There is a lot you don't know about Constance Wu. But now she's ready to reveal it.
The actor has thus far been best known for playing matriarch Jessica Huang in ABC's groundbreaking sitcom Fresh Off the Boat and Rachel Chu in Warner Bros.' adaptation of Crazy Rich Asians, although performances in the everything from One Life to Live to Eastsiders and the more recent Hustlers and The Terminal List are also important. For a moment in 2019, she also became known as the star of a series that tweeted she was "so upset...that I'm literally crying" after that series was renewed. But what you see on a screen — whether it's a film screen, TV screen, or computer or phone screen — is never the full picture.
For example, did you know that while she was working on Fresh Off the Boat she was regularly sexually harassed by one of the powers that be that she just calls M.? Did you know that she got talked to on that same set for writing "penis" on notepads when her character was writing in scenes? Did you know that she tried to die by suicide after her tweet about the show's renewal went viral? (Well, you probably know the basics of that last thing because she did tweet about it recently.)
Did you know one the traumas that shaped her was a teacher accusing her of plagiarism in eighth grade because the teacher felt she "was not good enough to have written this?" Did you know other formative elements for her included a contentious relationship with her mother, a similarly (but for different reasons) complicated one with her sister, working in a bread factory, finding theater, being sexually assaulted by a man who also gave her what amounts to fan fiction as a parting gift?
Some people say acting can feel like displaying the most raw and vulnerable sides of one's self, but doing so while inhabiting a fictional character still provides a layer of protection. While Wu has undoubtedly used some of these real-life experiences to fuel her myriad performances, she truly opens herself up in a new memoir of essays titled
"When I started this book, did not set out to be vulnerable at all," Wu tells Metacritic. "I think I might have been in a sort of righteous phase of my life and was trying to do something with it."
Although Wu says many people probably think she began writing after the Twitter incident, she actually started years before, about a year into her run on Fresh Off the Boat, when Donald Trump first became president.
"I was having this onslaught of emotion about things that were happening in the political landscape, and I needed to get it out somewhere," she says. "I wrote it and it would be all a mess because everything was so overwhelming. And then the next day I'd look at what I wrote and I'd feel like, 'This is just crap.' But then in a story where I was trying to talk about sexism or misogyny, I'd find a little nugget of something, even if it was just a sentence, but like, 'Oh, I remember when my ex and I skydived,' and I'd be like, 'Oh, that's an interesting story. I haven't thought about that ex in a while.'"
And thus, the book began to take a much more personal shape — one that took the better part of a decade to finish.
"I think why it took me so long to write is because a lot of that it's just ego. I had to wade through that and have a little bit of separation from it — that it wasn't just me writing in a manic frenzy, something that I have to prove. It actually became more of a reflection of why I have the feelings that I have," she explains.
Here, Wu talks to Metacritic about coming to terms with sharing her Fresh Off the Boat stories, working past fear of criticism, and learning to lead with empathy in her writing.
In a lot of celebrity memoirs, especially recent ones and including yours, an emphasis is placed on getting to know the person behind the work in a new way, rather than spending too much time on behind-the-scenes stories at that work. But there has to be a large contingent of fans who want more of the behind-the-scenes bits. How did you reconcile that?
The Fresh Off the Boat one was the last one because I didn't want to write about that. My editor actually encouraged me to write it about that and I say I kept saying, "No, no, no." And then finally I said, "I'll do it as an exercise." And then and then it helped me sort through some things and they convinced me to put it in.
I wasn't thinking about how to appease the audience that might want to hear more of the behind the scenes. The book was more about me understanding what it's like to be a person living in the world today. And I think as a result, my book is kind of ordinary. I don't have any hugely traumatic experiences. I know reading my Fresh Off the Boat chapter might seem like, "Oh, it was awful," and yes, my suicide attempt was awful. That was something that I did, but what happened to me on the set, to be honest, was pretty common back then.
But that has been part of the problem and why speaking up about it is so important. It also shifts perspective on other stories we may have heard about the set at the time. There are different degrees of trauma.
Honestly at the time, I felt like I dealt with it, and I was pretty proud of myself for handling it; I didn't want to revisit it because I didn't want to sound like I was complaining when I have this great job — especially when I handled it. And also, in this world of cancel culture, I don't want anybody to be canceled. That's why I tried to paint myself as honestly [as possible], even if it means showing unflattering parts of myself, like when I probably tried too hard to fit in in the boys club, which meant that I did engage in permissive behave, which can be confusing to both parties. And so, when you have conflicting feelings around that, it's hard to talk about because [in] talking about it, you risk a lot of criticism and judgment.
I had hoped originally once I understood what the book was going to be, that it was just going to be talking about the normal, small things that we all have in our hearts, like our relationships with our sisters, our exes, our others — not the more salacious kind of tabloid stuff that affected me. But that's what everybody wants to focus on. [Laughs]
You just mentioned not wanting to get anyone canceled, which is not something I think many would say about a harasser. Did you find you were holding back or felt more protective of others' stories than your own in any ways because you're only telling the stories from your perspective?
