destiny as the main protagonist because the New York article was centred around Roselynn Keo, who’s a Cambodian American woman. And it was really nice to play an Asian-American woman and have that be a part of her identity, but not the main thrust of her identity. As far as the billing goes, that is a unique position for an Asian American woman to be in, and I think anytime something stands out from the norm, there’s going to be commentary, and opinion and conjecture. But it’s all there — not just in the script, but in the magazine article. That’s where the story springs from, and that’s where the billing springs from as well.”
There’s a scene in the movie where Cardi B’s character teaches Destiny how to give a lap dance. Was that in the script, or did she really just start teaching you?
“That scene was in the movie, but a lot of the things that were said in that scene were improvised. Cardi has insight! Anything that she said was truly her really teaching me how to do it, and how to do it in a way where you could make your best buck, and you don’t have to do too much. That was so fun because she really knows what she’s doing and I really don’t.”
What was her best piece of advice?
“‘Drain the clock not the cock.’ Actually a lot of the strippers I met said “just go slow,” because after all, you’re doing this every day. It’s just work, and if you go slower, and don’t do as much, it’s also sexier.
One of the most striking details in the film is that almost none of the male characters are named. They’re just not all that important.
“It’s funny because I was working on the script with my acting coach, as I always do, and at one point he was like, ‘You know, I don’t understand, there are no male characters of substance in this movie. Doesn’t that bother you?’ And I was like, ‘Do you know how frequently that happens for women?’ And he didn’t even think about it. It was so unusual for there to not be men of substance that he pointed it out, and it’s so common for women in movies to be underwritten that when I pointed it out, he had to think about it before he realized. Because it’s been normalised.
“It doesn’t mean we don’t like men, it doesn’t mean we don’t value mens’ stories, but this is our story. That’s why I think our set was so peaceful. Because instead of fighting for that one chair at the mens’ table, we made our own table.”