Driving Force: how Gemma Chan is using fame to share untold stories
admin - Jul 29, 2022 Interviews

The actor, producer and activist is a real force for change

It’s the hottest day of the year so far, and Gemma Chan and I are climbing a hill on Hampstead Heath in search of the perfect picnic spot. Chan, summer-fresh in a light charcoal Cos jumpsuit, slips off her white Birkenstocks and settles down under a cluster of trees in the dappled shade to help unpack the food. Her eyes widen when she happens upon the macarons (“I’ve got my eye on these”), but she goes in for a scone– cream first, then jam; a just reward after our ascent.

It isn’t every day you have a picnic with a superstar, as Chan unquestionably is: this year alone, she is in one of the most anticipated films of 2022, Don’t Worry Darling with Florence Pugh and Harry Styles, and Extrapolations, the climate-change series with an all-star cast on Apple TV+. She recently achieved what could be considered the holy grail of Hollywood: landing the lead in a Marvel film – Eternals, a blockbuster that grossed £330 million– after being personally sought out by the studio boss Kevin Feige. As Sersi, she offered an empathetic, unconventional take on a super-heroine in a performance that came swiftly after her turn as the voice of the villainous Namaari, in Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon.

Chan is at her best when inhabiting characters whose veneer of perfection disguises deep emotional scars, as she did in Crazy Rich Asians with her portrayal of Astrid Leong, the billionaire heiress broken by her husband’s affair. She created someone wholly compelling in her vulnerability – so much so that there will now be a spin-off dedicated to Astrid. In Don’t Worry Darling, she plays Shelley, the wife of a cult-like leader (Chris Pine at his most charismatic and sinister), who runs the Victory Project, a utopian community in mid-century America. Chan thrills with menace, armed with a smile that betrays her icy core.

“For the role, I needed someone with an almost Cleopatra-like aura, exquisitely composed with a ferocity brewing underneath,” the film’s director Olivia Wilde tells me. “I was stunned by Gemma’s otherworldly grace, combined with her wicked sense of humour, which disarms you so you’re capable of speaking to someone so intensely beautiful.”

In two recent projects, Chan has taken parts that require improvisation because, she says, this forces her to be completely in the moment, to draw on a truthful, emotional reaction to the people with whom she’s sharing the scene. When that person is Meryl Streep, the pressure is on. The director Steven Soderbergh decided to keep Chan apart from Streep before filming the pair in his 2020 movie Let Them All Talk, “to make things more interesting”; the very first time she met the older actress involved improvising an awkward power struggle while eating a tomato salad in a restaurant. “I don’t know how much I slept the night before,” says Chan, laughing and shutting her eyes at the thought. “I was honestly so nervous – that’s when I wished there was a script. I was like – this could be absolutely crash-and-burn time.”

She was relieved to hear through the grape-vine that she’d passed muster with Streep (“Oh my god, I could finally breathe!”), to the extent that they had a few drinks together on the cruise ship, they subsequently filmed on for three days. “She is really lovely,” Chan confides, lowering her voice, “but I mean – I wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of her.”

It is hard to imagine that this actress at the top of her game, who now more than holds her own alongside Meryl Streep, was set for an alternative career path. She is the daughter of Chinese immigrants by way of Hong Kong, who settled in London and had Chan and her sister. Chan grew up in leafy Bromley, where she was an all-rounder at school – smart, sporty, musical – and went on to read law at Oxford University. A training contract at the law firm Slaughter and May followed, although, tellingly, she kept deferring it. In the evenings, she went to acting classes, before she finally took the plunge and enrolled at Drama Centre London for three years.

At the time, her father, who was initially against her proposed career change, said to her: “It doesn’t matter how good you are, there won’t be enough work for you.” And at first, his prediction seemed to be accurate. One of Chan’s early high-profile jobs was in Sherlock back in 2010; her character – Soo Lin Yao, a Chinese victim of a crime syndicate – relied on terrible cultural stereotypes. “You know what?” she says, pausing. “At the beginning, the question was very much, ‘Will I be able to make a living? Will I be able to survive doing this job?’ I would do anything – bit parts, one-line parts…”

When she thinks back to that time, she’s not sure she could have asserted herself more. “It’s really difficult in my industry to speak up, with the power structures that are there,” she says. “I know you can be penalised in a way that means your livelihood has gone. Even if you try to do the right thing, speaking up against bad behaviour, all it takes is someone to interpret what you say the wrong way, or decide that you’re trouble… It’s a hierarchical, word-of-mouth kind of industry where, traditionally, bad behaviours have been indulged. There’s a lot of fear. It’s hard to change that culture. It takes years.”