I don't think I would call it holding back holding because holding back means that I was practicing restraint, and I think I wasn't practicing restraint so much as I was trying to practice a little bit of empathy. And so, I think, in that sense, I'm not holding back on saying vicious things that someone else might have said were they in my position, but I'm trying to — instead of focusing on that hurt and pain that happened to me — focus on understanding why it happened, what was happening. I think, in that way, it helps me and the other person because a) I don't get into this pattern of blame and victimhood, b) it grows my own empathy, and c) I stop feeling like maybe it was my fault because I'm starting to think, "Oh, everybody has their own things. Maybe somebody doing this thing to me was a reflection of their own insecurities about how they felt powerless — not because I am a person that deserves to be trampled on. He's probably going through his type of pressure too." So, it was a way of growing my humanity and deciding where to focus my lens.
A minute ago you called the stories you wanted to tell "normal" but also "small." And yet, they couldn't have felt small to you when they happened or when you were writing or you probably wouldn't have remembered enough detail about them to write about them.
I think the ones that I told were ended up being the ones that I haven't been able to let go of. I have that chapter about the teacher who accused me of plagiarism. That was probably my second essay I wrote, and that was so long ago — when I was in eighth grade — but in little kid version of Constance's heart is way more wounding to me than like my tweets or anything that happened in Hollywood because it was when I was so young. I am unable, at 40 years old, to talk about that and not cry.
All of the essays felt like formative moments, but for that one, my notes literally say, "This is a trauma that shapes you." It may not be what we've been conditioned to traditionally think of as a trauma, but it's an instance where you're impressionable and a person in authority is telling you how people think of you, and it's hurtful.
Yeah, and you get scared of talking about it because you know that there are people and groups people for whom the trauma is so much worse. That's why it's scary to write about: You're always opening yourself up to criticism, but whether or not my trauma was as bad as somebody else's doesn't mean it didn't have an effect on me. And that's how I decided to write about it.
During the course of writing these essays, you became a mother. How did that change your approach to the essays you were writing or the lessons you wanted to leave your daughter in the book?
Being a mother has decided has helped me engage my empathy in a different way so that, rather than trying to tolerate or not tolerate the discomfort, I use it to kind of understand myself and my own journey of being a mother too. And also, just being a mom opens your heart a lot, and it makes you feel like, 'What am I trying to prove? Who am I trying to be?' The best things in life are her farts — something as simple as that brings me so much joy. So, if something as simple as her tasting an avocado for the first time is the best thing that's ever happened to me, then what are we trying to do by proving that we have extraordinary stories? I hope that my book celebrates and talks about the ordinary things like your eighth grade trauma, like your first heartbreak, like your longing to be an angsty, moody artist when you're 18.
The chapter about my mother, when I first wrote that, I hadn't reconciled with my mother and I didn't think I was ever going to. That one, I probably have worked on since the beginning — maybe it was the third or fourth essay, but it's changed the most based on my own motherhood. And it doesn't mean that my mom's changed; a lot of the issues that I deal with and dealt with with her continue to be the same.
What about the relationship with your sister and including her own perspective on your relationship via her texts in the book?
I think everybody has a different truth of the experience, which is why, [I included the texts] — and she texted me back a few more things but the parts I put in are the parts that I was allowed to put in. She said, "I think the part that's missing is the way that I thought about you as my protector." And I never thought about that. And her saying, "It's funny to hear that you missed me too" — the word "too" broke my heart. The whole time, I was scared that she was moving on and didn't care about me, but she was also missing me at the same time. And the thing with my sister is we had times where we were fighting and times where we were loving, and she's pregnant now and she's gonna have a kid very soon, and it's continuing to evolve: Now we're talking about being moms and stuff like that. That's why I say things are unsure, not in that they're unstable, but that they're ever evolving.
Now that you have mined so much of your past for these essays, how do you feel about the experience and people you wrote about? Are there things that you think having the experience of working out feelings about through the writing helped you move past or reflect on differently?
When I started it, I was very much a proponent of talking about sexism and misogyny because of all the stuff that was happening around the Trump election, and if you look at a chapter like "Betty and Syd," which is about my next door neighbors growing up, they are two people who probably would have been very conservative Republicans. Obviously, the news and media at the time I knew them is very different than it is now, but it made me, again, grow my empathy. These were the people who loved me; these were my surrogate grandparents. Even when I was an obnoxious teenager trying to show off, they were still kind, and there's something to be said for that. And so, I feel like whenever I find myself tempted to judge or become self-righteous on somebody who is politically on a different side than I am, I think about Betty and Syd and I think that and stories like that, and I think that is how it's changed me: It doesn't mean I have different political motivations, it just means I've just taken the time to not antagonize people who are different than myself.
At the end of the bread chapter, I talked about how I haven't gone back to visit Rich and Sher because I'm embarrassed for some reason. And it's funny because I'm still kind of embarrassed even though I know they'd be lovely. They don't even know I'm writing a chapter about that! I feel like it's OK because I say nothing but nice things. But I had to reach out to Becki, my community theater director, to get permission to have some pictures cleared, and I hadn't talked to her since I was a kid. I was nervous. You don't know who you're supposed to be anymore because your roles used to be adult and kid, but it was so heartening and wonderful talking with her that it was like, why was I scared? But I got to go down memory lane with her and just remember how wonderful theater people are and why her theater felt like home. Maybe one day I'll get the guts to go back [to Rich and Sher] and go, "Remember me? You guys meant a lot to me." But I doubt they'll remember me.