Actor / Writer

PC (all photos): Filbert Kung, @filbert_kung

I had the pleasure of interviewing the gifted writer, actress, and role-model Jing Lusi on a video call and learned so much about her. Of course, she’s best known for her role as Amanda “Mandy” Ling in the groundbreaking Crazy Rich Asians film. Although the character she plays is cruel and condescending, Jing is quite the opposite in real life: warm, humorous, and down-to-earth. What I also noticed was how she expresses herself with such depth and passion. In fact, her self-awareness and her longing to make a difference in the world enables her to use her talents and voice as weapons for change.

Jing is considered a voice of her generation as she stands up against discrimination in television and film. She’s been wrestling with negative typecasting and stereotypes her whole life and is unafraid to challenge them. Jing rejects the film industry’s painful inclination toward harmful Asian stereotypes, and, instead, disrupts that prejudiced narrative by mirroring reality: by playing a police officer, detective, and doctor — all of whom just happen to be Asian.

As her career unfolds, she becomes the story-teller for the next generation, by creating authentic stories with Asian leads and playing multifaceted Asian characters just as we see in real life. If Jing’s ambition and aptitude is any indication, the future for Asians in the media is bright.

How did you land your role in Crazy Rich Asians?

It was a pretty standard process considering the revolutionary impact the movie would go on to have. The casting director Terri Taylor called me to have a Skype audition for Amanda, and that was it. This process went on for about a year, as they had previously asked me to audition for Rachel in the summer, Astrid in December, and finally Amanda a month before we began filming. They really scouted the earth; it was a pretty epic endeavor. Jon Chu later told me that they’d seen some great actors during the casting, and were intent on having them in the movie even if in a different role. A few of us ended up playing roles we didn’t audition for – and it’s the biggest compliment the movie found a home for us within.

Do you believe the success of Crazy Rich Asians was a litmus test for Asians’ financial value in the film industry, and proved to Hollywood that diversity should be invested in?

Yes, and I’m glad it passed with flying colors. However, it may not have had the same outcome if different people were involved in the film. Jon Chu and the producers, Nina Jacobson, John Penotti and Kevin Kwan had a very strong vision for the movie from the start, and made some very hard decisions to preserve its integrity, such as choosing Warner Bro’s theatrical release deal over Netflix’s triple movie deal. If our creatives were motivated by other factors, such as financial gain and convenience, the world could have seen a very different film. But our guys knew the importance of needing to pride quality and authenticity above all else. When Jon signed on, he said to the studio, “You know you need to prioritize casting, right? The cast is the most important thing about the film.” So with the combination of everybody, down to the cinematography, down to the costumes, everything, was what made it so synergistically successful.

The fear of course, was that we knew if the film bombed, people would turn around and use it as an excuse to say: “You see, no one wants to see Asians on screen, so let’s never do that again.” We would forever have felt like this is the film that killed it for all Asians. What a legacy to carry!

But we all knew, when we were making it, that we were making history. Even talking about it now, I’ve got goosebumps. We could feel it in the joy, the energy, and the way people put everything into it. The passion was palpable. The environment was very collaborative, which you do not get on every project. On Crazy Rich Asians, we were actually happy to work overtime! When we filmed in Langkawifor the Samsara Island bachelorette party scene, upon wrap, we would walk all of five meters, sit on the beach, drink beers and chat for hours. No one was in a rush to get home. When we filmed the night shoots in Singapore, we would wrap at dawn, go back to the hotel and all have breakfast together. When you have some of the funniest people amongst you, Awkwafina, Ronny Chieng, Jimmy O Yang, Nico Santos, you never stop laughing. And we’re still very close to this day. I’ve always said, if the audience could feel just a fraction of what we felt making it, the film was going to be a success. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Do you feel that being British-Chinese has influenced your identity growing up, and does it relate at all to Crazy Rich Asians’take on cultural clash – East vs West?

I do. I mean, I can’t quite identify with the rich extravagance of it [laughing], as my family were extremely poor and we left China in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution. I came from the other end of the spectrum to the life of luxury portrayed in Crazy Rich Asians.

 I was 15 when I was first returning to China since I left. It definitely was a strange feeling. On one hand, it felt like a homecoming. On the other, I felt like a total stranger. There’s a phenomenon where you look like you should belong (as I do in China), but yet are so divorced from the culture – and language. I have the body of a Chinese adult but with the linguistic skills of a 5-year-old – the age I left. There, people would speak to me as if I’m a smart native woman and it’s embarrassing when I have to explain I don’t understand them, or that I am not used to the local customs. That’s when I really feel the culture clash.

