Lonely In The Club: Constance Wu On 'Hustlers' And Her 'Unprecedented' Career

Sep 8, 2019

When we meet Constance Wu's character Destiny in the new movie Hustlers, she's the new dancer at a gentlemen's club. She's there because of economic circumstance, but we come to learn there's more to her character.

"I think the deeper meaning of how she ends up in this job is that I think growing up, she and a lot of American girls are taught that their value and worth lies in their physical beauty and their sexuality," Wu says. "And then it's funny, because then when you exploit that value system to try to get by, to pay your rent, then you're shamed for it. I mean, you think of what a stripper does: They're using their bodies for entertainment. It's exactly what an athlete does. But we more harshly judge one and shame one than the other."

The movie, which is inspired by the true story of Jessica Pressler's New York magazine story "The Hustlers at Scores," sees Ramona (Jennifer Lopez) take Destiny under her wing. And when their club's Wall Street clientele begins to dry up after the financial crisis of 2008, the strip club employees scheme up a way to keep the money coming in.

The rest of the cast features some big names (Cardi B, Lizzo) and rising stars (Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart, Trace Lysette). It's written and directed by Lorene Scafaria. And for Wu, it's the latest big role in a career that has recently seen her take star turns in the ABC sitcom Fresh off the Boat and the blockbuster movie Crazy Rich Asians.

In an interview, Wu talked about what attracted her to the role, working on a female-driven movie, and the state of play for women and people of color in Hollywood today.


Interview Highlights

On why she took the role

I was actually really seeking a project that was about loneliness. I think a lot of people, they think, "Oh, she must have wanted to do this sexy, cool, fun movie." But it's just about a woman who is deeply lonely, because she has abandonment issues because her own mother left her when she was very young; so she has trust issues, so she can't let anybody in. And Ramona, the character played by Jennifer Lopez, becomes like a mother figure to her. And I chose it because it tackles loneliness, but it sort of gets it on all sides. It's the beginning of it, and then struggling through it, and then finally not feeling alone in the world, and then when you lose that again. It really was just such a dynamic story arc. ...

I wasn't lonely at that period in my life. I was actually doing great. But I do think loneliness is kind of pervasive in America right now — and in a way that we're not recognizing. I think because politically, we're so polarized. And also, social media just makes people lonely in a way they don't realize because they're still getting some kind of social stimulation — but it's not tactile. So I think one of the best things that films or stories can do for us is to make people feel less alone with their own feelings. We're so used to looking at these Instagram feeds where everyone has a perfect life. And what Hustlers really does is it shows that this woman who, yeah, she looks really flashy, she's a dancer, all this on the outside; but inside, she's really lonely and she just wants a real friend. And I think that's — if we're going to find any type of healing in this country, it's going to be by interacting with each other, not villainizing and shaming each other.

On acting in a movie that doesn't pit two women against each other

No catfights. And the thing that I've always said is that traditionally, in a patriarchal society, whether it's in the boardroom or in an action movie, there's usually only one or two women. And I think that it's the fact there seem to be so few positions available that makes somebody competitive. It's the scarcity, not the gender. And I think working on Hustlers really proved that women are not inherently catty or competitive, because we, on Hustlers, we were all women: women director, woman writer. And it was our table, you know? It was not patriarchal — it was matriarchal, I guess. And it was so great because so many times when I'm in an environment that's a lot of men, I feel like I have to either be cutesy or girly or sexy, or I have to act like I'm one of the guys to fit in. ...

And so when we were all in locker room scenes of Hustlers — all women, all shapes and sizes, all different ages, all ethnicities — nobody had to pretend like they were one of the guys. We didn't have to act really sexy. We could openly talk about, like, "Ugh, this boob is bigger than the other," whatever. Just these things that we could just be open about, because we weren't being assessed by our appearance in order to be allowed in the space — because it was our space.

