Joan Vos MacDonald talks to best-selling author Kevin Kwan.
When Kevin Kwan wrote the novel Crazy Rich Asians, he had no idea he might change Hollywood. The book, which focuses on the story of Chinese American professor Rachel Chu and her “crazy rich” fiancé, Nick Young, quickly became a bestseller, thanks to a classic romantic plot set in the glittering international stomping and shopping grounds of Singapore’s financial elite. Two more books, China Rich Girlfriend and Rich People Problems, followed to complete the trilogy. Now the Crazy Rich Asians film is set to hit US theaters on August 15.
The film will be more than a Pride-and-Prejudice-style love story with dazzlingly expensive accoutrements. It will also be the first Hollywood film to feature an all-Asian cast in 25 years, the last being The Joy Luck Club in 1993. The trailer release in April drew positive social media and op-ed responses from Asian-Americans, happy to see a film with so many non-stereotypical Asian characters. But Kwan downplays his role in making Hollywood more ethnically diverse.
“I never imagined in my wildest dreams that this book and film would take on the cultural significance that it has,” Kwan told me. “I feel like I’m just a small part of a much larger movement that’s happening, and I’m honored to have played my part. I certainly did not set out to change Hollywood, but I did aim to write a book that would hopefully break the old stereotypes and provide a new perspective on contemporary Asians.”
Kwan feels very affectionate toward his characters, having based some of them on people he knows, so he worked closely with director Jon Chu to find the right actors, drawing candidates from film, television and comedy backgrounds. British-Malaysian actor, model and television host Henry Golding plays the professor-fiancé who is less-than-candid about his patrician background. The actor is not well known in the US, but casting him was not a gamble, says Kwan.
“From the second he walked into the audition room, we all knew he was absolutely perfect and that we had found our Nick Young. He just exuded that indescribable charm and star quality that I know audiences around the world will respond to when they see him on the big screen. Constance Wu was an actress I had long admired, and I knew there was so much more to her than her character in Fresh Off the Boat. I could see her as Rachel from the very start, and this was the case with almost every actor we cast – they just matched the characters in my mind perfectly. One of the exceptions was Awkwafina,” the New-York-based rapper who has collaborated with comedienne Margaret Cho. “I couldn’t visualize her at first as Peik Lin, but now I see how brilliant Jon was in recognizing what she could bring to the role, and she has become one of my absolute favorite characters in the film.”
The actors fit his imagination so perfectly, he occasionally did a double take.
“When I met the actors, I think we did such a good job casting them that I thought I knew them all instantly. I had to keep reminding myself that these people weren’t the characters, and I needed to take my time getting to know them. But in many ways we have all become like family – the experience of making this film with this amazing all-Asian cast was such a great bonding experience. A year has passed since the filming and everyone is still in touch, deep friendships have been made.”
“I aimed to break the old stereotypes and provide a new perspective on contemporary Asians,” Kwan said
One of the remarkable things about the Crazy Rich trilogy is Kwan’s eye for detail, giving readers a glimpse of how Singapore’s moneyed class plays gilded games of one-upmanship by owning the best of everything. Kwan spent part of his life growing up in the privileged world he writes about, and his knowledge of brand names transforms the gossipy trilogy into what Janet Maslin called “giddy wealth porn.”
To ensure the film would accurately depict the details of his Crazy Rich universe, Kwan guesses that he was more involved in the production than many authors.
“I worked extremely closely with our amazing production designer Nelson Coates and the costume designer Mary Vogt, as it really mattered to me that the look of the environments and the fashion had to be perfect. I shared thousands of images with them, including photos from my own family albums, in order to help inspire them as they created the sets and the costumes. I also called on many designers and artisans I know to lend us special one-of-a-kind jewels or outfits for the film. Jon was so committed in getting every visual detail right, so I worked with him very closely on so many things – what precise accent a character should have, how the maids’ uniforms should look, or whether Astrid would really give a certain watch to her husband as a present.”
For a scene that lasted only a second, the director ended up flying an extremely rare vintage Rolex, worth half a million dollars, to the other side of the world. While the production worked hard to re-create as many of the novel’s details as possible, transforming a book into a film script inevitably required cuts.
“A book and a film are two completely different animals, and from the very beginning I knew many changes would have to be made. That’s one of the reasons I chose not to adapt the screenplay myself – I knew I was too close to it to make the hard decisions of what characters or plotlines to cut. But I feel that all the changes that were made were in service to the film – it has made it a spectacularly entertaining two hours of cinema.”
He likes the finished product so much that it’s hard to single out any specific aspect or scene.
“Seeing my characters come to life on the big screen and played by these astonishingly talented actors is still such a surreal experience for me. The whole movie feels like a dream to me. I have seen the final cut, and I do have a favorite scene, but I think it would be unfair to readers to single it out at this moment. But I’m sure it will be many people’s favorite scene, and let’s just say it involves Elvis Presley.”
While he may not have set out to change Hollywood, Kwan is confident the film will alter the requirements for casting calls. After seeing the film more Asian men may be considered for sex symbol roles.
“A good friend of mine, who is an Asian American actor, pleaded to me very early in the process: ‘Promise me you’ll make sure there’s at least one shirtless guy! It’s going to be so important for Asian men to see themselves as objects of desire, and it’s going to lead to better roles for us.’ I discussed this issue very seriously with Jon, and delivered.” ∎
Crazy Rich Asians will be released in the US on August 15.
This story was originally published in the Los Angeles Review of Books China Channel Blog.