Gemma Chan looks shocked by the very idea. “Never, no never! I would never say that to my parents,” she says, as though the suggestion—that, as far as they’re concerned, she might now feel vindicated in her decision to go into acting—was an utterly deplorable one. “I’ve never even thought that to be honest,” she adds. “It could easily have gone the other way and I completely understand their concerns. If I had a daughter and she told me she wanted to go into the entertainment industry I’d be ‘oh god, really?’.
“After all, there’s no set career path. It’s pretty precarious. At the bare minimum you have to have talent and work really hard,” she adds. “But that’s not enough on its own. You have to have luck on your side. The figures for employment in acting are really depressing. There’s something like 95 percent unemployment. And that’s pretty intimidating. It’s to do with timing as well—the right role at the right time and your being given the chance to have a go at it. Or maybe their first choice isn’t available so you get your shot. And it does come down to that. I was at drama school with such talented people who aren’t doing it anymore because things just didn’t fall their way.”
Things have fallen Chan’s way, albeit that luck has not always been the reason why. Chan was something of a high achiever during her childhood years growing up in Kent, in south-east England: an accomplished ballet dancer, violinist and swimmer, she read law at Oxford University and was offered a job with one of the leading city firms. So far, tiger mother, perfect daughter. Then, as far as they were concerned at least, it all went wrong. Chan had pretty much decided by the middle of her degree course that she wanted to act.
On graduation she worked for a year as a model in order to pay to attend Drama Centre London, one of the UK’s most prestigious drama schools, alma mater to the likes of Michael Fassbender, Colin Firth and Tom Hardy. Her drama school teacher told her that she had better be prepared to struggle, and that she could count herself out of period drama—unless, the subtext was, that period drama happened to be set somewhere in the Far East. Even her father—originally from Hong Kong and an engineer—didn’t speak to her for some months, no doubt perplexed by the double blow of Chan’s younger sister likewise ditching the safe profession path of accountancy in favour of a career in public relations. They’ve long since made up—they meet weekly in London’s Chinatown for dim sum—but even now Chan’s parents aren’t a couple to pour on the praise. That comes in the occasional, understated text.
“But I was very lucky in that within a year of leaving school I got a part in a Dr Who special—the first programme someone might have heard of. I was very lucky,” says Chan. From there it was onwards and upwards—she got a big break as the lead in Humans, the Channel 4 sci-fi series about domestic robots, and the meaning of sentience and identity, which became an international hit and saw her placid, immobile, uncanny valley robot face disconcertingly plastered over London’s billboard and double-decker buses. For this she had to spend weeks in intensive training to unlearn her natural actor’s habit of emoting, to learn a new unblinking repose, a movement that wasn’t stiff but definitely wasn’t flesh and blood either.
“Can I still do it? No. Absolutely not,” she chuckles, though she still gets people stopping her in the street to riff on the series’ catch phrase-like line, the Hal-nodding ‘I’m sorry, Laura, I don’t understand the question’. “You can’t just snap back into it. It took so much work with a choreographer to get that stillness, which I’m not like at all in my own life. I did learn though that there’s a lot of powering stillness and that you can be incredibly economical in what you convey if you do it from a place of stillness. I really got into the subject of AI. And now the robots are already threatening to really take over acting. Just look at video games today or how they can use tech to bring back to life actors who have died.”
Along the way she’s ticked off some hero worship—being directed by Kenneth Branagh, acting alongside Kevin Costner—dealt with Transformers and won rave reviews for playing Pinter on stage. More recently Chan has had a supporting role as the ultimate It girl Astrid in Crazy Rich Asians, the first movie in decades to have an all-Asian cast and, despite Hollywood industry naysayers, a box-office and cultural phenomenon. Since then she’s been in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. She’s played alongside Margot Robbie and Saoirse Ronan in—of all things—Josie Rourke’s 16th-century historical period piece Mary Queen of Scots. And this year she’ll be on very big screens absolutely everywhere as a blue-skinned baddie scientist called Minn-Erva in Captain Marvel, Marvel Studios’ first female-fronted superhero flick.