Constance Wu stars opposite Jennifer Lopez (left) in Hustlers.
Alison Cohen Rosa / Courtesy of STXfilms

On how her personal background affects her portrayal and career

I didn't work in strip clubs back then, but I worked in restaurants a lot. I did bottle service for a club for a little bit. But yeah, I definitely related to the struggle that comes along, and the fear and scarcity complexes that come along, with not having a legacy in the place you grew up. Not growing up with privilege, but also just — there's a psychological legacy that comes from knowing that you have ancestors, great-great-great-grandparents, who have been in this country and are of this country and have survived. I think it's statistically proven that like if a kid has a parent who has gone to college, they're more likely to go to college ... I've said representation equals possibility, and sometimes the parents model that behavior.

But for me, I don't have anybody in my family who ever entered show biz or the arts. And the path that I've sort of made for myself in this career is also something I haven't really seen a model for, in terms of a role model for, exactly the way I've been trying to do it. So it can be scary, and it can ruffle feathers for sure. And I think that Destiny also doesn't have the confidence of a legacy of lineage in the country, because her parents are immigrants, like mine were.

On living in the moment

I mean, I do this [acting] because I love it. ... I think one of the best things an actor can have is sort of what they call being in the moment, which I naturally have — which is not always a good thing. So I think the reason I stayed in it is because I wasn't thinking about the future. Because if I had systemically laid out all the possibilities and thought of the future, I don't think I ever would have entered this profession at all.

And so to really live in the moment and not measure your words or actions based on anxieties of the future or worries of the past is a real fun gift to have when you're acting. In life it has not always been so fun, because I can be really reactive and dramatic. So I'm just trying to honestly use this moment in this profession to learn more about myself and the kind of person I want to be and to forgive myself for mistakes.

On her recent response to Fresh off the Boat being renewed for another season, which was initially judged out of context, she says

Wu: It really broke my heart that my moment of heat, where I was just disappointed because I couldn't do a play that I really wanted to do, that that had an impact on the people who I love on this crew, and how some people might have perceived that it was a reflection of how I felt about the show. Which: nothing could be further from the truth, because I love the show and I love the people on it. I was just temporarily ... I was just bummed because I'd been looking forward to doing this other project.

Garcia-Navarro: Do you think you got more of it because you're a woman and a person of color?

Wu: What do you think? [laughing]

Garcia-Navarro: I don't know. I thought I would ask the question and just put it there out there.

Wu: Yeah. I definitely think that there are there's often harsher criticism ... I think it was especially disturbing for some people because my career is kind of unprecedented. You know, I led the first Asian American network sitcom in Hollywood in over 20 years [Fresh off the Boat], and then five years later I led the first all-Asian cast of a major studio Hollywood movie in 25 years [Crazy Rich Asians]. But it's funny — it's like because I've gotten this position that wasn't available at the table, I should never complain. ...

I think a part of us should stop being grateful for scraps from the table and demand the whole table. Because it shouldn't have been history that I was the first in that TV show or movie. It shouldn't be historic that Hollywood made a story that gives an Asian American a full human experience. That should be regular.

On if Hollywood is trending in the right direction regarding women and people of color

I always compare it to exercising. It's not like you can take one boot camp and then be fit for life. It's a maintenance. So I think that we've gone through a bit of a boot camp in terms of understanding bias and institutional racism and stuff like that ... and I think now you have to take the exercises you learned from boot camp, and apply them to your real choices in a way that makes you and everybody healthier.

I mean, it's funny. I actually know a lot of guys who have been saying, like, "Oh, you know, it's a great time in Hollywood for women." And you know, male directors will say, like, "Oh, it's really great to be a woman right now ... I used to get all these jobs, and I can't — it's great, I'm glad" ...

And there are many things to say to that. But one thing I would have liked to say is that it's a great time for men. Because I think men are finally getting to hear these stories that they've been robbed of — these stories told from a woman's point of view. And if you're an artist, there's nothing you want more than learning more about the human experience. So if you get to learn a perspective that you didn't get growing up, how awesome. How awesome that you get that. But if you're only worrying about me and my experience and what jobs I get, then: Well, there's the problem. It's like: The world is not centered in your experience. And the more experiences you get that are outside of your own are gonna improve your work. And then that will improve your integrity. And so I think it's a great time for men because they have the opportunity to see and experience this content that they haven't before.

