Best known for her role in the hit movie Crazy Rich Asians and about to be seen in Channel 4’s upcoming series Pure, actress Jing Lusi talks to Mandy News about the issues of gender and equality within the industry ahead of becoming a panellist at our Gender Representation panel discussion this month. She also shares her own inspirational journey in becoming an actress.
You came to England from China when you were five in the 90s. How hard was it for you to adapt to a different culture?
It was a difficult time. I couldn’t speak English, I looked very different, I had a name no one could pronounce; all the perks that come with being foreign. My family were very poor and didn’t know how to assimilate. It was tough; I grew up in Southampton which was extremely un-diverse back then. I must have blocked a lot of that time out of my childhood, but it caught up with me later in life. My therapist hit the nail on the head when she said, "You were drawn to acting because you’ve been pretending all your life. You lost your identity when you left China and you had to quickly learn how to fit in."
It would explain why I find the craft of acting relatively easy. But the lifestyle was the real struggle, and very painful at times. It took a long time for me to realise who I was. I’m still learning. When you’re an immigrant, there are many parts of yourself you deny just to fit in. Now, I am trying to find all those pieces, reclaim them and love them. They are what makes me unique in this oversaturated ubiquitous market. There are millions of actors. But there is only one you.
How did your parents react when you told them that you wanted to be an actress?
My mum seemed quite happy, but I think that’s because she was just relieved I had finally decided to do something with my life after I graduated law, as I’d moved home and taken some time out to ‘find myself’. My dad never spoke about it after I told him. I did a lot of things as a child that had a pretty short shelf life, he was clearly hoping my acting aspirations were also just a phase.
My dad would not-so-subtly mention ‘Masters’ and ‘Harvard’ often. He’d tell me he would pay for everything if I wanted to continue with academics. I worked in a law firm at the time, temping as a secretary even though my friends who had graduated with me were trainee lawyers carrying much more prestige. My dad would introduce me to his friends at dinner parties as, ‘My daughter, the law graduate, who works in the top City law firm.’ I’d make a point of elaborating that I worked as a secretary - because I was supporting myself in my dream.
I was proud of my choices and so should he be. Over the next few years, when everything started to build, when I was flying out to make international films and being paid to do so, they became so proud. Not for my successes, but because of what my determination and hard work had achieved. They are now they are my greatest supporters.
Do you think studying law had an effect on your acting?
Absolutely. I had moments during my career when I felt like I wasted three years of my life studying law. You see a lots of actors starting so young, especially in America. I blamed my stagnant career on the fact that I hadn't started early enough. But now, I am so glad I studied law. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. There is a gravitas that comes with being a law graduate that is just part of my being, whether I like it or not.
As such, I’ve only ever found myself playing professional roles. Doctor (Holby City), detective (Scott & Bailey), lawyer (Crazy Rich Asians), and many more. When I first started out, I could never get cast as the illegal immigrant, or the takeaway worker, or the prostitute – pretty much the only roles available for an Asian actress 10 years ago. It upset me. Not because I wanted those roles, but the constant rejection. Now I realise it wasn’t the energy I carried. This has allowed me to have a much more varied and fulfilling career. Everything happens for a reason – we need to learn to trust as oppose to blame our choices.
What do you think is the advantage and disadvantage of not attending drama school?
To be an actor, you need life experience. It is all you have to draw from. You can’t ‘learn’ life experiences in a classroom, no matter how good your posture or breathing is. You learn life from living it. I meet more and more actors now who studied very normal degrees at Oxford and Cambridge. University shapes you. Grounds you. Teaches you.
If my future children ever wanted to be actors, I would encourage them, but I’d urge them to go to university first, or travelling, or even work experience. Learn about life. Let her love you, break you, strengthen you. Only then, can you begin to pull it out from within and package it in a form of expression. I also feel sad for drama students whose careers never quite take off once they are out in the real world. What will you do with yourself then, for the rest of your life?
What do you think a lot of actors are missing when they want to break through?
I learned the most important lesson from my former agent. He said, ‘Darling, go look up the word ‘show business’ in a dictionary, then look up the word ‘business’. Actors forget this this side of things. Hollywood is the biggest business.
I used to work in the City of London, and whilst it was ruthless, unemotional and money and ego driven, I respected it for its honesty. The corporate world makes no bones about the fact that it is out to make as much money, as quickly as possible. So does Hollywood. But Hollywood hides it behind creativity and this is where people get tripped out.
How do you feel about networking?
