Constance Wu Talks Asian Beauty, Diversity On TV & Her Emmy Snub

After years of intensive study in theater and drama, Constance Wu never saw herself having a career in television comedy. But if you’ve watched her in action on ABC's hit show Fresh Off the Boat (the first sitcom in 20 years centered around an Asian-American family), you’d think that being funny has always been her thing. Dubbed by critics as one of TV’s breakout stars, Wu has charmed her way into hearts and homes across the country, one punch line at a time. Her character, Jessica Huang, is a hard-to-please mother of three, but IRL the 33-year-old skews way more sunny and sarcastic than stern. Here, we chat with Wu about breaking television boundaries, '90s nostalgia, and her adorable pet bunny.

The show is set in the ’90s — did you have any favorite trends or products from that decade?
“I was just talking to the costume designer of our show, and we got into a conversation about chokers…. Chokers and broomstick skirts with bodysuit leotards — those were really cool back then. It’s interesting because a lot of the looks are coming back, but when styles come back, they’re sort of reinvented in a new way, so that’s fun to see.”

Are any of your favorite ’90s trends incorporated into the show?
“A lot of the show is Eddie's story and his point-of-view. A boy who’s obsessed with hip-hop is very different than what I knew as a girl who was obsessed with musical theater. But they actually do have a ’90s musical reference in there: Last year, Eddie went to go see a production of Les Mis, which I was definitely into when I was little. I do think it’s fun to learn about some of the hip-hop stuff I don’t know anything about.”

Television is having a big diversity push right now — with shows like Fresh Off the Boat, Black-ish, Jane the Virgin, and others — do you think the industry is finally waking up and realizing that there are other ethnicities out there that should be represented on TV?
“I think people have always been aware that other ethnicities exist in the United States, but the television landscape has always been more interested in playing it safe in terms of what they invest their money in. One of the benefits of this sort of screen-and-media-obsessed culture we’re living in now is that people are creating content everywhere — whether it’s some place like Netflix or Hulu, or even people making Web series on YouTube — that blows up into bigger things. Like the show I used to do called EastSiders, we just made it for fun, but people responded to it, so it blew up. The people are determining the content, and what [they’re] interested in seeing. And they’re not interested in seeing the same old recycled stories and recycled faces. There are always human stories that are important, but ones told from a different framework are good for everybody to understand that a world exists outside of their experience. It can enrich us all when we know and have curiosity for that other type of experience.”
You obviously don’t have your character’s heavy accent. How did you go about perfecting it?
“I listened to video footage of the real Jessica Huang — she’s a real person in Orlando — reading every single one of my lines. And then I break it down phonetically. From a vocal standpoint, you break it down in terms of the placement of the voice, the rhythms, and the cadences.”

What’s your response to people who say that it’s stereotyping?
“I empathize with people who were afraid that [the accent] was stereotyping, because for those people — who are pretty much all Asian-Americans — the only time that they saw an Asian character on television in a comedy was when that Asian person was a humor tool and not a person whose accent was merely one facet of their [character]. It’s a beautiful part of the story of immigration, so I wanted to make sure that I didn’t water it down to quell the fears — the fears that are based on the shitheads who used an accent as a humor tool. I’m not going to use those shitheads’ metric to determine the worthiness of my voice. If somebody has an accent, that often means they know more than one language, and I don’t think that’s anything to be ashamed of. I actually think that’s pretty fucking cool. Hopefully, we’re writing our own history, instead of trying to be accepted by the white American framework history. Because by trying to be accepted by that framework, we’re already putting them at a higher level than us — and they’re not. They’re not at a lower level than us, it’s just a different story. So let’s start telling our stories.”

Do you think the industry is finally moving away from having ethnic actors typecast in roles like the “Asian overachiever” or “tiger mom?"
“I don’t think we’re moving away from that…. I think the problem is when producers don’t want to tell an Asian story. They still want to have their white lead actors, but they feel bad, so they want to make sure that they surround the lead actor with people of color. So often, I’ll go to an audition that’s for, like, the best friend and the only character description, aside from being best friend, is all ethnicities except Caucasian.... It could be a Latina girl, it could be a Black girl, an Asian girl, it just can’t be white because we already have our white people. In a way, it’s like their bastardized version of trying to be more diverse, without giving props to what diversity really means, which is our individual stories.”

