Interview & Portraits Etienne Gilfillan
“Comedy is an unbelievably powerful tool…”
After appearing in Crazy Rich Asians, one of 2018’s biggest surprise hits, British-Chinese actress Jing Lusi hasn’t been resting on her laurels but landing roles in major new series like The Romanoffs and The Feed. Journal met up with Jing at the Marylebone Hotel, to discuss Hollywood’s newest Asian talent invasion and to reminisce about her student days in Fitzrovia.
Tell us about how you got your role in Crazy Rich Asians…
It was quite a straightforward process. The first time, I was asked to audition for Rachel Chu. As soon as I read the script, I saw Constance Wu as the perfect Rachel, but at that time she was tied to Fresh Off the Boat. Later they asked me to tape for Astrid, a character I thought Gemma Chan was born to play. Then a few months after that, casting director Terri Taylor Skyped me for the role of Amanda. And that was it. For such a huge, ground-breaking movie, the audition process from my end was very, very painless. I know the production spent considerable time gathering their perfect cast, considering the ensemble synergy as well as individual merit – and I may be biased, but I think they absolutely nailed it.
Had you played a comedic character before?
Yes. My favourite was the Valley Girl type millennial art student – also named Amanda – at Theatre Royal Bath in the Pulitzer shortlisted play 4000 Miles by Amy Herzog. I’ve also been involved with a few comedies such as Josh (BBC) and Zapped (Dave) and have written and played sets at Edinburgh for the award-winning show Immigrant Diaries.
I began my career playing serious roles. I thought I was a good actor if I could move people to cry. I drew so much on my own traumas that I was diagnosed with depression. During my recovery, through a chance meeting with a comedian, I was offered the opportunity to play at Edinburgh, and discovered a whole new world of creativity.
During my first Edinburgh Fringe, I made my depression the focus of my set, and it became a very healing experience. When you make fun of something that once owned you, supported by the audience’s laughter, you realise there is nothing to be ashamed of. The most rewarding part was when audience members came up to me after the show and opened up about their own battles with depression. Comedy is an unbelievably powerful tool and, when used well, can connect strangers, tackle taboos, and break down stigmas.
“Crazy Rich Asians is not a film it’s a movement” said the director Jon M Chu. Do you think this film is a turning point for Asian representation in Hollywood?
Absolutely. But it is just the start. Crazy Rich Asians alone could potentially be a flash in the pan like The Joy Luck Club in 1993. It then took Hollywood another 25 years to make an all-Asian contemporary studio film. For Crazy Rich Asians to be number one at the US box office for three weeks, proves that Asian-led films will make a profit. Now that this film has defied all box office expectations, a new precedent is set. What’s important now is to ensure the conversation Crazy Rich Asians started continues. There have been a lot of Asian-led projects green lit since our film’s release, and this is exactly the kind of momentum this movement needs.
You actually studied at UCL in Fitzrovia, a few streets away from where Journal was born… What memories do you have of the area?
My years at UCL were one of the best chapters of my life. I started off at Campbell House East halls, just across the road from Euston Station. Our first night, our welcome to London, was a major pub crawl through Fitzrovia and Bloomsbury. There were more than a dozen pubs and all I remember is being lost in the streets with my roommate at 3am trying to find our way home. I then moved to Ramsay Hall, just off Tottenham Court Road – also known as the party halls. I spent most of my nights at The Court, strawpedoing Reefs with friends. On Wednesday nights, we’d be at The Office (now called The Roxy, I believe) on Rathbone Place until closing. My friends in the upper years had their own flats on streets like Hanson, Cleveland and Whitfield, so sometimes the party would carry on at theirs into the early morning.
You studied law but ended up following through on your dream of being an actress… were you a rebel growing up?
I think so. I started smoking at 12, drinking at 13, got suspended from school, which did not help relations with my parents. The more I rebelled against their authority, the more authoritarian they became. It was a vicious cycle. I ran away from home when I was 13. The police picked me up the next day and took me back.
In the long term, it marked a turning point. My parents realised that immigrating meant their child was growing up in a different culture to what they knew. Over the years, as I matured, I learnt to see it from their side too. My dad grew up during the Cultural Revolution and escaped the Communist regime when he was granted a scholarship to study abroad, which is how we ended up in England. So, for him, education was the only way he knew to a safe future, and it was killing him to see me squander mine. I went on to study law at UCL, but enrolled in acting classes as soon as I graduated. That was my way of respecting my parents’ tumultuous history, but also following my own dream.
Your latest project is Matthew Weiner’s The Romanoffs… Was it a dream to work with the creator of Mad Men?
In a word, yes. Not only is Matt a genius, but he’s also the nicest guy. It was one of my favourite projects to work on, and it’s a great feeling to be part of the Romanoffs alumni with such a stellar cast.
Tell us about The Feed, which comes out next year on Amazon.
The Feed is a psychological thriller based on a book by Nick Clark Windo. It is set in a dystopian world where all technology is implanted into your nervous system. I was drawn to the project because the world it depicts is a terrifying foretaste of our future if we continue to live like we do – embedded in our phones, opting to text friends instead of call, knowing more about their breakfasts and gym workouts than their personal lives. It also highlights the dangers of humans becoming over-reliant on machines. I don’t remember the last time I drove without a GPS!
The Romanoffs out now on Amazon Prime.