Ryan Murphy’s recent series Hollywood showed the Golden Age of cinema in a different light – one that reckoned with diversity and representation decades before the film industry did in reality. Its fictional lead actress Camille Washington (played by Laura Harrier) ended the series by becoming the first black actress to pick up an Oscar, while Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong (Michelle Krusiec) got her own trophy as Best Supporting Actress.
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In real life, Wong never won an Oscar. Instead, she watched on from the sidelines when Luise Rainer collected the Best Actress award for the role of O-lan in The Good Earth – a Chinese character that Wong had auditioned to play, but had been overlooked in favour of the German Rainer.
“Asian-Americans aren’t seen as having a place in history, which is actually not true,” Michelle Krusiec, who plays Wong in Hollywood, says. “But that’s the perception Hollywood has, right?” Speaking to NME from her home in LA, she tells us more about what it’s like to play a part in getting Wong the recognition she deserves, her own experiences as an Asian-American actress in the industry, and her favourite moment from filming Murphy’s latest series.
How did looking into Anna May Wong for Hollywood change your perspective on her?
Michelle Kruseic: “I never really knew what her actual story was. I just remember thinking when I was a young actor, ‘How could she not have gone on to do bigger things?’ She seemed to be really gorgeous, really talented. What prevented her from crossing that “bamboo ceiling”? Of course, in your 20s, you don’t really understand the systems that are in place when it comes to systemic racism. When I looked into her life for the purposes of Hollywood, I started to really understand just what she was up against as an Asian-American actress in the early 1920s and ‘30s – the perceptions at the time and how racist they were. 100 years later and we’re still dealing with the same perceptions.”
Do your own experiences have similarities with Anna May Wong’s?
“Yeah, I definitely think so. I think that my experience [was] bumping up against the same systems that were there for her 100 years ago. [They’ve] remained. Not much has changed in terms of how Asians are cast; how they’re cast opposite white leads. They’re usually in service of a white protagonist’s role or they’re servicing a utilitarian function, which is what Anna May Wong was cast as generally – always the villain, the person who was killed, never really having a primary throughline where she got to show a lot of complexity. I have a running joke with my family where I tell them, ‘I don’t die in this one’, so I die in quite a bit of my roles as well – I told a friend I wanted to do a death reel.”
What needs to change in the industry for those racial stereotypes to dissipate?
“I think there has to be some acknowledgement by major Hollywood productions and those who are in charge – to really look at how Asian-Americans are being used in movies and in their storytelling, and to acknowledge how we are marginalised, how the roles that are offered to us feel perfunctory.”
“As we all know, you don’t just come running out of the gate truly talented. Most stars today have been developed over many years. Someone like Jennifer Lawrence was an overnight success in a way, but someone took a risk on her and gave her an opportunity to be a lead in a film. It’s very rare to see those kinds of risks being taken on unknown people of colour or actors who are in an underrepresented category.”
Have you noticed a shift in the roles that you’ve been offered recently?
“Personally, I’ve witnessed that there has been a change. There does feel like a sea change towards attitudes and openness. I’m in a place where I’m now facing ageism. So on top of being a woman of colour, I’m now in an ageist type of group. I’m not so privy to what’s happening for the younger actors and actresses, which I think is probably more exciting now than it was when I was coming through the ranks.”
What was your favourite moment from filming Hollywood?
“I think my favourite moment was the day I shot the audition sequence. It’s the scene where you see [Anna May] doing The Good Earth audition. That was a very long day and [we shot] so many different angles. I had to play that very emotional thing over and over and over again. At the end of that, I received a standing ovation and it felt almost like I was at the theatre.”
Ryan Murphy has spoken about doing more with Hollywood – would you be interested in revisiting Anna May’s story?
“I definitely would do something with Ryan, for sure. I think he’s a very, very savvy storyteller and I think he has his finger on the pulse of what the culture wants. I had so much fun doing this so I think it would be great to delve to her more deeply.”
Murphy often collaborates with an actor on multiple projects. Which of his shows would you like to work on?
“I think this is [my dream] one! I did a series called Popular many years ago, which was one of his first series when he first began writing. That was also the same kind of energy, where you could feel he was this young, exciting writer with a voice. I would love for him to do something more on Anna May Wong. It would be fun to see her in her series, which was The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong. She played a detective and she was the first Asian-American woman with her own TV show but it was taped live to air and no known footage remains. It would be fun to re-create that series as her.”