Kevin Kwan’s wildly popular novel, Crazy Rich Asians, is poised to be Hollywood’s newest big-budget book-turned-movie franchise — one that will uniquely spotlight Asian culture. Tess Paras is an actress (CW’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) as well as a writer and activist who often uses comedy as a means to dissect stereotypical representations of Asian Americans in the media. In light of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and the release of Kevin’s newest novel, Rich People Problems, we connected Kevin and Tess to talk shop and discuss the crucial role creators play in shifting society away from a predominantly white, mainstream narrative. They jumped at the chance — be a fly on the wall of their conversation below.
Tess: So, tell me about how Crazy Rich Asians was adapted from a novel into a film. It’s so cinematic to me, the storytelling is so visually rich. Did you envision it being a movie while you were writing it?
Kevin: I really didn’t. I didn’t even think it would ever be published. It was just a labor of love that I was doing for myself, and maybe for some friends to read for their amusement. The fact that it’s come to this point is kind of surreal.
Tess: Who approached you to do the movie? How did that work?
Kevin: It began even before the novel came out. I guess there’s a pipeline between the top publishers and Hollywood. Hollywood agents get briefs of books that are coming out that they think are going to be big. There was advance buzz about it. Studios were already knocking on the door, wanting to have talks and meetings and stuff like that. It all heated up all before the book was released.
Tess: What was important to you about finding a match for the project? Were there certain tenets where you were like, “They have to have this?” How did you know who you wanted to work with?
Kevin: I had one very simple ask, which was I wanted to be involved in not just the adaptation, but also the creation of this film. I went out to LA and had a few days where it was like a beauty contest, where all these producers came and met with me and basically pitched their hearts out–
Tess: It’s so funny that you call it a “beauty contest,” because to me it feels like dating.
Kevin: Yeah! It was like speed dating. It was incredible to be in a room with these great producers who were interested. I’ve been involved every step of the way in every important creative decision. I had a vote.
We’re filming now. I’m working directly with (director) Jon M. Chu and the team on the ground — from the production designer to the costume designers — and am also in dialogue with the actors who have been coming to me for character notes and stuff like that.
Tess: Sometimes I feel like American consumers of film don’t get that there’s a whole other world out there with a different worldview. That Asian American isn’t the same thing as Asian. This story is not just going to be that stereotypical Asian representation, how Asians have been portrayed in Hollywood films as we know it.
Kevin: Completely different, yeah. That’s exactly why I began writing the book, because I wanted to introduce the West to the concept of the real Asia and contemporary Asia, where people are empowered and their lives don’t revolve around the West at all.
Tess: The word that everyone is throwing around is “diversity.” In diversity of film and diversity of cultures, it’s not just having a token Asian in your movie who plays the sidekick/martial artist/femme fatale. There is diversity within Asian culture: East Asians, South Asians, Pacific Islanders. It’s not a monolith. In Crazy Rich Asians, you have characters and stories referring to mainland China, Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia, and you delve into where Filipinos are in the whole system of socioeconomic class as well. I can’t wait for folks to see it. I have high hopes that people will realize, “Hey, there’s more than just one type of Asian. There’s diversity within Asian-ness.”
Kevin: I’m in dialogue with a lot of readers and they — especially the ones in the West — have been blown away by what they’ve read. Not really even about the grandeur and the money and this and that, but the nuances. It’s so new to them. I think it speaks to our education system here in the US and how it’s so myopic and US-focused. When people think of Asia, they think of China, basically. They think China is all of Asia. Actually, a few days ago I was talking to someone, a highly intelligent, educated adult American and I said, “We’re filming in Malaysia now.” This person was like, “How close is that to China?” They thought it was part of China. I literally took out my phone and showed it on the map. I was like, “It’s nowhere close to China. There are five countries on top of Malaysia before you even get to China.”
When Crazy Rich Asians first came out as a book, I would do all these book clubs. So I would be doing book clubs in suburban Texas for rooms of 30 women — white, American, Texan women — and at that time, there was a rumor that there was a producer that was interested in acquiring the film rights, but they wanted to change Rachel [one of the main characters] to an American girl.