Sophia Alvarez Boyd and Melissa Gray produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

It's easy to call the new movie "Hustlers" a modern Robin Hood story with strippers.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "HUSTLERS")

CONSTANCE WU: (As Destiny) How come you're so good? I see you with every single kind of guy and - I don't know. It's like you have them all figured out.

JENNIFER LOPEZ: (As Ramona) I don't know. I guess I'm just a people person.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But the movie is about a lot more than their job. The women are nuanced, complex, and they are the center of their story.

WU: You know, there's this stereotype of like, oh, these girls come from broken homes or they have - they've been traumatized, which is not necessarily true. Most of them are pretty smart, actually.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Constance Wu. She plays the lead role, Destiny, who goes from the new girl at a gentlemen's club to one of the brains behind a scheme to steal thousands of dollars from the men who work on Wall Street. It's based on a true story reported in New York Magazine four years ago, and it has a cast of groundbreaking talent, including Cardi B, Lizzo, Jennifer Lopez and my next guest, Constance Wu.

Wu's been on a rocket ship to stardom in the last few years with all that entails. There was her starring role in "Crazy Rich Asians" and a controversy over her response to her network show "Fresh Off The Boat" being renewed. When I spoke to her recently, she says "Hustlers" was the perfect next project.

WU: I was actually really seeking a project that was about loneliness. I think a lot of people, they think, oh, she must have wanted to do this like sexy, cool, fun movie. But it's just about a woman who is deeply lonely because she has abandonment issues because her own mother left her when she was very young so she has trust issues, so she can't let anybody in.

And Ramona, the character played by Jennifer Lopez, sort of becomes, like, a mother figure to her. And I chose it because it tackles loneliness, but it sort of gets it on all sides. It's like the beginning of it and then, like, struggling through it and then, like, finally not feeling alone in the world. And then when you lose that again, it really was just such a dynamic story arc.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I have to ask you, since you mentioned this. Why were you looking into stories about loneliness? Was it a particularly lonely period in your life?

WU: No, I wasn't lonely at that period in my life. I was actually doing great (laughter). But I do think loneliness is kind of pervasive in America right now and in a way that we're not recognizing, you know, because politically we're so polarized. And also social media just makes people lonely in a way they don't realize because they're still getting some kind of social stimulation. But it's not tactile, you know?

So I think one of the best things that films or stories can do for us is to make people feel less alone with their own feelings. We're so used to looking at, like, these Instagram feeds where everyone has a perfect life. And what "Hustlers" really does is it shows that this woman who, yeah, she looks really flashy, she's a dancer, all this on the outside, but inside she's really lonely. And she just wants a real friend. And I think that's - if we're going to find any type of healing in this country, it's going to be by interacting with each other, not villainizing and shaming each other.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I want to talk a little bit about you and your own personal history. You know, you've talked about a time when you didn't have a lot of financial freedom. And I'm just wondering if this is a character that you connected to on that level also because of your own background and history.

WU: Yeah. I mean, I worked in - I didn't work in strip clubs back then, but I worked in restaurants a lot. I did bottle service for a club for a little bit. But, yeah, I definitely related to the - there's a psychological legacy that comes from knowing that you have ancestors, great-great-great grandparents who have been in this country and are of this country and have survived. That's why I've said representation equals possibility. And sometimes the parents model that behavior.

But for me, I don't have anybody in my family who ever entered showbiz or the arts. And the path that I've sort of made for myself in this career is also something I haven't really seen a model for, in terms of a role model for exactly the way I've been trying to do it. So it can be scary. And it can ruffle feathers, for sure. And I think that Destiny also doesn't have the confidence of a legacy of lineage in the country because her parents are immigrants, like mine were.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How did you keep yourself going? How do you keep yourself going when you don't have a model? I mean...

WU: I don't know, man. Like...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's hard.

WU: Well, it's just like - I mean, I do this because I love it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sure. But still - I mean, it's hard to break in, and it's hard to sort of know how to deal with a lot of the things that are thrown your way if you've never had someone to show you.

WU: You know, I think one of the best things an actor can have is sort of what they call being in the moment, which I naturally have (laughter). So to really live in the moment and not measure your words or actions based on anxieties of the future or worries of the past is a real fun gift to have when you're acting.