“Marvel was just very very different,” she says, saying all she can about the project which, lawyers being lawyers, as she well knows, is very little. “You’re this little cog in this big machine. It was a very physical part and I was up at 3am every day to be painted, so very different for me. You know, you don’t even get to see the script before taking on the role. No one was allowed to see the script until you’re signed up. It’s very much a leap of faith. But it can be a good career move.”
Indeed, consequently she’s seeing the leverage worldwide exposure brings in the opportunities to get her own projects off the ground. “For me it’s about finding the stories I want to tell; I very much don’t want to wait for the role to maybe fall into my lap,” she says, including one with leading British production company Working Title, based on a novel she had the foresight to buy the option on some years back.
Consequently too she now also spends a lot of time being preened and pampered for photo shoots. For Esquire she effortlessly transitions between a variety of ever more avant-garde outfits, a team of nine black-clad studio types buzzing around her while, without the need for direction, she strikes poses, adopts that rather unsmiling visage that is accepted in Fashionland as connoting sexiness or sophistication and maintains an intense eye-to-eye contact with the lens. Periodically, when it’s time for a brief break, her face visibly loosens as she slips out of the role of model and back into herself. “I was never really any good as a model,” says Chan, who also pulled pints and worked as a lifeguard to raise the cash. It’s hard to believe, not least because she reached the finals of Sky’s Project Catwalk TV talent show.
So, does Chan, now 36, ever look back and think ‘if only I’d stuck with it and become a hot-shot lawyer, with a briefcase and an appreciation for really really fine print?’ “The honest answer is no,” she says with a laugh. “[Though] I’ll always have a slight guilt that I didn’t do something, you know, not useful exactly but less absurd. What I do for a job is absurd—dressing up in other people's clothes and saying other people’s words. It can make for a wonderful end product but, you know, it is embarrassing when actors get self-obsessed as some do. I hope I never succumb to that.”
Chan hopes that her background will remain an enduring influence: down-to-earth, not easily impressed and unlikely to suffer indulgent behaviour, perhaps still a little bemused by this whole acting lark, always placing the real value on being kind rather than being cool (and if that was a global dictum, “we’d all be in a much better place,” she notes); her family never wealthy—her Chinese-Scottish pharmacist mother, for example, worked for the cash-strapped NHS all her career—but, with Chan getting a grammar school education, comfortably middle-class all the same.
“And the fact is that [these days] if you come from a disadvantaged background you definitely don’t have the luxury of going to drama school,” she says—kind of, competing with a mouthful of salad that is her much-delayed lunch. “All the bursaries and scholarships have dried up and there’s this danger that acting is just going to become a very middle-class thing for the few, which is a great shame. I’d never have had that education nowadays. I think things are improving in terms of audiences wanting to see more diverse casts, whether that’s in terms of ethnicity, gender, sexuality—there’s a better balance. But when it comes to class we have some way to go because we’re not getting enough actors who come from working class backgrounds.”
Indeed, the tidy succession of two different but zeitgeisty roles—in Crazy Rich Asians but also, since her historical character Bess of Hardwick was definitely not part-Chinese, playing more against audience expectations for a costume drama in Mary Queen of Scots—sees Chan being made into something of a poster girl for diversity in the movies. Certainly, having grown up in Kent—one of the ethnically least diverse parts of the UK—Chan got used to occasionally being shouted at in the street for not fitting in, and her mum, who continues to live there, still experiences less-than-PC comments about her race.
“I remember wishing I wasn’t different and it’s only since I’ve been older that I’ve been comfortable embracing any heritage, of which I’m very proud,” Chan says. “I feel British, of course, but accepting my Chinese heritage has only come with time.” During her working life Chan has often found herself channelled into supporting roles perhaps because of her ethnicity too. Her recent experience has certainly changed her own mindset.
“I have played a lot of supporting parts and certainly in the past actors of colour did end up in supporting parts—but now I'm going to be thinking ‘is there any reason why an actor of colour can’t play this leading part, and if there is no reason, why can’t it be me?’,” she says with some emphasis, as though trying to underscore her new determination. She argues that we’ve already seen a shift on stage—few baulk at the idea of, for example, Adrian Lester playing Henry V—because the audience is keen to see what the individual actor can bring to the role in a live performance; but that cinema remains trapped in inconsistent ideas of naturalism and authenticity.
