Do you remember that bonding moment between mother and daughter in Crazy Rich Asians (CRA) where Rachel Chu (Constance Wu)’s mother gives sound advice to her daughter? As it turns out, the actress who plays the maternal character Kerry Chu, actress Kheng Hua, is a force of wit and wisdom not only on-screen, but in real life as well.
Here is asienne‘s interview with the #irl Mama Chu.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your Asian background?
My grandfather came from Guangdong, China. He’s Teochew. My father was born in Singapore and so was I. So, I’m a Singaporean-Chinese and my dialect is Teochew.
One of the interesting things about Crazy Rich Asians is that it’s opened up so many conversations about being Chinese and how it’s so different in one culture to another. Filipino-Chinese are completely different than Indonesian-Chinese and Singaporean-Chinese and now people are starting to get curious about that sort of stuff.
What first attracted you to the project and how was the casting process?
I read all three of Kevin’s books a very long time ago almost immediately from when they first started coming out. Very little has been featured, presented or written about this particular demographic and suddenly, you get this LA-based, Singaporean writer who writes this book about this demographic (English language-educated Chinese) that I come from and immediately, I tried to get my hands on it and oh my god! The accuracy and the wit and everything that made the book great just resonated with me.
That was how I first came into the project. At the time, when I was reading the book, there was no whisper of a movie at all (yet). When they started casting in Singapore, I got a casting call and it was for Kerry Chu. I did one casting and then the very next casting, I was shortlisted and I was auditioning in front of Jon M. Chu, the director and then I got the role! (laughs) It was great!
Who can you relate to the most in the movie? Or is your character pretty relatable to yourself?
I would say that from a character point of view, I really relate to Kerry Chu. How [she] would drop everything and be with her daughter at a great time of need. I would do that at a drop of a hat. If ever she needed me, I would just stop whatever I am doing and I would be there, that’s for sure.
My relationship with my only daughter is very similar to the one I have with Rachel (Constance Wu). We’re very, very close, we have a very special relationship. And I like Kerry’s values. I think she’s tenacious, resilient, I think she’s practical and she’s a woman of action rather than words. I really relate to and resonate to all those qualities and I dare say, I’m like that too (laughs).
How much of your personal life did you contribute to your character? How much of it was acting?
To tell you the truth, all acting in all roles, no matter how seemingly different they are from yourself, it does have to come from a place of truth. I would say that it’s definitely acting but of course, a lot of the emotions [came from myself] as honestly as possible. It was very easy for me to tune in to those emotions that were featured in my scenes (in the movie) because they were emotions that I truly identified with, [emotions] I have felt and I do feel everyday of my life.
How has working on CRA changed the game for your career?
Certainly ever since CRA, there has been more opportunity. But to me, you’re only as good as your next project. I’m a pretty centered person. I’ve got my feet on the ground and my head on my shoulders. I don’t expect life to change that much, but what I do want is what I’ve wanted all the time even without CRA.
Just the opportunity to do good work with good people no matter what scale. It doesn’t have to be a big Hollywood movie…just good work with good people. That’s what I would like to do. And that’s what I had always wanted to do. That’s the feeling that I had when I went into CRA and that’s the feeling that I have with all my future projects.
What did it look like for you before CRA?
I was one of those people like Selena [Tan] (CRA‘s Auntie Alix Young)–I had a whole corporate career and I was juggling acting for Singapore theatre on the side for a very long time. I quit my job at 30.
When I quit my job, I thought to myself that I would just try-out not being a full-time actor, but [try] more of what it’s like to not have a full-time job to go to and to just spend my days doing what I love which was acting at that time.
From the minute I quit, all the way until now, I’ve just been working non-stop. I came from a retail industry and I did public affairs for them but then ever since I quit [that], I’ve been in the arts industry. And here in Singapore, [the arts industry] is so alive and so dynamic and we worked non-stop. So, it’s great! And I don’t see retirement. I only see working like this for as long as I can.
Going forward, what’s next for you? Do you have a dream role?
No, no, I don’t have favorites and I don’t have a dream anything. I’m one of those sort of people [that] when the project is in front of me, I put my blinkers on and I look at the present rather than to just keep working on dreams.
Because sometimes, when you look too far ahead, you’re not looking at what’s right in front of you, and when you look properly at what’s in front of you, it may not be what you thought it would be, which is kind of what I believe in.
Because you can keep working towards some sort of million dollar dream, but then you’re going to miss a lot of details in between.
It’s all the little projects that I’ve done in Singapore for Singaporean audiences that have led me here. And if I didn’t concentrate on all those small projects, I don’t think I would have [gotten] here.
So, I believe in humility, I believe in being in the present, in working hard and doing your best and treating everybody–no matter how famous you are or not famous you are–with the same consideration…as long as they are deserving of your consideration.
I do like good attitude and diligence. I’m pretty old fashioned when it comes to that sort of thing. I think it comes with age. I’m 55. I believe in good, old-fashioned work ethics that will get you good work.
For more on Kheng Hua’s future projects, check out her instagram @khenghua.
This interview was condensed for time and clarity.