Gemma Chan is a girl on the rise following her breakout role in Crazy Rich Asians and the Britishborn actress is on a mission to make her fame count
FACT: Gemma Chan’s character, Astrid Leong, gets one of the best lines in Crazy Rich Asians. There was a collective shout of feminist empowerment at a preview when Astrid confronts her husband’s infidelity head on and lands her zinger – “It’s not my job to make you feel like a man. I can’t make you something you’re not”. Beautiful, poised and a graceful picture of quiet strength, Gemma was reportedly being eyed up for the lead role of Rachel Chu, but she preferred to take on the more intriguing part of a society lady trapped in an unraveling marriage.
“Astrid was my favorite character when I read the books. Yes, she’s undeniably glamorous. She’s an enigma, but she’s someone who, as well as being incredibly stylish and all of the other stuff that is superficial, she’s someone who has heart. She’s kind but she’s also suffering,” says the 35-year-old of her on-screen persona.
“People may not realise it, but she is someone who is really struggling to hold it together. That, for me, is the most interesting thing to play. It was great fun putting on these amazing outfits, but I was interested in getting underneath the character’s skin and finding out what was the emotional truth of the journey that she was on.”
That cerebral dissection of her character is just one of the reasons why Gemma was so perfect for the part, because like Astrid, the actress is paving the way for minorities in contemporary cinema by smashing the submissive and sexualised stereotypes associated with Asian women.
Putting The ‘A’ In Asian
Born in London to an engineer from Hong Kong and a Chinese-Scottish mother who is a pharmacist, Gemma was raised in Kent and also has a younger sister. As a young girl, Gemma learnt ballet and also played the piano and violin. Apart from spending her childhood being classically trained in the arts, she also swam competitively and even reached the national levels as a teenager.
She also has a pre-fame resume that would make any overachieving Asian student cry in delight: After toying with the idea of becoming a professional classical violinist, Gemma read politics at Oxford University. She then secured a post-graduate job with revered international law firm Slaughter & May but turned it down to go to the respected Drama Centre London.
She paid her own way through acting school in a bid to appease her parents who were far from happy at her decision to pursue a career as an actor.
“My parents were worried. It’s not the most stable of jobs and added to that, they are the children of immigrants and come from a background where they didn’t have much; it was all about security for them. It was difficult; and we disagreed over it,” she recalls of the conflict.
But the risk was worth it. After starring in a slew of supporting appearances, the Londoner nabbed a prized role in the first Hollywood-produced movie with an all-Asian cast in 25 years, Crazy Rich Asians.
Kevin Kwan’s novel-turned-film adaptation focuses on the opulent lives of Singapore’s ultra-rich, but at its heart lies a story about family. The author himself spoke about how his own close-knit but dysfunctional family has shaped the narrative of his novel, and it’s a feeling that Gemma can relate to.
“We should be called the ‘Crazy Bad Asians’, because so many of us involved in this project have defied parental expectations. You have to be a rebel in a way to be a creative. Even though I have a law degree, I didn’t want to practise it,” she explains before adding jokingly, “There are at least two other lawyers in the cast so we could start our own law firm.”
If you’ve been impressed by Gemma’s biggest cinema splash to date, wait till you hear what’s next for the actress. She will follow up her box office success with December period drama Mary Queen of Scots alongside Margot Robbie and Saoirse Ronan. She’ll also be joining Marvel’s Cinematic Universe in Captain Marvel next year with Brie Larson, playing an alien.
A DESIGNER’S DREAM
Like her character on Crazy Rich Asians, Gemma shines in the fashion department. The actress has used the promotional tours and red carpet events for the film as an outlet to champion American and European designers with Asian heritage. “I was keen to use this opportunity to throw the spotlight on Asian creativity,” says the billowy actress. Here are some head-turning looks Gemma has turned up on the red carpet to showcase her crazy good style:
Left: Silver Siren The onetime aspiring violinist wears a metallic gown by Self-Portrait on a night out in London. The label is helmed by Han Chong, who hails from Malaysia. Right: Shining Example Gemma goes for gold in this Oscar de la Renta frock co-designed by the Korean-born, New York-based Laura Kim.
Ruby Red Delight A vision in crimson, Gemma turns to Jason Wu to inject some sexiness into her wardrobe for the GQ Men of the Year awards.
Outside of her day job, Gemma has been committed to using her fame for good as she eyes projects that involves roles for Asians and other people of colour.
“When I left drama school, I was told by the voice teacher, ‘Be prepared that you are going to really struggle; most of the output from the UK is period drama and you won’t get a look-in.’ And for the first few years that really was the case,” she says. “I didn’t even get a chance to audition.”
“I hope that this is just the beginning. I hope that it opens the door for more diverse stories to be told,” she says of Crazy Rich Asians. “I would love to see stories that aren’t even just from Asians, either. All minorities should be able to have their stories heard.”
As for her future with Astrid, Gemma says it’s far from over. “So much happens in the books. There’s a wealth of potential storylines in the material, probably enough to make more than three films. I would actually love to go back and look at the journey of how she became a style icon, and how she fell in love with her husband, Michael,” Gemma says.
“And Charlie [her ex-fiancee, played in the movie by Harry Shum Jr] as well. There’s a whole section where Astrid is in Paris with Charlie. We’ve joked that we have to do ‘Astrid: The Paris Years’ and Jon M Chu [the director] is keen on that as well!”
Plaid Power Showing Singapore some love, the actress wows in a dress by designer Prabal Gurung who is Nepalese by birth but grew up here.
Petal Pusher Gemma creates a kerfuffle in a floral dress by Kenzo, which was founded by Japanese designer Kenzo Takada in 1970.
SLOW - BURN STARLET
Follow Gemma’s journey from small screen stardom to Hollywood heavyweight
Since 2015, Gemma has played the lead role of the striking robot, Mia, in Humans.
The Oxford graduate eased her way into the big screen in 2016 with a French film called Belles Familles.
She’ll don a corset in Oscar bait Mary Queen of Scots, playing Bess of Hardwick, Elizabeth I’s confidante.
She starred in action-thriller Stratton opposite rumoured beau Dominic Cooper in 2017.
Gemma will lend her star power to Captain Marvel, which is due for release in March 2019.
As fashionista Astrid Leong in Crazy Rich Asians, Gemma has seen her popularity skyrocket.
TEXT: JESSICA YOUNG / ADDITIONAL REPORTING: NATALYA MOLOK / PHOTOS: GAVIN BOND/BAFTA / CAMERA PRESS / TPG NEWS / INSTAGRAM: @GEMMA_CHAN