ELLE Style Awards: Gemma Chan Is The Changemaker
admin - Sep 8, 2023 Interviews

The actor and advocate has much on her mind, and is channeling her energy into action.

Gemma Chan and I are walking down the idyllic leafy paths of Regent’s Park, one of her favourite spots in London, talking about how the pandemic strengthened our relationships with nature. ‘I think it’s probably something I took for granted before,’ she says.

She tells me about a family visit earlier that week to the BBC Earth Experience, an immersive exhibition narrated by David Attenborough. It seems to have made a deep impression on her, but it doesn’t take long for her tone to jump from wonder to concern as our conversation turns to the climate crisis. This summer has seen devastating heatwaves and wildfires in Europe and the US. It’s a lot, and Chan feels it. ‘I’m lying awake pretty much every night thinking about it,’ she says.

She reels off worrying statistics with sharp accuracy, including a 2017 study indicating that just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions. It’s just one of several facts she cites throughout our conversation – there’s much on her mind, so it comes as little surprise that her current read is Rafael Behr’s Politics: A Survivor’s Guide.

Nevertheless, she still has hope. Climate anxiety might be keeping her up at night, but she’s putting that energy into understanding the latest research and campaigns that can actually make a difference. ‘Changing the system, not perfecting our own lives, is the point,’ she says, quoting environmentalist Bill McKibben.

‘Changing the system’ aptly describes Chan’s work as both actor and advocate. Within the entertainment industry, she’s supported the Time’s Up initiative against sexual harrassment at work, and has shared her experiences of and has spoken about the lack of opportunities for East and Southeast Asian (ESEA) actors. Chan, 40, made her acting debut in 2006, after growing up in Bromley and studying law at Oxford University. Nearly two decades later, does she still feel there are challenges in speaking up? ‘It’s still inherently risky, I think, to bite the hand that feeds you. And there’s still a lot of bad behaviour in the industry. It’s very difficult to change that culture.’

Chan’s efforts to change cultures go far beyond Hollywood and on-screen storytelling. She tells me with pride about her her role as an ambassador for UNICEF, which she started in 2021. In the same year, prompted by the rise in anti-Asian racism connected to the pandemic, Chan launched and led the #StopESEAHate campaign in the UK, fundraising for grassroots ESEA community organisations.

The pandemic also saw her and her partner, fellow actor Dominic Cooper, support the NHS by delivering hot meals to healthcare workers, although she’s quick to downplay her role (‘It seemed like a very small thing we could do, and I can’t in any way take any credit for it’). It’s a running theme with Chan; she’s always keen to highlight the work of others before herself.

She acknowledges her discomfort around being called an activist, pausing when I ask how she feels about the term. ‘There are people who have been doing work on the ground in communities, and it’s their whole life’s work. And I in no way equate myself to that. I would probably consider myself more of an advocate,’ she says. For Chan, it felt natural to use her platform to spotlight other causes, listing the questions she asks herself.

‘Is it helpful for me to be saying something about this? Am I the best placed person to say something about this? Am I going to take up space from someone else? It’s all evolving for me, and I’m still trying to work out how I can help rather than hinder the progress that we all want.’

We’re meeting in late July, and she’s come much more prepared than I have for the changeable British summer weather, wearing both layers and sunglasses, her wavy hair tucked behind her ear by an almost imperceptible hairpin. We’re also meeting in the midst of the historic WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes that have brought Hollywood to a halt. ‘I think we’re at this inflection point where something has to be done. It’s painful, but necessary, to be going through this,’ Chan says.

We talk about the culture we’re both consuming, and the renaissance of ESEA storytelling we’re seeing, from publishing (Chan’s recently finished reading R.F. Kuang’s satire Yellowface — ‘I really enjoyed it, it’s quite sly’) to recent films with predominately ESEA casts. I mention Michelle Yeoh and Chan lifts her hands up in imaginary praise to the sky, calling the Malaysian Oscar-winner an ‘absolute legend’.

‘I feel like we’ve got our foot in the door,’ she says. ‘It’s storytelling in all its genres, and I think it’s great, because it also shows that we’re not a monolith. There are a multitude of experiences and stories to tell from within our communities.’ But of course, there’s still work to be done—women and people of colour remain underrepresented, both in front of and behind the camera. It’s a power imbalance that Chan hopes to help redress through her producing work. ‘It feels really natural, and a really good thing to be involved at a much earlier stage in finding these stories,’ she says.

Lately, she’s been looking back at her own family’s story. In 2022, as part of , an anthology of essays by ESEA writers, Chan wrote about her father’s experience in the merchant navy and the wider issue of post-war Britain’s mistreatment of Chinese seamen. Was there any hesitation from her father? ‘Suspicion would be the right word for my dad, like ‘Why are you asking me so many questions?’ But I think he was proud of it, he sent me a message when it came out saying, ‘Well done, keep going.”

She’s now thinking about exploring her roots in mainland China, Macau and Hong Kong, focusing on her ‘courageous, fierce’ grandmothers who played pivotal roles in the futures and fortunes of her family. ‘They’re my huge inspirations, and there’s so much more I’m still finding out about them,’ she says, adding that she may write about them in future to honour their legacy.

It’s not hard to get straight into the big topics with Chan, from the climate crisis to underfunding in education and the arts, the state of British democracy, and more. Yet, she has a quality of self-awareness and humility about her; all too rare in a noisy world where social media moves a mile a minute and hot takes abound. She’s open enough to admit she doesn’t know the answers to everything, and that she’s constantly learning. ‘There’s a lot of pressure to give your opinion on everything, but I try to choose my battles wisely,’ she says.

This article appears in the October issue of ELLE UK. [Source]

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