Gemma Chan’s supporting role in Crazy Rich Asians was nothing short of a “Star Is Born” sort of moment for her. She was a beautiful scene-stealer, an Asian Audrey Hepburn in that film. It was only later that I realized I’d seen Gemma in other things (one episode of Sherlock, the first season of Shetland) and that she’d been working consistently in British television for a decade before her “big break” in CRA. Just another “overnight sensation,” huh? Well, Gemma is 36 (GAH!) and overnight sensations in their 30s tend to be more mature about it. I don’t expect any angst or confessions of impostor syndrome. No, Gemma came to slay. Gemma covers the latest issue of Allure, and I can’t say I approve of this cover or the entire editorial. I get what the stylists were going for, but her eye makeup isn’t great and this cover shot is tragique. Thankfully, Gemma kills it in the interview. Some highlights:
Despite being a chronic overachiever, she has a wicked streak: “I was away on an orchestra trip in Italy, and I went missing for a night. They freaked out, thinking I’d gotten lost, but I was in a boys’ room smoking and drinking. I behaved pretty badly.” She was 12 years old.
She’s somewhat shy: “In a new social situation, I’d much rather sit back and let other people talk first. I prefer to listen and, I suppose, get the measure of people before I necessarily give them all of me.”
On her racial identity: She is fully Chinese by heritage, but Chan describes her racial identity as “compound. I feel British, and European, and English, and Chinese, and Asian.”
Playing Bess of Hardwick in Mary Queen of Scots: “Why are actors of color, who have fewer opportunities anyway, only allowed to play their own race? And sometimes they’re not even allowed to play their own race. In the past, the role would be given to a white actor who would tape up their eyes and do the role in yellowface. John Wayne played Genghis Khan. If John Wayne can play Genghis Khan, I can play Bess of Hardwick. I feel like Hamilton opened minds a lot. We have a black man playing George Washington. They describe it as ‘America then, told by America now.’ And I think our art should reflect life now.”
She worked on a documentary about the Chinese Labour Corps. “I studied the First World War three times at school. And I never heard that there were 140,000 Chinese in the Allied effort. We would not have won the war without them.” In large part [people forget about the Chinese Labour Corps], it’s because of the images that remain. Chan tells me about a mural made to commemorate that war. It was massive, she says. There was a whole section dedicated to the Chinese, but it was painted over when the Americans joined the war effort. “They left one kneeling Chinese figure, which you can still see. If people understood that, my parents [might not] have been told, ‘Go home, go back to where you came from’ multiple times. If we portray a pure white past, people start to believe that’s how it was, and that’s not how it was.”
On the British political system: “My issue with politicians like David Cameron, of the Conservative Party, whose fault all of this Brexit stuff is — he went from Eton to Oxford, then I think he worked for a time in communications before going straight into Parliament. He’s lived such a privileged life without any real interaction with anyone who’s having to live under his government’s policy. And I think that distance, that disconnect, is so damaging. I’m so grateful for my work. But sometimes it feels almost absurd to be going onto a set to play kind of make-believe. There are so many things that demand our attention.”
“If we portray a pure white past, people start to believe that’s how it was, and that’s not how it was.” That’s a very real problem here in America too. I imagine it’s a problem throughout Europe. I can only speak to how it is America, when politicians or just regular old white dudes start pontificating about how we need to “return” to some long-lost era, what they mean is return to the whitewashed version of that era, where white folks had all the power and people of color either “knew their place” or were written out of the historical narrative completely. As for this: Chan describes her racial identity as “compound. I feel British, and European, and English, and Chinese, and Asian.” That’s a mouthful, but I understand what she means. Guess she’s anti-Brexit too.
Cover & Instagram courtesy of Allure.