Every time I mentioned it to a book club, the women would just scream. They would be irate. They would go, “Oh my God, that’s missing the point completely and why do people in Hollywood just think that all we want to do is see white people on screen? We love this book because it’s about Asia. It’s about Asian characters.” They get it and they love it and they’re hungry for it. They want more of that.
Tess: You’re in a great position, because of the success of the book, to be able to fight for the authenticity of the story. I wonder, why is that not happening now? It upsets me. There are so many conversations that have to take place in the production and development of a film. Why is it that we see these whitewashing controversies happening? Why aren’t people having the harder conversations?
Kevin: I can only speak from my experience and my experience has been one of receptivity, of top producers like Nina Jacobson being committed and loving what we’re trying to do, of Warner Bros. getting behind this movie and being incredibly conscious. They’re so worried about every single actor in this movie. They call me and they’re like, “Will people be upset? Will people be offended if they’re Filipino, or they’re Eurasian?” They care. That’s been my experience with Warner Bros., that they’re trying to get this right.
Tess: That’s great. I wonder why it’s not more like that—
Kevin: It’s the obsession with the bottom line, a big box office. It’s more than just an Asian issue. The Asian issue is a big one, I’m not nullifying that, but independent movies or movies with real stories aren’t being made these days. Everything is a franchise movie. Everything is a Marvel movie. You know what I mean?
When you tell me, “Having someone of a different color can’t open a movie” — that just infuriates me. That we have to use the same 10 actors in every film. That infuriates me.
Tess: There are a couple things converging here. I think what you’re saying is right. We are neglecting our indie film community and neglecting those making authentic, original stories.
Everyone’s always talking about how this generation doesn’t have their Joy Luck Club. I feel like this will be our generation’s Joy Luck Club. I’m sure comparisons have been made.
Kevin: To actually say that is interesting. It’s the first all-Asian cast since The Joy Luck Club. It’s been 26 years since Hollywood did something like this. It’s actually the first mainstream Hollywood movie ever that’s a romantic comedy with two Asian leads or an all-Asian cast, you know?
Tess: As a Filipino actress, I’ve had a couple of “firsts.” They told me that my arc on Grimm on NBC was the first Filipino American storyline on primetime television. I was like, “I made a first!” And now I’m part of the first Filipino family on American network television on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. It’s amazing to be pioneers, but at the same time, it’s a long time coming and we need more.
Kevin: As we began brainstorming, as we began talking about actors, [the studio was] very conscious of wanting to be as ethnically appropriate as possible. They’ve become educated and much more conscious. They were especially concerned because my movie has so many ethnic groups speaking with different accents, in different languages and in different dialect groups.
They wanted to be as faithful as possible to my book and to the characters. We found out as we began casting that there really aren’t enough English-speaking Asian actors out there. This isn’t specific to the movie, but for example, it’s tough to find an English-speaking Chinese actor of Hokkien descent.
Kevin: We had to make a lot of adjustments. Finding actors between the ages of 25 and 35 for the roles was challenging. We realized it’s because there really is a lack of Asian actors [in the West] of that age. I would say that it’s a cultural issue in America. If you are a good-looking, young Asian American that’s going places, you’re at Harvard Business School or you’re becoming a doctor or a lawyer or you’re working for Google.
Tess: I come from a family of doctors, my parents are both doctors, and I don’t think that they came over here from the Philippines in the ‘70s to be like, “You know what? I hope our daughter goes to NYU and becomes an actress.” That was not the point.
Kevin: Right. There was a bigger pool of actresses from the US, from Australia, from England, from Canada for all the female roles. For the males, we were like, “Oh shit!” We really thought there would be so many more. We had to start thinking outside the box and go, “Okay so you know what? Maybe he’s Korean. Maybe he’s Filipino.” We had to open that up, which was also kind of a revelation for me personally.
Tess: The cast is so cool. You’ve got so many of our favorite Asian American actors, but you’re also bringing in folks that are popular in other markets—
Kevin: Chris Pang, who’s from Australia, Ronny Chieng and Remy Hii, who was on Marco Polo. We’ve managed to create a dream cast. The minute we were able to let go of the fantasy of being completely culturally, ethnically accurate, we could really embrace the diversity of talent that’s out there within the entire Asian actor community.
