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Interview: Constance Wu Talks ‘Hustlers’ and Challenging Female Stereotypes

September 27, 2019Ben MK

Starring opposite Jennifer Lopez would prove a daunting proposition for any actor, but Constance Wu takes on that challenge with aplomb. In Lorene Scafaria's Hustlers, the Crazy Rich Asians star plays a novice exotic dancer named Destiny, who is taken under the wing of Lopez's character, a fellow stripper named Ramona. It's an on-screen relationship that sees Destiny embarking on a journey of self-discovery, as she and Ramona find themselves scheming to turn the tables on their male counterparts and clientele — but for Wu, the film is first and foremost about female empowerment and portraying the relationships between women in a positive light.

I sat down with Constance Wu ahead of the world premiere of Hustlers at this year's Toronto International Film Festival for a roundtable conversation about the movie. The following is an edited version of that discussion.

What kind of preparation did you do for your role in Hustlers?

Wu: I definitely did do pole training for a really long time, [laughs] both in classes and private lessons. But for me, what was way more important was the heart of this character and the emotional life of the character. So that was my priority, because I didn't want this movie to simply just be a glitz and glam movie — I wanted to make sure that it has heart, because I think these people have heart. Hollywood hasn't traditionally treated people in this occupation with heart, so I wasn't gonna to do what they did, and I was gonna really focus on that.

As part of your research, did you meet the real person on whom your character, Destiny, is based?

Wu: I met her a couple nights ago, actually. She was a little bit cautious at first, so I didn't get to meet her before, or during, the film[ing]. Obviously, she has some legal [concerns] — like how much should she say, like how much is it based on her — but now she's fully onboard, really excited, really supportive, and she's written a book about her experience. I think [the film] is doing really positive things for her, and I'm really glad I got to meet her.

Destiny is a different type of character than the ones you've played in the past. Can you speak about the complexities of the character and how you approached her?

Wu: [I] approach[ed] [her] the way [I] would approach any character, be it a suburban mother on Fresh Off the Boat, or an ingénue on Crazy Rich Asians. Everything that a person says, and every quality that a character has is just a clue into their history. So you create a history for a character in order to understand them. You do that through empathy and you do that through imagination. And so instead of thinking, "Oh, she's a stripper. I'm gonna judge that," I think, "Ok, she's a stripper. Let's think about that. She probably grew up around a culture that said that women are valued for their sexuality."

Destiny is a deeply lonely person, and I think this originated from when her mother left her when she was a very young child. Of all the women who are always supposed to be there for you, your mother should be the one. And I think because her mother left her, that was a great trauma. It left her with abandonment issues and trust issues, and that's why she says to Ramona, "I don't wanna be dependent on anybody. I wanna be independent." But she's scared that if she's ever dependent on somebody they're just gonna let her down, like her mom did.

So that's her way of protecting her heart. But really, deep down inside, she wants a mother, she wants all these kinds of things. So when she finds this relationship with Ramona, it's like of all of her dreams come true. And yes, objectively, what they're doing is bad — drugging [men] and stealing their money is bad — [but] I think the reason Destiny even does it is that she just gets caught up in the feeling of being a part of something.

Speaking of Crazy Rich Asians, did you take away anything from the success of that film that has stayed with you for Hustlers?

Wu: Crazy Rich Asians became a big deal, [being] the first Asian American centered movie in like 25 years in Hollywood. And what it made me think of was the writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, where she talks about the danger of a single story. Because you check it off, and you're like, "One story that represents everybody." So my hope for Hustlers is that it's not just one single story about and by women. Cuz now we have all these other Asian American projects in the pipeline, and that's great. I hope that this movie helps spur on content from other female creatives and teams, because people wanna see it.

People always say, "Oh, it's a great time for women right now." I think it's a great time for men, I really do. Because men are finally getting to see the content, the perspectives that they didn't get to see in media and culture growing up. And that's only gonna grow their empathy and that's only gonna make them a better person. And even the #MeToo movement — I understand that when you're accused of something, you wanna be defensive and say, "I had good intentions." Of course, but somebody else has a different perspective of that experience. So they're finally getting to understand the perspective that doesn't center themselves and their innocence.

My male director friends are like, "Oh, it's hard for me to get a job." And I'm like, "But look at all this content. If you're thinking about art rather than thinking about your [own] project, you are actually in a very blessed time. That you get to experience all these new stories that you didn't get to experience before."

Do you feel that there's a certain stigma at play when it comes to the way society views the women who work in strip clubs? And how does Hustlers try to address that?

Wu: There's a lot of judgment around it. If you think [about] what strippers do: they use their bodies for entertainment, to make money. That's the exact same thing a pro athlete does, but we judge and we shame strippers; we don't judge and shame athletes. They can get whatever job they want when they retire. So it's a comment on how we view sexuality.

It's this horrible tug of war, because you're supposed to be sexy, but then you're not supposed to be sexy. And it's hard to know which side to fall on, because there's no one right side. There's one that's authentic to yourself, but I think we could all do better to not judge people's choices just cuz they don't align with ours. Because it does make it harder, like when my character applies for a job at a department store. And that's why we need stories like this — taking people in these professions, who have previously been judged, and humanizing them.

Destiny's relationship with Jennifer Lopez's character comes off as really genuine. What was that chemistry like off-screen? And what did it mean for you to work with a female cast and a female director?

Wu: Working with Jen was great. She's probably one of the most caring actresses I have ever worked with. She's an icon. She can do whatever she wants. But she was always checking to see if I was ok and asking what she could do to make me feel better if I was uncomfortable. Because she cared about her girls, and that was just really special and rare.

And then we also talked like girlfriends — talked about our ex-boyfriends, what clothes we wanted to wear, what we wanted to eat for dinner. We talked about all that kind of stuff. And what's been interesting about doing these press rounds is a lot of people have been like, "Oh, it's all women. Were you catty and competitive?" And I'm like, "That is an untrue stereotype." Because we're so used to a picture, as a society, that only gives women one seat at the table. And so if you only think you have one seat at the table, of course you're gonna be competitive. But that's a commentary on scarcity, not on gender.

The way things ran on our set is proof — because it was all women, nobody had to pretend like they were one of the guys to get ahead, which I so often feel like I have to do, or pretend like they're super cute to get ahead. We could just be ourselves. And it was so freeing to be that way. The fact that Lorene [Scafaria] hired women of so many different ages, shapes, sizes, backgrounds just made it even better. I would love to work with an all-female cast again.

Hustlers is now in theatres.

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