Actor Gemma Chan is styled by Karen Kaiser in images by Paola Kudacki for Allure US April 2019./ Hair by Kevin Ryan; makeup by James Kaliardos. Jessica Chia conducts the interview.
Chan has dominated headlines since playing the troubled cousin Astrid in ‘Crazy Rich Asians’. Chan reminds us that political correctness works both ways, and she’s clearly still smarting from the racial pushback against her for playing Bess of Hardwick from the 2018 film ‘Mary Queen of Scots’.
"Why are actors of color only allowed to play their own race? And sometimes they’re not even allowed to play their own race. If John Wayne can play Genghis Khan, I can play Bess of Hardwick."
Chan has become a de facto standard-bearer for Asian representation in film and TV, and so far she’s not tired of talking about it. The actor is fully Chinese by heritage, but describes her racial identity as “compound. I feel British, and European, and English, and Chinese, and Asian.” Is that not okay?
“I feel like ‘Hamilton’ opened minds a lot. We have a black man playing George Washington. They describe it as ‘America then, told by America now.’ And I think our art should reflect life now,” Chan says. And life then, too. Last year, Chan worked on a documentary about the Chinese Labour Corps. “I studied the First World War three times at school. And I never heard that there were 140,000 Chinese in the Allied effort,” she says. “We would not have won the war without them.”
Chan is also an activist in the Justice and Equality Fund, the UK equivalent of the Time’s Up movement’s Legal Defense Fund. “You have to attack [the problem] on a regulatory level while also trying to change the culture,” she says. “This is all going to take time.” The actor also partnered with fellow British actress Ruth Wilson and the British Film Institute to do educational workshops with more than 400 drama-school students on how to protect yourself from compromising audition situations, understand nudity clauses, and recognize other abuses of power. “What’s going to be expected of you if you have to do a sex scene? What if you get asked to do something you’re not comfortable with? How can you say no?” Chan says. “These are things they don’t teach you in drama school.”