Warning: This story contains spoilers for Hollywood, streaming on Netflix May 1.
Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood deals in equal parts reality and fantasy. Set in post-war Los Angeles, the seven-episode series is both a history lesson in the golden age of Tinseltown and pure wish-fulfillment, a glimpse into what could have been, and what still could be, if only we’d stop standing in the way of progress. In this universe, Rock Hudson ends up in a happy relationship with a man, free from the fear that would keep him in the closet for most of his life; a black woman wins Best Actress 56 years before Halle Berry’s historic 2002 acceptance speech; and pioneer star Anna May Wong finally gets the respect and acclamation she’s due.
“As an Asian American actor you don't get very many opportunities to play someone like this,” Michelle Krusiec, who plays Wong, told Refinery29 over the phone ahead of the series’ premiere on Netflix. “It always feels like everything's precious, and also who she is in our community is so tremendous. I felt the pressure, not just from the community, but just a personal sense of devotion.”
With that in mind, Krusiec didn’t just audition to play Wong. She became her. As soon as she got the call to come in and read for the part, the actress brushed up on Wong’s filmography, and hired a makeup artist to apply the star’s signature dramatic look, with a custom wig to complete the ensemble. She also worked with a dialect coach to nail Wong’s diction.
She got the job and plays a pivotal role in shaping one of the show’s most emotional arcs. In Hollywood’s second episode, “Hooray For Hollywood: Part 2”, Wong gets a visit from director Raymond Ainsley (Darren Criss), who wants to pull her from retirement to play the lead in a new film he’s pitching to Ace Studios called Angel of Shanghai. As a half-Asian man who can pass as white, Ainsley wants to use his power to give visible minorities a chance, and he’s written a script to specifically showcase her talent and range.
“She was a very modern actress,” Krusiec said. “Very natural, very fluid — she was not melodramatic. Every time I watched her work, even in the stereotypical parts, she's really fucking good.”
When we first meet Wong, she’s drunk and a near-recluse, beaten down by years of systemic racism in the industry. Looking back at her history, it’s easy to understand why.
"It really is tremendous that she persisted and persevered in spite of it all, even though she died this very lonely death.”
Widely considered to be the first Chinese-American movie star, Wong was born in Los Angeles in 1905. Her parents, who owned a laundry, were second generation immigrants. Their parents had come from China and settled in California in the late 19th century.
In 1919, Wong answered a casting call for a film called Red Lantern and got her first part as an extra. At 17, she dropped out of high school to pursue a career as an actress. Her first lead role was in 1922’s The Toll of the Sea, Chester M. Franklin’s silent take on Madame Butterfly. But far from ushering in more opportunities, Wong was repeatedly sidelined into stereotypical and caricatural roles and passed over for lead parts in favour of white actors in yellowface. Because of anti-miscegenation laws, she could not be cast opposite white male actors as a romantic lead, let alone kiss her co-star on-screen. So in 1928, she left Hollywood for Europe, where she enjoyed significantly more popularity and respect.
By the early 1930s however, she returned, with the hopes that things might have evolved. They hadn’t. In a Hollywood flashback, we see one of the most egregious slights against her unfold. In the scene, which is based on real-life events, Wong auditions for the lead part of O Lan in 1937’s The Good Earth, based on Pearl S. Buck’s sprawling novel about a family of Chinese farmers struggling to survive in the early 20th century. But despite having nailed the performance, the part goes to Luise Rainier, who won an Oscar for the role.
It’s a devastating scene, made even more so by the realisation that these are still issues we’re struggling with today.
“I drew a lot on my own personal experience,” Krusiec said. “I actually identify quite a bit with what she went through, sadly enough. I've had friends that have told me nightmares where they have to wear a prosthetic to look more Asian — and that’s in the past 10 years.”
“I really felt like there was very little change, and it was very disheartening,” she added, noting that she had to find the upside in order to play the role. “I had to figure out just for myself, What happened that was good there? It really is tremendous that she persisted and persevered in spite of it all, even though she died this very lonely death.”
Wong did have a comeback of sorts after The Good Earth debacle. During World War II, she starred in Bombs Over Burma and Lady From Chungking, and donated her salary to organisations offering economic and humanitarian relief for China, then under Japanese control. But Wong's relationship with China remained fraught. Although she traveled there in 1936, she was lambasted by reporters who took issue with the stereotypes she brought to life in her films.
In 1951, Wong starred as the protagonist of The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, the first TV series to centre around an Asian-American character. She played an art dealer who gets wrapped up in international conspiracies and ends up playing detective. But though the show aired in prime time, it was canceled before its second season, and all episodes have since been lost.
In 1960, Wong finally got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Just a year later, she died of a heart attack, unsung and mostly unremembered until years later. Still, her legacy lives on more strongly than ever today.
In 2019, Lucy Liu became the second-ever Asian-American woman to be immortalised with her own star — right next to Wong’s. In her speech, she paid tribute to the woman who paved the way nearly a century earlier.
“I was lucky that trailblazers, like Anna May Wong and Bruce Lee, came before me,” Liu said. “If my body of work somehow helped bridge the gap between stereotypical roles, first given to Anna May, and mainstream success today, I am thrilled to have been part of that process.”
Hollywood gives Wong a much happier ending. She’s cast in Ainsley’s (fictional) film Meg, and, in the show’s final episode “A Hollywood Ending,” wins the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress at the 1948 Academy Awards.
In reality, that milestone wouldn’t be crossed until nearly a decade later. In 1957, Miyoshi Umeki became the first and only actress of Asian heritage to win Best Supporting Actress for her role in Sayonara. To this day, no actress of Chinese descent has ever won an Oscar for Best Actress, or even been nominated.
Like Liu before her, the weighty significance of walking towards that stage and delivering an acceptance speech as Wong wasn’t lost on Krusiec, who, until she read the final script, remained convinced that her character would lose. “It was an almost out of body experience to be in that shrine, and having this moment where Anna May Wong gets an Oscar,” she said.
As if to add to the surreal atmosphere, in an almost mystical coincidence, Google released a Google Doodle celebrating the actress on the same day as the shoot.
“In my mind, I won the Oscar,” Krusiec said. “If I was ever nominated, it would just be recreating that moment.”