Do producers, directors, or writers listen to you when you raise concerns surrounding potentially offensive material?

There are certainly creatives who are very approachable and embracing of actor’s opinions, especially if they are concerns relating to representation. However, it is surprising how non-Asian creatives will justify their use of derogatory material toward my character or toward an Asian character. In these instances, I find myself at a bit of a loss. I think, what do you need me to say, apart from the fact that it’s offensive, it’s directed at me and I’m telling you as an Asian that it hurts my feelings? Whilst I am aware I am not a spokesperson for every single Asian, I am disappointed at the level of pushback at times. I understand that producers are trying to micromanage, not let issues get to the top level and be perceived as not able to handle matters at base level. However, I flag up these concerns to protect their project. Unfortunately, most of the time people’s egos get in the way and they view it as an attack. When this happens, I bypass the middle management and go straight to the top – where it is usually a lot more receptive.

There was one incident in a TV series where the line, ‘Japanese whore’was directed at my character from a Caucasian man. I felt it extremely inappropriate and entirely irrelevant to the narrative to bring my character’s ethnicity into the scene. If it were my line in the script, it’s an easy fix as I would just not say it. But because it’s another actor’s line, it is something that has to be agreed by the production (unless the other actor is willing to stick up for you, in this case he was not). I brought this to the producer’s attentions, and the execs responded by justifying it. I explained that there was no need to insult my character in this way, as there already is a culture of acceptable racism towards Asians – for some crazy reason I cannot fathom. Racism is racism, it does not matter what race you are.

After the execs refused my request, I went straight to the showrunner. I asked her if she would refer to any of the characters of color as, ‘a Nigerian whore,’ or ‘a Jamaican whore.’ Her response was quick and short. She thanked me for my concerns, apologized for causing offence and removed the ethnic reference immediately.

 This was a three day conversation I had over my weekend. I felt so proud it worked out in the end, but I was very, very disappointed at the effort required to make such a minor but vital change.

Do Asian actors have a responsibility to correct these dilemmas?

Yes. I do think there is a level of responsibility for Asian actors, especially if they have a certain level of profile to raise these instances to the creatives. These are conversations I have all the time. They’re not easy to have, as you can see from the above example. But if we are not willing to have these conversations ourselves, then we cannot at the same time complain and moan about poor Asian representation. We cannot just rely on the more vocal advocates of our community, like Awkwafina, Gemma Chan and Benedict Wong, to change the landscape whilst others who fear for their own reputations shy away in the shadows only to reap the rewards. No. It’s a collective effort.

I realize that in Asian culture there is an element of ‘going with the flow’; that it is not encouraged to create problems or to challenge people – especially authority. This is very Confucian. However, there is a difference between being a diva and standing true to one’s integrity. These are not easy discussions to have, but they are so, so very necessary. I still see lots of Asians portraying bad characteristics on TV in the US and UK, and I wonder why these actors took these roles. Do they not understand we are at a pivotal time of change? In the last year we have seen movies like Crazy Rich Asians, Searching, Always Be My Maybeand recently Hustlers. This is bigger than us. There are huge stakes at play in our decisions right now – and those who continue to play the tropey, hackneyed stereotypes are undoing all that we have had to fight for incrementally over such a long period of time.  I get it. You want to be on TV. You want that credit. You want that paycheck, but the message you are sending by playing that role is that you, as an Asian, consentto that stereotype. And you sell out the rest of us.

Asian actors need to be so much more empowered to know – and believe – that it is totally okay to not do the shit you think you need to do. Many Asians don’t speak with an accent, yet they put one on to get or keep a part. I don’t think Asians want to do that repeatedly, or even once if it’s a bad part. If it’s not integral to the role, why do an accent? If it is integral to the role, consider why it is. Immigrants do have accents. I’m not saying let’s suspend reality for the sake of representation. If you’re playing a character seeking asylum in the UK, yes, you’ll have an accent. However – don’t just accept things at face value. Always question everything and ask yourself how you can help the representation revolution. Have the guts or integrity to say, “This is not a fair depiction; please can we find a more truthful way to portray this character more authentically.” If all stand united, the industry will have no choice but be cleverer in what they write if they want Asian visibility on their projects. We all win.

