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Phebe Wahl | Photo: Lara Jade | March 4, 2019
As the luminous star of last year’s breakout hit Crazy Rich Asians and this year’s mega blockbuster Captain Marvel, Gemma Chan’s stellar trajectory is destined for brilliance.
“I have always been very interested in other people’s lives and I think acting gives you that opportunity to step into other people’s shoes—even if just for a bit—and to see things from their point of view,” says actress Gemma Chan. “I was relatively shy as a child, and [acting] was an outlet where I felt I could be free to express myself.”
But, the British-born beauty did not begin as an actress. After graduating with a law degree from Oxford University, Chan declined a job with a leading firm in order to train at the prestigious Drama Centre in London. “I had always done drama and music as a hobby from childhood, but I really never realized you could do it as a viable career until much later on,” she says. “I enjoyed the challenge of my law degree, but I learned quite early on that I would have been a pretty miserable lawyer.” Yet, the experience was not without its merits. “It is quite helpful with the memorization,” she adds. “I had to learn about 2,000 cases by heart, so I am fairly good at learning scripts quickly. On the whole, it is quite a different part of the brain: Law is very analytical, and acting is more instinctive and emotionally driven. But, it does come in handy with learning lines—and reading my own contract.”
Today, Chan, who resides in London, is a leading actress, counting projects such as BBC One’s True Love, a five-part drama exploring modern-day relationships from BAFTA-winning director Dominic Savage, as well as her recent role as Bess of Hardwick in Josie Rourke’s Mary Queen of Scots. Chan’s global star is now on the rise thanks to an expanding audience. “It may seem to a few people like I just appeared, but I have been an actress for the last 10 years,” she says. After starring as Astrid in the Warner Bros. film adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s best-selling book about Singapore’s social elite, Crazy Rich Asians, Chan was catapulted onto the international stage as a household name.
The film broke new ground, not only as the first major Hollywood movie to feature an Asian cast in 25 years (since The Joy Luck Club in 1993), but also by defying the industry slump for comedies as the highest grossing and most successful studio romantic comedy in nearly a decade (clocking in around $237 million at the box office globally). “I am so grateful and really proud,” says Chan of the film’s wild success. “I have never been part of a project where people had such personal reactions to it. People come up to me on the streets or at the airport just to say thank you. I think it has to do with people feeling seen for the first time. It feels amazing to be a part of it, and, hopefully, it is just the start.”
Perhaps one of Chan’s most appealing attributes as an actress is her ability to empathize and deeply identify with her characters, like Astrid. “[Astrid] has this very glamorous facade, but underneath she has so much more going on. I can’t personally relate to her crazy wealth, but a lot of women relate to a woman putting herself second in a relationship—or putting herself second to what she perceives as her man’s insecurities,” Chan explains. “I think many women felt very satisfied when Astrid finally stands up for herself in the film and takes back her power. A lot of women say they stood up and cheered in the theater.”
Chan’s next film will likely make women around the world stand up and cheer once again. Set to release March 8, Captain Marvel marks Marvel’s first female-led project produced under the Disney Marvel Cinematic Universe umbrella. “Hopefully it will be really empowering for women, and for young girls and young boys as well,” she says.
Although Chan is not able to reveal much about the plot, the star-studded cast (Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Djimon Hounsou, Annette Bening and Jude Law, among other talents), directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, promises another big bang at the box office. “It is set in the ’90s, which is great fun,” Chan says. Plus, the film gives fans a previously unseen look at a period in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that follows the journey of Carol Danvers through the trials of a great galactic war to become one of the universe’s most powerful heroes.
In Captain Marvel, Chan plays Minn-Erva, a sniper and a member of Starforce, a team of elite Kree warriors, opposite Larson’s Danvers. “She is an antagonist of sorts,” noting her character is more complicated than the villainous Minn-Erva from the classic comic. “In our film, it is a little bit different, and everyone is on the same side in the beginning,” Chan says. Minn-Erva has been quite the departure from Crazy Rich Asians’ Astrid. “Astrid is a very refined, sophisticated character, so it was fun to play a character that was a bit less nice,” she says, adding that she studied kickboxing in preparation for the highly physical role of Minn-Erva. “There are some great action sequences in [Captain Marvel]. [Minn-Erva] is a badass. She’s a sniper and a warrior. She doesn’t suffer any fools. She was really good fun to play.”
“I feel very lucky to be able to do what I do,” Chan says of her box-office success. “I love stories that are entertaining, but also have meaning—ones that push the conversation forward or shift people’s perceptions in some way. I have been really fortunate with the last two projects I have done that they have come under that category.”
As for what the future holds for this rapidly rising star? “Watch this space,” says Chan, who hints at a desire to direct, as well as current efforts to develop her own projects. “I think it is important to be proactive and find stories that we want to tell—and the stories that we choose to tell,” she adds. “I think history is written by the winners most of the time, and I am really interested in the stories of the losers—and finding those stories that have been partly lost and bringing them into the light.”
Originally published in the March issue of Silicon Valley