Tess: I think you can do that when it’s a work of fiction, but at the same time I hear stuff about this other movie coming out where you’re doing revisionist history if you cast a white actor. It’s a different thing. That’s a different conversation.
Kevin: That’s a totally different conversation, yeah.
Tess: That’s why I think the process must be nuanced and case-by-case and specific to the needs of the work and specific to the artistic vision.
Kevin: We had so many hopes that some of the top talent from Asia would be in the film. As we began meeting a lot of these people, though, we just realized that, “You know what? They’re never going to be able to master an American accent. They’re never going to be able to master an Australian-English accent,” because they’ve had no need to. They’ve had amazingly successful careers in Hong Kong, in Thailand, in China, in Korea. They’ve had no need for the Western market.
That speaks to the difference between how talent is nurtured over there as opposed to here. It is a cultural issue.
There are actors and [other] people saying to me on social media, “Make sure Nick takes his shirt off in the film. Make sure Michael has lots of shirtless scenes.” It’s interesting how readers and a lot of Asian Americans want to see the Asian male sexualized, not neutered [as typical] in Western media. That’s a whole other conversation altogether.
Tess: That’s a historical thing that goes back to when Chinese and Filipino farm workers emigrated to the states and white male farmers felt threatened. During the Watsonville Riots in Central California, they killed Filipinos for courting their women and then created a narrative emasculating the Asian American male in order to discourage white women from hooking up with them. That’s something that is not taught in school. They never teach you about the desexualized Asian American male nor the hyper-sexualized Asian American woman.
Kevin: They really don’t.
Tess: That’s why representation matters.
Kevin: I really hope that this movie performs to expectations. It’s so important. It’s become kind of a touchstone for the hopes and dreams for a lot of people, especially creative people. And not only Asian Americans, but people from all over Asia. They want this movie to work because they want to see the floodgates open for more projects that are inclusive, that are diverse, that showcase these different worlds and these different people in a really meaningful way.
[Director] Jon M. Chu wants to inspire the next generation of filmmakers and young actors who are of Asian descent, who can say, “I don’t just have to be a doctor or a lawyer or go get my computer science degree. I’m going to be an actor. I’m going to be a director. I’m going to be a writer.” That’s my hope because unfortunately, we live in a world where success is quantified by money and box office. We do have something to prove — that there’s an audience for this, a hunger for this. It’s my hope that the people who have been so passionate and so behind the books will come in full force to support it.
In the US, 80 percent of my readers are Caucasian. It’s still a small percentage that are Asian American. I hope everyone comes out in the way that they would see Four Weddings and a Funeral or Notting Hill or any other romantic comedy. This is just a fun romantic comedy that so happens to have a lot of damn hot Asians in it.
There’s been a tremendous cultural seed change that has happened in the past two years, with the Hollywood whitewashing and things like that and people like you and Constance Wu becoming so vocal and such advocates.
To me, it’s like the Asian American comedians found their voice and they’re not afraid to speak up anymore. I hope it continues and I hope it gets louder and louder and louder.
Tess: Like you said, [we have to keep] creating the stories because there are people voraciously demanding it. There is money out there and people have to see that, “Hey my dollar, as a Filipino American woman, as an Asian American Pacific Islander, is just as green as anybody else’s.”
Kevin: Beyond the dollar, it’s the creativity and the story and the stuff that transcends. Your performances can inspire people. Somewhere out there is a young Filipino girl in the suburbs of Houston or somewhere–
Tess: I get those messages on Facebook and Twitter and my email! Any time that I do, it reminds me that I was lucky that I had Tia Carrere growing up because of Wayne’s World, to have a Hawaiian, Chinese Filipino woman playing a Chinese American. I was like, “Yes. Sign me up. I’ll take it. She sings, she rocks, that’s who I’m going to look up to.” Now, we’ve just got to keep being that for everyone.
Collage by Maria Jia Ling Pitt; photos via Getty Images. Photo of Kevin Kwan by Stephen Gutierrez. Book jacket art courtesy of Doubleday/Vintage. To read the book before the movie, click here for Crazy Rich Asians, here for the China Rich Girlfriend, the sequel, and here for the series’ third book, Rich People Problems.