Do you believe people, especially the younger generation, will have a broader perception of Asians now that Asians are starting to be represented more colorfully and truthfully, beyond the worn-out stereotypes?

I really hope so. That’s obviously the dream for the aftermath of Crazy Rich Asians. The next step is for Asians to be cast as leads in shows and films like Searchingand To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. It’s important to keep making all-Asian cast movies, such as Always Be My Maybe andThe Farewellas these films are always such a celebration of cultural pride, even without meaning to be. I was so moved watching both these movies for different reasons and a large part of it is because it makes me so proud of my heritage. But alongside making all-Asian films, studios and networks also need to integrate Asians into high profile projects, just like we do in real life. We need more Constance Wu in Hustlers, Sandra Oh in Grey’sAnatomy, Lucy Liu in Ally McBeal andElementary. Have Asians leading cop shows, medical shows, romantic comedies: that’s real visibility, that’s a real embrace – and that’s real life.

What advice do you have for Asians and other minorities who want to pursue a career in the entertainment industry?

Do it for the right reasons. Do it because you can’t do anything else. If there is literally anything you want to do more than acting, it will find its way of getting to you because the lifestyle of an actor – or indeed any creative – is extremely challenging. Even if the rewards are so great. And if you are an actor of color, go into it as if you are not, if that makes sense. One aspect I loved and respected about the Crazy Rich Asianscast was that we entered our industry saying, “No” to the BS category that it insisted on putting us in. And it worked out pretty well for us, evidently.  Know your worth. And remember that your worth is the same as any other human being.

What is one of your biggest lessons in life, and what has been your biggest achievement?

Learning: I just finished writing a book on spirituality based on the book, A Course in Miracles. I decided to write my experience doing A Course in Miraclesand I wrote every single day for thirteen months. The biggest thing I kept going back to was that in every single minute of every existence, we have a choice. And that choice is love or fear. People think that the opposite of love is hate. It’s not. Love and hate sit on the same side of a coin, but fear is the thing that holds us back. Whether it’s a relationship or a career, travel or any passion. And so we miss out on life. When I start to really stress out, I’d ask myself, why are you feeling so anxious? Is this out of love or out of fear? Most of the time, I found it was triggering something not to do with the actual problem.

When you choose love, it completely changes everything. It changes your world. Gratitude is essential to our happiness. I was discussing this with Matthew Weiner (Mad Mencreator and showrunner) during The Romanoffs. He said to me, ‘Gratitude changes your brain.’ He’s right. Gratitude is also a useful tool in finding which side of the coin you’re on. If you cannot be grateful for anything in your life right now, you are definitely operating out of fear.

Achievement: Finding myself. [laughing] It’s a rather spiritual, hippie things to say. But I just turned 34, and realized I’d spent so much of my life second-guessing what people wanted me to be, second-guessing what my parents wanted me to be. To go into acting was huge, especially from a legal background. It was the first step in aligning myself with who I was. In my first few years of acting, I was always second-guessing how they wanted me to perform. What do you want me to be? I felt uncomfortable in my own body. The moment I came into my own was when I decided to embrace how I felt about a project and character; I went in and embodied that – that was the shift of me then going, “Oh okay, I’m allowed to be me.” As soon as you allow that, everything else just falls into place.

Where do you see yourself 5-10 years from now?

This year I made the decision to focus on writing. Through perseverance and luck, my script landed on the desk of a production company I’ve loved since forever, and they want to help me make it. It’s an utter dream come true. The exec also happens to be of Asian heritage, and she just gets me, and everything I’m about. She is as keen to progress Asian representation as I am. I am beyond elated I have found someone as passionate and similar thinking as me.

I would love to be the story-teller for our next generation and to be integral in the step of moving Asians from all-Asian projects and character parts to leading roles; telling authentic stories that have nothing to do with them being Asian. That’s where I see myself in the future. Just like how I knew that my acting career would work out: So many friends advised me to qualify as a lawyer before I embarked on my acting career, so I would have a luxurious safety net. That would have entailed another three years after my law degree. But I never saw the point. I never saw myself failing, I can’t explain why. The danger, also, of having a safety net, is that you’re never truly afraid to fall. You know it’s always there – how long do you give yourself before you use it? In areas where you need to risk everything and trust in your own wings, it’s sometimes better to not have a failsafe. Instead, have faith. And belief. And fly.