In life, it has not always been so fun because I could be like really reactive and dramatic. So I'm just sort of trying to, honestly, use this moment and this profession to sort of learn more about myself and the kind of person I want to be and to like, you know, forgive myself for mistakes and...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What is that kind of person? I mean, two blockbuster movies, your show "Fresh Off The Boat" was renewed for a sixth season. When you look at that and you're at this sort of incredible moment in your career, I mean, does it make you more introspective?

WU: It's definitely made me more of an introvert because I'm usually an extrovert. But I think being in the public eye and - I know. It's, like, kind of made me shy in a weird way. But the kind of person I want to be - I mean, I think one thing I know is I want to have integrity.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Don't say it like that. That's a good word (laughter).

WU: Yeah, yeah. But I also want - I also think it's important that I - like I said, with social media and the highlight reel of your life, I also want to make sure that I'm not portraying an idealistic utopian sort of life because I think it makes people feel less lonely when they can say like, oh, like, everybody messes up sometimes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I guess it leads me to ask you then, obviously, about your "Fresh Off The Boat" response after it got renewed. You got a lot of judgment for that. Is that what you're referring to? Did that feel like you were being judged out of context?

WU: Yeah, it really broke my heart that my moment of heat where I was just disappointed because I couldn't do a play that I really wanted to do. That had an impact on the people who I love on this crew and how some people might have perceived that it was a reflection of how I felt about the show, which nothing could be further from the truth because I love the show and I love the people on it. I was just temporarily just, you know...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Venting, I think...

WU: I was just bummed because I'd been looking forward to doing this other project and...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you think you've got more of it because you're a woman and a person of color?

WU: What do you think? (Laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I don't know. I thought I would ask the question and just put it there.

WU: Yeah, I definitely think that there's often harsher criticism. I think it was especially disturbing for some people because my career is kind of unprecedented. You know, I'm the - I led the first Asian American network sitcom in Hollywood in, like, over 20 years. And then five years later, I led the first all-Asian cast of a major studio Hollywood movie in 25 years.

But it's funny. It's like because I've gotten this position that wasn't available at the table, I should never complain where - I'm kind of like, I think a part of us should, like, stop being grateful for scraps from the table and demand the whole table because I shouldn't - it shouldn't have been history that I was the first in that TV show or movie. It shouldn't be historic that Hollywood made a story that gives an Asian American a full human experience. That should be regular.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, a new study found that Hollywood featured a record number of lead roles for women and people of color last year. Does it feel like it's going in the right direction?

WU: I mean, it's kind of - I always compared to exercising. It's not like you can, like, take one boot camp and then be fit for life. You know, it's a maintenance. So I think that we've gone through a bit of a boot camp. Now you sort of have to take the exercises you learned from boot camp and apply them to your real choices in a way that makes you and everybody healthier.

I mean, it's funny. I actually know a lot of guys who have been saying like, oh, you know it's great time in Hollywood for women. And, you know, male directors will say like, oh, like it's really great to be a woman right now. And, like, because I - you know, I used to get all these jobs and I can't. It's great. I'm glad, but it's great.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But it's really hard for us all of a sudden and - yeah.

WU: Yeah, and - but, you know, and there are many things to say to that. But one thing I would have liked to say is that it's a great time for men because I think men are finally getting to hear these stories that they've been robbed of, these stories told from a woman's point of view. And if you're an artist, there's nothing you want more than learning more about the human experience.

So if you get to learn a perspective that you didn't get growing up, how awesome, how awesome that you get that. But if you're only worrying about me and my experience and what jobs I get, well, there is the problem. It's like the world is not centered in your experience. And the more experiences you get that are outside of your own are going to improve your work and then that will improve your integrity. And so I think it's a great time for men because they have the opportunity to see and experience this content that they haven't before, so...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This movie is getting some awards buzz already.

WU: Really?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, yeah. True thing.

WU: (Laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We don't want to jinx it. But, you know, who would you bring to the Oscars?

WU: Oh, probably like my dad or...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm available, just as a thought. But...

WU: Do you want to go?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, I think so.

WU: OK, let's go (laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Let's go to the Oscars.

Constance Wu stars in the new movie "Hustlers." Thank you very much.

WU: Thank you. It was lovely talking to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.