“There are always countless other things the audience will happily overlook [in a film like Mary Queen of Scots]: the use of modern language, the fact everyone has got all their teeth,” she says. “But the first thing we notice is actors of colour playing historic white figures. But why is it that we don't notice John Wayne playing Genghis Khan or Elizabeth Taylor playing Cleopatra, as though white actors can play any race but actors of colour can only play their own? It should be an equal playing field all round.
“These things are important,” adds Chan, who has also backed a UK campaign to get more women into film criticism, overwhelmingly male and middle-aged as it is (in the UK white male critics outnumber women of colour by 31 to 1). “For me there is a direct link between the way that groups are portrayed in popular culture and in the media and how that group is treated in society—whether that group is normalised and accepted, whether it’s ‘otherised’.” This was, by one reading, the subject at the heart of Humans too.
“And for a long time lots of groups but particularly Asians have been otherised by society—and that goes back to the first practices of Hollywood, to ‘yellow face' when Asians weren’t allowed to portray themselves on screen,” she adds. “It was the Yellow Peril, Fu Man Chu, and those stereotypes stick around to this day and affects the names little kids in the playground are called. It takes generations to dismantle these stereotypes. And we’re still working on it.”
But then don’t take her word for it. Sure, if you ask Chan will opine on how her generation has been complacent:
“We’ve grown up in times when we haven't felt particularly under threat in the way previous generations have and really now it’s the first time we’re being told we have to fight for our values”.
She’ll make an argument against easy solutions to big questions: “It’s only through endless, difficult, boring work that we make any progress. There are very few quick fixes to anything and I think a lot of people want an easy answer, which is how you end up with someone like a reality TV star as president”.
Yet, as small-p political as she might be—and her interviews are peppered with pot-shots at Trump and Britain’s Brexit debacle—one thing Chan most eminently has succeeded in not doing is drinking her own Kool-Aid. Put it to her that, for example, her career has just boarded the rocket, that she’s the actress of the moment, and she dismisses the idea. She has, she points out, been in the business for over 10 years, so to her there’s no feeling of over-night success. “If you buy into any of the hype then you also have to listen to all the negative stuff. So I try to let all that wash over me,” she explains.
She’s aware that, as her fame grows, the more likely people are to listen to her—but suggests that we don’t do so, at least not unthinkingly. “I’ve certainly felt that temptation to roll my eyes when it’s the same people wading in on issues again, and I’m sure people will get fed up hearing me talk about some things too,” she says. “Sure, we’re all members of civil society and if there is something I can do with the limited platform I have then I think you have a duty. But I don’t like celebrity culture. I don’t see why we should listen to what someone has to say just because they’re a celebrity. I'm not going to listen just because someone is famous. That’s mad. Look where that’s got us.”
Indeed, in an entirely open, up front and almost post-modern way, Chan holds her growing public profile at arm’s length, conscious both that it constitutes part of a game she is on occasion obliged to play, while also being utterly aware of its complete disconnection from reality. On the one hand, Gemma Chan, off the telly—pristine Asian beauty, not a hair out of place; on the other, Gemma Chan, jobbing actress, the one who still has to think about bills to pay, who still rents her flat, who still uses the London Underground, who, she says, still goes down to the corner shop to pick up a pint of milk in her tracksuit and goes to Arsenal FC’s stadium to eff and blind from the terraces with the best of them (“I can’t give you any Arsenal chants that aren’t full of swear words,” she apologises. “All the ones I know are rude. But there’s something very enjoyable about indulging that tribalism.”).
“I think I’m slightly in denial about my own celebrity. Maybe,” says Chan. “But I just refuse to do anything differently. I just want to live a normal life—very much so for my own sanity. What’s important to me now is what was important 10 years ago. I hope that’s sustainable. It helps living in London—as opposed to the bubble of LA—because here kind of no one gives a shit. And I try not to pay any attention [to more invasive press coverage] because I think that would drive you mad. But there’s very much the media image of who you are—which in this industry you just have to accept exists—and then there’s who you are and hold on to that and not be affected by this other Gemma. That other Gemma is the one with the perfect facade and it’s completely inaccurate because I live most of my life in complete chaos.”
