Chatting with British-born actress Gemma Chan,who got her big break playing the fashionably cool and collected Astrid in Crazy Rich Asians, feels like catching up with an old (super-talented, well-spoken, insanely gorgeous) girlfriend. Growing up in the U.K., she swam at the national level, studied law at Oxford University and found the time to throw some modelling into the mix, but it was only when she realized that a career in acting was possible that she found her calling. “I feel so fortunate to have had the education I had,” says Chan. “But in the end, I decided to follow my passion for storytelling.” And that decision has clearly paid off: With two Marvel movies, a Steven Soderberg film with Meryl Streep and the highly anticipated Olivia Wilde thriller Don’t Worry Darling on her resumé, Chan is making her mark. She’s also been hard at work off-screen: She’s a humanitarian advocate and champion of women’s education and rights around the world with UNICEF, and she’s not afraid to use her platform to give a voice to those who often aren’t heard. We recently spoke with the star about her work, breaking barriers and what gives her hope during these trying times.
You’ve played superheroes in movies, but you’re also a modern-day one, using your platform to help those who don’t have a voice. Where does this humanitarian drive come from?
“A lot of it comes from my upbringing. I was raised to have a strong work ethic but also to never look down on anyone else and to appreciate the things I have. I also think that when you go through a door and you are one of a few women of colour in a particular position, you don’t want that door to slam shut behind you—you want to keep it open for other people.”
What causes are currently close to your heart?
“I’m particularly passionate about girls’ education, and my work with UNICEF reflects that. I get a lot of my hope from the younger generation—some of the most exciting political movements at the moment are being led by young women, whether you’re talking about Greta Thunberg or Malala Yousafzai, and what they’re doing is so inspiring. Young women are often underestimated, so I feel very passionate about supporting them and helping [ensure that] their voices are heard. I think that that’s what gives me hope—that the next generation is so clued up. They really are so passionate—we should be listening to them, actually.”
You’re not afraid to get political and challenge people to educate themselves about current events and history. What makes you so fearless?
“It can be tricky to navigate. I know that anytime I post something political, I lose followers or get a negative response, but I do think it’s important to speak about things that you are passionate about—and to pick your battles. I don’t want to get drawn into a never-ending Twitter fight, because there are only so many hours in the day.”
What does it mean to you to be named a L’Oréal Paris spokesperson?
“I was so honoured and excited to join the L’Oréal Paris family. I grew up watching [the brand’s] commercials and hearing that tag line [‘Because I’m worth it’], but I never expected to be [making them]! Some of my earliest memories link back to L’Oréal. I remember wandering into my mum’s room as a child and walking into a cloud of Elnett hairspray. My mum worshipped Princess Diana when I was growing up—she had every one of Princess Di’s haircuts, so there was a lot of Elnett involved!”
As someone who’s been very vocal about diversity and equality in the film industry, what changes have you been seeing?
“I think there’s been a realization that actually embracing diversity and different kinds of storytellers allows for authenticity and really pays off, both creatively and financially. There are more films being directed by women and more women in decision-making positions. What I think is needed to keep moving forward is [not only] equality of opportunity but also the chance for failure. I feel that when it comes to men who have been in these types of positions, there’s an allowance for a certain—often quite high—degree of failure, and it doesn’t seem to affect whether they’re allowed [to work on] that next project. I feel that women should also be allowed to find their feet.”
What is the most challenging aspect of taking on the role of Sersi in the new Marvel movie, Eternals?
“It’s such a different beast doing those big studio superhero films—there may be hundreds of people on-set; it’s a huge machine, and you feel very much like you’re a cog that fits into it. I feel very lucky to be back in the MCU [Marvel Cinematic Universe]; there’s been such a warm reception from the fans. I’m very excited for people to see the film.”
You’re starring in the psychological thriller Don’t Worry Darling, directed by Olivia Wilde. What drew you to this project?
“I jumped at the chance to work with Olivia; I think she’s brilliant. She’s got a policy: No assholes on-set. She’s been wearing different hats for this production—she’s acting in it as well as directing—and I just find that incredible; I’m learning so much from just observing her. And then there’s the whole creative team! It’s a dream to work with Florence [Pugh], Chris [Pine] and Harry [Styles]—it’s such an amazing cast. I can’t say too much about the film because there’s a lot of mystery around each character and the setting and all of it, but it’s been a great world to jump into, and Olivia has been so supportive.”
What makes you happy these days?
“Nature. I read The Overstory [by Richard Powers] during lock- down; it’s a novel about trees and a group of people who are brought together over various time periods through their con-nection to trees. We don’t take much notice of how much trees do for us and how they communicate with one another in ways we may not realize. They warn one another about impending disease and danger—they send signals through the air and underground through their roots—and there are certain trees that actually give all of their nutrients to the trees around them when they die. Now when I look outside, look at a tree or go for a walk, [I] feel that connection to nature, [which] is so important to the health of the planet.”
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