I hated networking so much. Actors are told they need to do it and I fell for it too. I paid a lot of money at the beginning of my career to meet casting directors. When you see that your friends attending these events, you feel like you might be missing out on vital opportunities.
But there are different types of networking. I have to network as part of my job, go to screenings, award ceremonies, press nights. I love seeing my friend’s shows and catching up with them after and meeting the cast and crew. This is fun. This is healthy. Joy breeds joy.
The nastier side of networking though, is networking for the sake of networking. It carries an agenda; i.e. being seen or discovered or meeting the all coveted important contacts. The agents. The producers. The casting directors. This is BS. No industry professional who could impact your career that significantly will charge you to meet them, or be at these networking events. They are far too busy. They don’t need the money.
Actors are very vulnerable. And unfortunately there are a lot of people in the industry that want to make money and are doing things for their own gain. It’s easy to make money out of actors. We need to learn to protect ourselves. Not just financially, but also our dignity.
You are represented by one of the top agencies in the UK. How hard it was for you to be signed by them?
Everyone has their own individual agency route, but in my experience, it was very hard. I had approached my current agency three times over six years. Every two years, there was a significant shift in my career, at which point I would try to step up.
You hear all the big agency names, United Agents, Independent Talent Group, Curtis Brown, and all the amazing boutiques. Everyone’s dream is to go straight to the top. As much as I wanted that trajectory at the start of my career, it wasn’t the way my journey was meant to go. And with hindsight, I can clearly see why.
I first time I wrote agents looking for representation, I received a few rejection letters. The others just ignored me. One of the letters was from my current agency. Of course I was upset. But something stopped me from throwing it away. I decided to keep it, and told myself, ‘This is going to be so sweet when they rep you one day. You’re going to laugh about this.’ And that’s exactly what happened, 6 years later. I still have the letter. It’s a reminder for myself to not get broken by rejection. But rather, see it as a challenge. See life as a game. Play with it.
A lot of actors, like myself, will not see it purely as a rejection letter. We will see it as an indication that we are the worst human in the world. At the time, I had friends who were with the top agencies and I was so jealous. My agent then would mostly send me to commercials castings, I could barely get seen for anything else. But don’t be jealous. Don’t waste your time. I can only say this with hindsight, because sure – it hurts at the time.
But everyone’s journeys are all different. Some of my friends eventually got dropped by their top agents because they didn’t work enough. Or they were overlooked in favour of huge A-listers that my friends ended up having to look for smaller agencies that would value them more.
Your agent journey will make sense in the end. I joined my current agent when I was finding my feet within the industry after having just left my first TV show. She was establishing her own client list. We joined at the perfect time for each other. If I was signed by them 12 years ago as I wanted, I would have been dropped within a year – and the worst part is, I would have carried so much shame.
Do you need to be proactive even when you have an agent?
Yes. But proactive doesn’t mean calling your agent every day asking her what she’s put you up for, or why hasn’t she called or why you haven’t been auditioning. Do you think you’d want to work for you if you did that?
Proactivity is more about being personally productive. Go see shows. Films. TV. Stay current. What types of projects and roles do you dream of playing? Make a list. Tell your agent, so they know exactly what roles to put you up for. Go to acting classes. Learn a new skill. Improve on your American accent. Learn a new language. Rehearse audition scenes with friends. Go to the gym. If you land a role next week that needs you to be at the peak of fitness or involves nudity, is your body ready? Learn how to self tape. I booked both Stan Lee’s Lucky Man and Romanoffs on self tape alone. A good tape can change your life.
One of the actresses on Crazy Rich Asians told me that when she went through dry spells, she would ask her agent to send her audition sides from other projects because she just wanted to practice her audition technique. I admire her tenacity so much and it’s not a surprise at all that her career has exploded. Keep the energy going. Most of the hard work is always off camera.
Do you think actors got intimidated by agents?
They can do, especially by the big ones. I was, but I was very lucky because I booked got the first job I auditioned for, which was the day after I signed to my current agent. The pressure was off for a while, but it can build up again if you let it. But intimidation means there is a (perceived) status of inferiority. This is very damaging. On the subject of equality, the best agent-actor relationship is if you are both equal and can have an honest dialogue with each other. I know some actors are scared to even call to their agent. If this is the case, you have to address why because this is not healthy at all.
After the last year, with the huge success of Crazy Rich Asians and Sandra Oh in Killing Eve, do you feel a change for Asian actors?
