To assemble the cast of “Crazy Rich Asians,” the filmmakers sent out feelers across five continents, watched scores of Skype auditions and held chemistry reads — something between an audition and a weird lunch date — to determine if actors were compatible. They looked at standup comedians and TV stars, models and musicians, and even announced an open call on social media. In the end, the film included Asian screen royalty (Michelle Yeoh), breakout stars (Awkwafina), newcomers (Henry Golding) and YouTube discoveries (Cheryl Koh). Here, six actors — and one singer — recall the casting process.
How badly did the director, Jon M. Chu, want Constance Wu to play Rachel, the romantic lead? Bad enough to push production of the film back four months, so that she could complete filming of the fourth season of her ABC series “Fresh Off the Boat.” Although Wu had largely secured the role, she was called in to do chemistry reads and screen tests with all the prospective Nicks. To get into their psyches, the actress asked each one personal questions. Have you ever had your heart broken? When was the last time you felt really ashamed? “Actors love to talk about their feelings,” she said. Golding walked away with the role, but it wasn’t because the pool was shallow. “People say it’s so hard to find great Asian-American male actors, but it’s not,” she said. “I think it’s insulting to the men I tested with, the men I went to drama school with, the men I did off off-Broadway with. Maybe they don’t have the biggest agents, because agents aren’t going to take them because there aren’t roles for them. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t exist.”
Golding first suspected something was up when he noticed Chu following him on Instagram. It turned out that Chu had heard about this good-looking travel host based in Malaysia, and had been digging up as much as he could find on him. After watching his YouTube videos and Skyping with him, Chu beckoned Golding, who had never acted before, to Los Angeles for a chemistry read with Wu. “I was just expecting Jon and Constance and maybe a cameraman,” he said. “I get in the room and there’s 15 people: executive producers, the casting people, Warner Bros. heads.” The audition went well, and two weeks later, Golding was called back to Los Angeles to shoot a screen test. The only hiccup: He was in South Africa in the middle of his honeymoon. He thought, “‘My wife is going to kill me.’ But she totally understood. She knew that this was a chance in a million.”
The filmmakers said Michelle Yeoh was always going to be their Eleanor, Nick’s mom and Rachel’s nemesis. “I guess when you’ve been in the business long enough, sometimes you have the privilege of not having to audition,” Yeoh laughed. Even so, she observed the casting process from afar, including Chu’s open call video. “I think it was really important that he did that, and for the producers to think the cast should come from all over the world,” she said. She also admired the filmmakers for not whitewashing the role of Rachel, which she said would have been sacrilegious. “You don’t know what your audience wants until it’s out there,” she added. “When we did ‘Crouching Tiger,’ everyone said you have to dub this movie in English, because Americans won’t read subtitles. But we proved them wrong.”
The New York-based actress (“Ocean’s 8”) and rapper (“My Vag”) was asked to read for the role of Peik Lin, Rachel’s best friend. “I’m definitely not an Astrid,” she admitted, referring to the book’s beauty and fashion plate. At the time, Awkwafina (real name: Nora Lum) was something of a newcomer to acting (her only other film credit was a bit part in “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising”), and Chu was still fleshing out her character, which changed considerably from book to film. “I’d never really auditioned with an Asian director,” she said. “So that was very intense, too. It just feels different. You feel closer, in a sense.” As for the audition itself, “I didn’t think it went horribly, which is always a great feeling to have.” She added, “I never really felt like I was a part of any kind of Asian-American generation coming up until I saw this cast. You have icons like Ken Jeong, you have Ronny Chieng from ‘The Daily Show.’ That’s when you feel like you really are part of this amazing community within the industry.”
Her online audition was something of a whim. A 21-year-old University of Southern California student at the time, Koh had never acted before, but her covers of pop songs on YouTube had garnered hundreds of thousands of hits. Recorded in her Los Angeles bedroom, her video audition features a minute and a half of Koh, who was born and raised in Malaysia, reading lines with a school pal, and about 15 seconds of her singing Jessie J’s “Mamma Knows Best” a cappella. “I just threw it in there,” she said. Koh uploaded the video in February 2017, and waited. And waited. A year later, after nearly taking the video down — “I was quite embarrassed of it” — she got a call from Warner Bros. You can hear her Mandarin and English version of the Beatles song “Money” as the opening credits roll. During the closing credits, Awkwafina adds her rap verses to the mix.
Chan was called to Los Angeles from Britain to audition for the role of Astrid, Nick’s glamorous cousin. “There have been lots of times, maybe less now, where I’d be called in, and the character’s race was very much part of the story line,” she said. “Or I’d be told, you have a lovely English accent, but can you sound a bit more Asian? Or somebody else’s idea of Asian. And I just really knew that that wasn’t going to be the case on this film.” The experience went far beyond the casting process. “It made me realize how often I’ve been the only person of color, and certainly the only Asian actor, on a film or TV set. It was wonderful to look around and see people from all over the world.”
JIMMY O. YANG
Early on, Yang (“Silicon Valley”) thought he might go for the role of Nick, until his manager, ever so gently, set him straight. “He goes, ‘Jimmy, I don’t know how to tell you this, but they’re looking for a good-looking guy for the leading role,” he said. Later, undeterred, Yang read for the role of Colin, Nick’s equally good-looking friend. About a month after the audition, Yang’s manager sheepishly told him that the role of Colin had gone to someone else, but would he be interested in playing Bernard, the spoiled, good-for-nothing billionaire in Versace everything? “I was like, dude, yeah!” he said. “Bernard is the most obnoxious, filthy rich, throwing his money around guy, just the worst type of person. Which is just so fun to play.”