Entrepreneurs

‘Crazy Rich Asians’ star Constance Wu was 'tens of thousands of dollars in debt' before getting her big break

Constance Wu
Mike Coppola/VF18 | Getty Images for VF

Groundbreaking Warner Bros. romantic comedy "Crazy Rich Asians," which hits theaters nationwide on Wednesday, is the first major studio movie in 25 years with a predominantly Asian cast and Asian-American leads. It's the kind of film its star Constance Wu has been waiting for. 

Before landing the lead in "Crazy Rich Asians," which follows an Asian-American woman who discovers that her boyfriend hails from one of the richest families in Singapore — the first big Hollywood movie of its kind since 1993's "Joy Luck Club" — Wu "hadn't even done a tiny part in a studio film," she said in a letter posted to Twitter on July 31. "I never dreamed I would get to star in one… because I had never seen that happen to someone who looked like me," she wrote.

But there was a time, only a few years ago before Wu landed her first big role in 2015 as Jessica Huang on the ABC comedy "Fresh Off the Boat," that she seriously considered giving up acting because she was struggling "really hard," she told Vulture in 2016.

It was after she moved to L.A. to further her career in 2010. "I was really broke," Wu, 36, told Vulture interview. "I was in tens of thousands of dollars in debt: credit card. Car. Personal. Student loans. I paid for my college all myself. I didn't have a boyfriend. I was really alone and lonely. I was new in the city, and I didn't have a community of friends in L.A."

Wu was working multiple jobs on the side to get by at this point, and she says she started wondering whether or not it was worth continuing to scrape by, especially in an industry where more than 70 percent of speaking roles are given to white actors, according to a 2017 study.

"I was at a point where I was still waiting tables, nannying, being a personal assistant, struggling to make ends meet, going through heartbreaking audition after heartbreaking audition, and I had a moment where I had to ask myself, 'If you're still a waitress when you're 45, is that cool?'" the actress told The Cut in 2016.

Wu eventually decided that she was, in fact, fine with the idea of continuing to struggle for several more years — simply because she loves acting, and that's enough to outweigh the insecurity of an uncertain career path. "I'm okay with not having a super-secure lifestyle because if you're doing what you like, you don't need stuff to fill any empty holes," Wu says.

What's more, she also says that nearly quitting acting actually improved her acting by allowing her to focus on bringing something unique to her performances in auditions, rather than being preoccupied with landing a role. "That's when I started booking work," she told Vulture. "The catch-22 is you get employment by focusing on the work, not the employment."

Wu, who grew up in Richmond, Virginia to parents who emigrated to the U.S. from Taiwan, studied acting in college at the State University of New York at Purchase. After graduating from college in 2005, she briefly studied psycholinguistics in pursuit of a more "practical career" than acting, but "it just didn't feel right," she told Vulture. Instead she started pursuing an acting career in New York City, working in theater while landing bit roles on TV shows like "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," before moving to L.A.

The cast of 'Crazy Rich Asians' (L-R): Ken Jeong, Jon M. Chu, Jimmy O. Yang, Sonoya Mizuno, Gemma Chan, Michelle Yeoh, Henry Golding, Awkwafina, Constance Wu, Chris Pang, Nico Santos, Ronny Chieng, and author Kevin Kwan.
Emma McIntyre | Getty Images

Now that Wu's career has taken off with high-profile roles in TV and film. ("Crazy Rich Asians," which follows an Asian-American woman who discovers that her boyfriend hails from one of the richest families in Singapore, is already a critical favorite, with a 96 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.) 

Wu is also an outspoken advocate on the need for more leading roles for Asian actors, and other people of color, in Hollywood.

"People so often, say, 'Oh my gosh, I want to cast more Asians, but it's so hard to find them.' It's not," Wu said in a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter in which she argues that Hollywood needs to create more starring roles for Asian and Asian-American actors, because there are plenty of actors waiting for those opportunities to appear.

She hopes that her work can serve as an inspiration to others like her. In the letter she posted to Twitter in July, Wu called "Crazy Rich Asians" a "truly historic" film because of its representations of Asian characters, and she hopes "Asian-American kids watch [the movie] and realize that they can be the heroes of their own stories." 

Don't Miss:

Donald Glover got 5 Emmy noms — here's how he went from YouTube comic to super star

What getting fired and making $9 an hour at a bodega taught 'Crazy Rich Asians' star Awkwafina about success

Like this story? Subscribe to CNBC Make It on YouTube!

VIDEO1:1001:10
How Chris Pratt went from homeless waiter at Bubba Gump shrimp to $10 million ‘Jurassic World’ star
make it

Stay in the loop

Sign Up

About Us

Learn More

Follow Us

CNBC.COM