In a way, it’s like their bastardized version of trying to be more diverse without giving props to what diversity really means, which is our individual stories.

Constance Wu
People were really up in arms about your Emmy snub. What’s it like to have that kind of support from your fans?
“Were people up in arms? I don’t even know [laughs]. It’s definitely nice to have support from a community, but there are a lot of things that go into Emmy nominations — it’s a peer nomination. And in terms of having peers in this industry, I don’t. I don’t know anybody, and I don’t really try to know anybody, either. I sort of still stick with my same friends and people, and I don’t really venture out much. So, it is what it is.”

You character, Jessica, has maybe the best lob on television right now. Did you cut it for the show? What's the upkeep like?
“After I saw the pilot, I cut it really short because, I don’t know, I always do things impulsively, which is really dumb. So at the beginning of shooting the season, it was shorter than it had been in the pilot. But they tried to make it look longer, so they made it really stick straight…but then I grew into it. And this year it’s going to be a little more natural looking. I don’t do much upkeep to it. I just go to Rudy’s Barbershop and I do a walk-in. My hair is really, really thick, so if I have a lot of layers in my hair, it just ends up looking enormous. So I say, ‘Just make it as blunt as possible’ — no razor, no nothing, no layers, just blunt. It’s a pretty easy cut.”
Photo: Courtesy of ABC.
You posted a picture on Instagram awhile ago of your baby sheet mask you tried out and, I have to know, have you tried an adult version yet?
[Laughs] “I have, yeah. I finally buckled and got one of those SK-II masks that everybody talks about.” Do they live up to the hype?
“Yeah, they’re pretty good. I’ve maybe used it a couple of times, but I’ve always had pretty good skin, generally, so I haven’t had to worry too much. I’ve also always taken really good care of my skin since I was little, so I guess that’s helpful.” How do you feel about the hype surrounding Asian beauty right now?
“I’m discovering Asian beauty and skin care as the rest of us in America are. I didn’t even know that they have, like, eight steps, or whatever that they do. When I was a kid, nice skin care for me — because I grew up in suburban Richmond, Virginia — was like Neutrogena that you would get at the drugstore. So that’s what I used, Neutrogena or, like, Clean & Clear. I did just get this stuff that’s really great, it’s Soft Finish Sun Milk from Missha. I ordered it off of Amazon and it took, like, three months to get here. And it says that it has 50+ SPF, and I’m not quite sure I believe that, but I really, really like it.” Any other favorite beauty products?
“I started using the SK-II essence that they’re famous for, I really like that. I used a lot of stuff from The Body Shop when I was in college, and I still like that stuff. They have these little Vitamin C capsules that I use. When I put those on, my skin is always really clear and glowing the next day.” You've tweeted in the past that following models on Instagram is like your form of cutting, which rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. What was your reaction to that? And do you still follow a lot on Instagram?
“I wasn’t trying to be funny; it was hyperbole. An hour ago, I said I was going to kill myself if I don’t get a cup of coffee, and that doesn’t mean I’m promoting suicide — I’m not. [I have] kind of stopped [following models] because there’s this whole compare-and-despair thing, and it’s not where I really want to focus my attention.”
You have a little pet bunny. How do you keep her groomed? Is she high-maintenance?
“Bunnies are kind of like cats: They groom themselves. But you don’t want them to swallow too much hair because, unlike a cat, the bunnies don’t have hairballs, they can’t spit it up. I’ll brush her with a flea comb, not because she has fleas, but just because it gets the excess hair out. She pretty much keeps herself clean. I might give her a bath once every six months or so, but she’s pretty low-maintenance in terms of cleanliness…. She’s got a litter box and everything — just like a cat.” What can we expect from the new season for your character?
“I don’t know too much — we’ve shot four episodes, so obviously I know what happens there. I think the period of adjustment to Orlando was a big part of our first season, and I think going into our second season we’re pretty well-adjusted, to at least our surroundings. So it’s more about our individual journeys…. I know Jessica’s really going to get into her real-estate business and then the kids’ story lines are kids’ story lines — the school dance, getting a boyfriend or girlfriend. And then Louis, my TV husband, his story line is going to involve a lot of the restaurant business…I think [laughs]. Since we’re a fall premiere — unlike last year when we were a spring premiere — we’re going to have the classic family stories, like Halloween and Thanksgiving, but told from a nonwhite, Chinese-American perspective.”

More from Beauty

R29 Original Series