Shaping the culture is one of the reasons Chan set up her (still nameless) production company. “I want to work with good people and protect the people I’m working with right from the start,” she says. As the executive producer, she will bring the debut author Pim Wangtechawat’s novel The Moon Represents My Heart to Netflix, and is teaming up with Working Title on a biopic of the first Chinese-American Hollywood star Anna May Wong.

Chan conceived the latter project back in 2014, and becomes passionately animated when she talks about the film star, who first came to prominence in the 1930s. “Her struggles and triumphs are reflective of the conversations we’re still having now,” Chan says, citing the fact Wong was barred from kissing her co-stars on screen and was up against instances of yellow face (white actors playing Asian characters). “She was seen as the perpetual foreigner, even though she was third-generation American. The one thing I’ll say about her is that she was never a victim. She was incredibly witty, a fighter and had joie de vivre. I hope our film will capture the complex woman she was.”

There’s no doubt that Chan, who is approaching 40 this autumn, has found her voice: as a bold feminist advocate, Unicef ambassador and a force for the East and Southeast Asian (ESEA) communities. She has used her platform to spearhead the UK equivalent of #StopAsianHate, raising funds for grassroots organisations, and collaborating with me on a book I edited that amplifies the stories of those of ESEA heritage in Britain. Her contribution, a lucid essay drawing on her relationship with her Hong Kong-Chinese father and his past career in the Merchant Navy, also unearthed a largely unknown scandal of a group of seamen who were secretly deported back to China in the 1950s.

“Reading East Side Voices, I was so emotional,” she says, her voice trembling. “It’s the book I wish existed when I was growing up. When you or I were young, it was just: assimilate.” When I ask if it was a difficult piece for her to write, she is definitive: “Yes! It was like getting blood out of a stone… Well, you know, because I was constantly apologising for missing deadlines. I find it really hard to write about my family – I was worried about what they might think. But actually, all of that was absolutely fine.” The project gave her the opportunity to approach subjects never touched upon before, such as the time her father put his job at risk fighting for the Chinese crew to have equal pay to the British. “My dad was like, ‘Why are you asking me so many questions?!'” she says, laughing. “But after I sent him the final draft, he said, ‘Well written. Just keep going.’ From my dad, that is the highest praise.”

She is also a longstanding L’Oréal Paris ambassador. “I’m so proud to partner with them, especially as they have a history of supporting women in cinema,” Chan says, praising the brand’s Lights on Women award, which spotlights emerging female film directors. She has also found herself the darling of the fashion world, developing a kinship with the Louis Vuitton creative director Nicolas Ghesquière. “I love that he’s really bold in his designs,” she says.”To me, they are always unexpected. Sometimes you think, ‘Oh gosh, the proportions or the shapes might be tricky to wear’, but they always make you feel strong and powerful.” However, the red carpet is not her natural habitat. “It’s still nerve-racking. You still have to sort of fake it a bit and just get through it,” she admits. “You know what? It is fun to get dressed up. But I’m also really happy and comfortable not doing that, and wearing sweatpants.” And, of course, as a child of the Nineties, there have been fashion mistakes. “I swear my sister and I were put in flammable shell suits, and then taken to a firework display. I’m lucky to be alive!”

It’s getting late, and all we can hear is the light swishing of the grass and the occasional thwack of skateboards behind us. We start to pack up the Fortnum’s picnic in the waning heat, and make our way back across the Heath. She lives a mile or two away in Primrose Hill (“I couldn’t live in the country – no Deliveroo…”) with her boyfriend, the actor Dominic Cooper, and their rescue cat Mr Kitty (“the most affectionate cat in the world!”). We talk a little about fame, and the responsibility she felt to speak out on behalf of the Asian communities during the pandemic. “I think I’m so fortunate to be in a relationship where we can talk about anything,” she says. “Dom was very understanding and empathetic. I was quite open about how I was feeling during that time, and he was just incredibly supportive. I definitely didn’t feel I had to shoulder everything on my own. I’m really, really lucky.”

I can’t help but think Chan makes her own luck, as a consummate professional who constantly challenges herself to agitate the status quo. “I just want everyone to do well and be OK,” she says with a gentle laugh, ever the mistress of understatement. “You know, in everything I work on – hopefully I can start to shape things…” [Source]

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