I read quite a lot of projects with or for Asian actors, so I’m more aware than most of the shifting landscape on this front. In the UK, there seems to be this knee jerk reaction every now and again, that if we haven’t seen Asians in a while, let’s bung them all together and do a show about immigration, corruption or communism.
These projects don't reflect positively about Asians.They tick boxes, but it is one step forward and 50 back. I admire the careers of Gemma Chan, Benedict Wong, Sonoya Mizuno and Jessica Henwick because they largely play roles that have nothing to do with their ethnicity. The industry will keep churning out tired old stereotypes of Asians until we stop it.
Crazy Rich Asians was just the beginning of a movement, but we – as actors and creatives – need to empower ourselves with our own choices. I would rather play a smaller ‘colour-blind’ role then a deliberate Asian lead in a story that portrays Asians negatively. I’m not saying Asians must only be depicted positively. But for me, adding to a hackneyed stereotype is not a narrative I want in my career.
What kind of narrative do you want?
I worked on a series called Pure which is coming out on 30 January on Channel 4. It is based on the book of the same name by Rose Bretecher, adapted to a screen by the amazing screenwriter Kirstie Swain. It is produced by women, with a fantastic female lead (Charly Clive) whose character is authentic and wonderfully flawed. She is not trying to be liked, which was so refreshing to see. It is one of the best scripts I’ve read in a long time. I’m sure it will make a huge impact. I can’t wait for the world to see it.
Last year I filmed an Amazon series called The Feed and recently wrapped on a film called SAS: Red Notice, which was a military film based on the novel by Andy McNab. Currently I am filming Gangs of London.
I can’t say too much at this stage, but in all these projects, my roles have been varied, goes against the face of typecasting. They are worlds away from each other, and I look entirely different in all of them. There is no ‘narrative’. The point, I would hope, for most actors is to explore as many characters as they can, across an array of genres, to tell stories that matter, move the audience and make a difference.
Don’t you think that with all the girl power and empowering women, men are feeling little bit left alone and it can have a negative impact?
I think it has the potential to be negative. Positive discrimination is still discrimination. The aim shouldn’t be to end patriarchy only to replace it with matriarchy. That still does not result in equality. We have to be careful not to compromise quality – because if that goes, then what is the point of it all? Equality should be based on who is best for the job. As an Asian female, I would hate to be hired out of pity, or tokenism. I’ve fought it my whole career. Hire me because I’m good. If I am the best person within my category. I love getting roles that weren’t meant for an Asian actress. Or even a woman.
If we hire women or push diversity for the sake of it, we’re in danger of undoing our own good work. If quality is compromised as a result of quota filling, then it is only a matter of time before the current system will whisper, ‘See, I told you women and ethnics weren’t good. They had their chance and they failed. Can’t say we didn’t try.’
Crazy Rich Asians wasn’t a roaring success just because it was an all Asian cast. It was a sensation because it was excellent. But if it had bombed, we feared Hollywood would say, ‘You see, no one wants to pay to see Asians on screen. Let’s never do that again.’ The focus, from the start, was always on quality. And that energy lived in every breath, every pore of the filming experience to its eventual release. So that’s the bar we have to set for everything we do. Everyone we hire. Regardless of gender, race, sexuality etc.
So what is the way?
With all movements, the pendulum has to swing a few times to the extremities before finding a perfect balance. I think over time it will settle into its status quo. At the moment, there is a strong focus to hire women and on diversity. I am not saying this is negative, but a cautionary tale would be that you can kill someone with a hug if you squeeze them too tight. By that I mean, negatives can arise out of the best of intentions. At this time of change, we need to be wary of where the pendulum is swinging, and keep an eye on the tipping point.
You are joining us for the Mandy talks Gender Representation panel discussion on the 29th of January. What are your expectations?
I am curious to hear other opinions. I am looking forward to hearing what kind of questions are asked because I think that reflects a mood or a general discourse of the industry.
When you are working you tend to be in a bubble, and I have been in a bubble for over a year. It will be interesting to hear how others feel about the industry, in their own sectors, and how equality and diversity affects them. I realise I am in a different position to a lot of Asian actors, and indeed actors. It hasn’t always been easy and my road has been anything but smooth sailing.
But I am in a good place now where I can discuss issues openly on sets and forums without fear of repercussion or fearing that I may never work again. I hope to learn from the panel and the audience. I believe everyone is there to want our industry to be as fair and enjoyable as possible, and this is a great opportunity to move forward in that direction.
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