The Other Gemma—pristine, polished, glossy, as inscrutable as she was in Humans—is a character about whom the Real Gemma certainly feels ambivalence. How women are presented in the fashion media has shifted dramatically over the last 20 years, but more recently there have been indications of another quantum leap: a move away from digital manipulation, for example, towards a more honest representation. Still trying to get in some of that salad, post-shoot, Chan is sitting more comfortably in clothes a long way from the fashion razzmatazz: a loose sweater, jeans and a pair of Gazelles, more like the kit she wears to party in Ibiza, as she does several times a year. She seems much happier, much more normal and—unexpectedly perhaps—much more attractive this way. More human, if you like.
“It’s dangerous—that striving for perfection [as presented by the media] and I hope people don’t buy into that,” she says. “I’ve been in hair and make-up for hours, the lighting is magic, there’s a whole team to make me look like that. And even I don't look like that. Sure, I think you can completely enjoy fashion and beauty and it can be a positive thing and you don’t feel victimised or objectified. You do it for yourself and the love of the clothes. I can open a magazine and appreciate a stunning image.
“But I think there's value in demystifying what happens,” she adds. “For young girls to believe that’s what they should be looking like, or that that’s what people look like naturally, my god, the pressure is just ridiculous. If I get a spot—and I sometimes do—that’s okay because they’ll just retouch it out of the pictures later. And as much as it’s fun for me to dress up in these clothes, perhaps that’s encouraging consumerism on a damaging level too. Most people can’t afford these clothes. I certainly can’t afford these clothes. But actors are contractually obliged to do these things now. We don’t have a choice. I’d love to do a shoot in my own clothes but, again, for example, the magazine these kind of shoots go into rightly or wrongly depend on their advertisers and they want their clothes in the shoot. It’s a whole system. You can question whether it’s the right thing. But as it stands we’re all complicit in some way.”
Chan, for one, is realistic enough to recognise the way the world works. “Undeniably the way you look does play a part in your career as an actor,” she says. “And that's whatever you look like—your looks play a part. You can’t get away from that.” But, she says, bring on the plus-sized. Bring on the lined and grey-haired. “I don’t want to see one type of white skinny, really young model [anymore],” she says.
She is quick to cite, by way of an example of the pressures even grown women are facing, the flak that Carrie Fisher got for daring to age over the 30-year gap between her appearances in the Star Wars films, while a decidedly more grizzled Harrison Ford got none at all. “Male actors have always been allowed to age. For them wrinkles equals character,” she says.
“But women aren’t allowed to age. Very few actresses have a career that’s been sustained beyond them no longer being young, ingénue actresses, through their 40s, up into their 70s. But I like to think that now we’re reaching a point where at last we’re going to be embracing a wider definition of beauty.”
That’s easy for her to say, of course – since Gemma Chan, lithe and symmetrical, a beneficiary of that blend of racial gene pools that sometimes perplexingly gets described as ‘exotic’, still has plenty of beauty to spare, even as she edges towards middle-age. But that makes it all the more impressive that she even speaks out about such things. After all, looking at things here and now—her name squeezing up to the top of the billboard, her face on magazine covers the world over, with the beginnings of creative independence and, for good or ill, certainly a new level of public recognition—it would be oh-so-easy just to ride the big warm wave.
“But, you know, I don't think anyone in this profession ever feels completely secure,” she says, tucking into another green leaf. “On the one hand that's a good thing because it means you don’t get complacent, you’re still curious and want to learn and get better. You’re not resting on your laurels. And I think the best work can come out of that drive and that necessity. But, well, it can also drive people mad.
“I know people are talking about me having ‘broken through’ [and even her official bio states how “this year marks Gemma’s graduation from leading British TV actress to Hollywood film star”] but, really, it’s not as though I’m being offered the kind of parts that would be offered to that very small group of actresses who are offered the best roles. I’m not being offered the roles that would be offered to Emma Stone or Rachel McAdams or Anne Hathaway. I’m still having to fight very hard for everything I’m cast in. I still play a lot of supporting roles. And I’m fine with that. But it’s very much not a walk in the park. And I don’t know if that feeling ever goes away. Well, maybe it does. Maybe Meryl Streep feels okay with where she’s at. But just Meryl.”
Photographs by Hew Hood
Styling by Fabio Immediato
Hair by Neil Moodie
Makeup by Ninni Nummela
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