ABC’s “Fresh Off the Boat” is only the second sitcom about Asian-Americans, and the first since Margaret Cho‘s All-American Girl in 1994. It has also proven to be a showcase for actress Constance Wu, who plays the wife in a Taiwanese family who move to Orlando to open a restaurant. Wu’s previous roles were mostly in support in projects like “Stephanie Daley” and “Law & Order: SVU.”
“I think that it’s great that we’re claiming our identity as Asian-Americans, and celebrating our voices,” she says of the series. “It’s not making us the butt of the joke, but letting us embrace our differences.”
TheWrap: How did it feel to get a Critics’ Choice Award nomination?”
Contance Wu: Real good. I was flattered and surprised to be in the company of some awesome women
Your “Fresh Off the Boat” character Jessica, the ambitious immigrant mom based on the one in Eddie Huang’s memoir–who is she really?
Deep down, Jessica–who is a real live woman existing now–is someone who will basically do anything for her family and for her children, even at the risk of doing something that somebody else might find embarrassing. She doesn’t find that embarrassing at all. She has a strong sense of herself and isn’t afraid to have her own voice even if other people don’t like it.
Is she a “Tiger Mom?”
Well, our show takes place in the ’90s, so before I think that term was coined. Yeah, I think she can be, in that she has high standards, but the way I portray her on the show, she’s not quite as severe as I think the Tiger Mom stereotype is.
She’s not scary–but you don’t really want to bring home a B on your report card.
Did you ever hear that old joke about the kid who comes home to his Chinese dad and he got stung by a bee and his dad says, “Why didn’t you get stung by an A?” It’s like that.
Is the show funny because it’s rooted in reality?
Yeah. Since we’re only the second ever Asian-American show on network TV, I think it’s great that we’re really claiming our identity as Asian Americans, and celebrating our voices, instead of just trying to be anybody. But just making sure that it’s not the butt of the joke. It’s more celebrating our uniqueness.
I love Margaret Cho, but her 1994 series “All-American Girl” was trying to put Asian Americans into an old sitcom template. Have we come further now?
I’ve heard things Margaret Cho has said about working in the network system, and she came from the standup world. I haven’t seen that show, I’ve seen a couple of clips. I do think we’ve been forced to go a little further in our creativity in the way we tell stories because there are just so many more mediums now. All the content we have on the web. And I think it forces innovation and forces curiosity about different stories to get somebody’s attention. It’s only for the best. There definitely will be growing pains. But I think it could only push people to do better work.
Eddie Huang, whose memoir inspired the show, complained about it when it aired. I guess he gets to say what he wants, it’s about his life. How did you feel?
I think everybody deserves to have their voice. If you have to quiet your voice in order to hold onto one little thing, what are you really holding onto? I mean, I stand by my work and I’m really proud of the show, and I think that Eddie is proud of the show too but nothing is perfect. Like I said, there’s growing pains. And I think he’s still learning how to navigate the fact that it’s a family comedy, and there are parts of growing up that aren’t always palatable for like an eight-year-old kid to watch. And so it’s been a tough struggle, but I think what’s really great about what Eddie’s doing is that he is reactive, and he’s vulnerable and he does say inappropriate things sometimes. And he isn’t afraid to publicly mess up and learn from it, and I think that’s why people are drawn to him, because he’s not some perfect person onscreen or in his persona. He’s just a normal guy who’s smart and is trying to break boundaries and is figuring it out on the way.
Your mom character isn’t a total fan of America.
Yeah, in the arc of the first season, she starts out being very not into the American culture, because it’s very foreign to her. It’s not what she grew up with. Macaroni and cheese is different and weird, just as mapo tofu might be strange and weird to someone who’s never had it. But the great thing about her is that she doesn’t stay that way. She develops throughout the series and she actually starts to find the yummy goodness in mac and cheese. When she realizes that, she catches herself, and it could make anybody fear they’re losing their identity and their roots and the very people from which we came. As the show goes on I hope it’ll show how Asian Americans navigate that and create their own identities within two cultures.
What’s your favorite scene so far?
When I chase down these teenage kids who embarrass my husband and ran out on the check. I chase them down and run into them in a car and when one gets away I throw an onion at him. Because that is the spirit of Jessica Huang: she’ll throw and onion, and then she’ll use it for dinner.