In conversation with senior editor Lucy Feldman as part of TIME’s “Uplifting AAPI Voices” summit, actor Constance Wu and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before author Jenny Han discussed their groundbreaking work both in front of and behind the camera, the need for nuanced Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) representation and their love for a good rom-com.
TIME: When the film adaptations of Crazy Rich Asians and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before first came out, there was a whole generation of Asian Americans who had never seen ourselves reflected like that. What did those films mean to you? And how did they change things?
Wu: I was in a unique position, having that happen to me with two big-profile projects: first there was Fresh Off the Boat, which was seeing yourself represented on network American TV. That was something that really hadn’t happened in a long time. Crazy Rich Asians was on a bigger scale. People used to say, “Oh, well, she can’t carry a show. She can’t carry a movie.” But that’s why it was hard for Asian Americans—they couldn’t carry a show or movie because nobody had ever let them. With Crazy Rich Asians, with To All the Boys, with Minari or The Farewell, we are truly seeing that it’s not the lack of talent. It’s been the lack of opportunity.
Han: I’ve been in the publishing space for a long time now, and I’ve been a part of many firsts. It’s exciting. At the same time, you’re hoping at a certain point [that] you’re not going to be the first to do something—that we are moving beyond just the need for representation.
Jenny, you ended up working with the one production company that didn’t insist that Lara Jean be played by a white teen. When you look back on that, does it feel far away? Or does it feel like an ongoing battle?
Han: I think the conversation has moved very quickly. I mean, this was 2014; not that long ago. Those were really hard conversations to have, because there was no vocabulary. With To All the Boys, I was nervous up until we started shooting … [I] had to hold the line in terms of saying, “No, I’m not going to do that.” That was its own challenge.
Wu: It’s a hard topic to broach because people often get defensive, and think you’re accusing them of racism. Sometimes people will be like, “I just can’t see an Asian American as the lead of a romantic movie.” There’s a lack of imagination of the types of faces and bodies we think are worthy of love; of course, an Asian-American man can be a sex symbol or an object of affection. But why does it always have to be somebody with six-pack abs? If you look at white actors, there are plenty of movies where the white nerd becomes the romantic lead. I don’t really desire six-pack abs. I desire pizza.
So often when we talk about representation in media, people go to a place of, “We need to tell really serious stories.” And those are important, but so is joy. What draws you both to the rom-com genre?
Han: This is what I like to watch. I think for a long time if you saw a book about a person of color, it was always going to be a story of sorrow and about their struggle with being a person of color. Sometimes you’re walking around, you go, “Oh, I want something light for the beach.” You weren’t really seeing those options. And I was really intentional with To All the Boys about wanting to do some thing that was really where [Lara Jean’s] identity wasn’t the point of the whole story—it wasn’t having to justify her being Asian. And having the imagination to say an all-American girl looks so many different ways.
Wu: Love is the greatest thing in the world. And so is laughter. In any of my projects, I think if something is really deep or dramatic, I always try to make sure I find the levity in it. Same thing if something is really comedic and light: I always try to make sure I find the depth that it springs from, because otherwise it’s just like cotton candy.
Are there narratives that we need to get better at telling? Are there specific stories that you’d love to see more of in Hollywood?
Han: I think just a wider expanse of stories; having that bigger palette to draw from. I think that we’ve really proven that we can do well, so I hope that people will take more chances on stories that we’re not seeing as much.
It feels like sometimes there’s a fine line between representation and tokenism where, in a better world, Asian-American creatives would be able to just do work that feels most authentic to them and be embraced for that. How do you navigate that?
Wu: For me, avoiding tokenism … has been looking for roles where the character doesn’t only exist as a means to tell somebody else’s story. They need to have families, joys, sorrows, loves, enemies all depicted within the narrative. The second you give a token character other qualities, then they’re human— they cease being tokens because they are fully realized.
One thing recently I’ve come across a lot is people trying to offer me parts where I play super suit-y, business lawyer-y type people. And it’s funny because I’ve never played anything like that, so I don’t understand why somebody would think that works for me. And then I’ll read those scripts, and I’m like, wow, I, I don’t know how to say this line. Whereas I have this other show coming out called Solos, where the first line of the script was, “Can you smell my vagina?” I was like, Oh, yeah, see, that line I know how to say.
You’ve both triumphed in industries notoriously difficult for people of color to really succeed in. What is your advice to the next generation?
Han: Follow your passions, and tell the stories that you want to tell. If the passion is there, and creativity, then the audience will find it. I think one of the challenges of being a creator of color [is] that everything ends up being about your minority status in a way. And I’m always happy to talk about that. But I think you want to be at a point where you’re just talking about the craft and the art and the stories.
Wu: Really make sure you nurture the things that don’t have to do with business … your connections to art, to nature, to poetry; the things that actually feed your soul. That’s the well from which your work springs. If that well is dry, the work starts to suffer. At the end of the day, the reason when we were kids that we were moved by a book or a movie was because it came from that place in someone’s heart. Forget about hustling, and just do the things that really warm your heart.
A version of this story appeared in the June 7 issue of TIME magazine
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