culture

The Surprising Jobs That 'Crazy Rich Asians' Actors Held Before Starring in the Hit Rom-Com

Before playing Singaporean elite, the cast put in hours as doctors, lawyers, comedians and students

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August 30, 2018

There’s been tons of buzz about the incredible Crazy Rich Asians cast, from true matriarch Michelle Yeoh’s steely performance as Eleanor Young to the male-lead perfection that is Henry Golding to the comedic delivery of burgeoning star Awkwafina. Jon M. Chu’s film is breaking box office records—it’s now the most successful studio rom-com in nearly a decade—and making a strong case for diversity in Hollywood. The adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s best-selling novels pokes fun at the lifestyle of the crazy rich Singaporean elite, while also shattering stereotypes and biases about Asians.

 

However, the cast isn’t all acting talent. Like other actors in the industry, the Crazy Rich Asians cast members have non-acting backgrounds that they either juggled alongside entertainment or pursued prior to their breakout roles. While it’s unlikely these actors need a backup plan—casting directors and studios would have to be out of their mind not to cast them after the film's box office numbers—these Crazy Rich Asians stars definitely have resumes unlike anyone else. Their success also reminds us that we all contain multitudes, and it’s never too late to make a passionate career switch.

Ken Jeong

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Some aspiring comedians hold a day job as a waiter, office worker or dog walker. Ken Jeong was a practicing physician. Prior to his memorable roles in Community or The Hangover, Dr. Jeong was performing at comedy clubs and open mic nights by night and saving lives by day. The Duke University graduate who obtained his MD from the UNC School of Medicine (literally the top school in primary care) reportedly once attended to a woman having a seizure during one of his shows. Jeong still puts his expertise to use, whether it’s on the ABC sitcom Dr. Ken or answering medical questions on WIRED. The actor appears in Crazy Rich Asians as the parvenu, nouveau-riche Goh Wye Mun, father of Awkwafina’s Peik Lin.

Gemma Chan

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One of Crazy Rich Asian’s most perfect casting decisions was Gemma Chan as Astrid Leong Teo, who somehow manages to be fashionable, impossibly stunning, rich and incredibly likable. The actress is somehow even more remarkable in real life. Before Chan appeared in projects like Fantastic Beasts, Humans and Doctor Who, the actress studied law at Oxford and was famously extended an offer from the international law firm Slaughter and May. Instead, she enrolled at Drama Centre London to study acting. Her parents were, unsurprisingly, not thrilled. Classes aside, she also swam at a national level in her teens and is classically trained in violin. The actress will next appear in Mary, Queen of Scots and the much-anticipated Captain Marvel—needless to say, her parents are very proud of her.

Ronny Chieng

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While Crazy Rich Asians was about Singaporeans, there’s a wide array of Asian and Asian-Americans within the film. Ronny Chieng, who was born in Malaysia, grew up in Singapore and attended school there before attending university in Australia, where he graduated with both a commerce and law degree. Afterward, he pursued comedy. (Singaporean students can find some home in Chieng, who has tweeted about his own not-so-stellar Primary School Leaving Examination scores.) Chieng has translated his school experience into writing his show, Ronny Chieng: International Student, which is loosely based off of his own time at Melbourne University. Far from the fame-obsessed, shallow character he plays in the rom-com, Chieng’s work as a senior correspondent on The Daily Show is marked by acute insight and commentary. His response to the racist Jesse Watters Chinatown segment is a viral classic.

Jimmy O. Yang

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Jimmy O. Yang has written about his journey from Hong Kong to Hollywood in his book How to American: An Immigrant’s Guide to Disappointing Your Parents. There, Yang describes watching American TV, encountering stereotypes, and growing up with his dad’s timeless advice, “Doing what you love is how you became homeless.” Although he grew up loving cable, rap and comedy, he went on to complete an economics degree at UCSD—what he calls “the easiest degree that can still appease your Asian parents.” After graduating, the actor gave up a job in finance to pursue stand-up. Prior to playing the outlandish Bernard Tai, you might’ve recognized Jimmy O. Yang as Jian-Yang on Silicon Valley. Prior to that, you might’ve seen him as a used cars salesman, working at a comedy club, or DJing at a strip club. That econ degree didn’t go to waste though—Yang claims lap dance sales went up 44 percent during his first week.

Constance Wu

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Contrary to what some people might think about the daughter of a biology professor and computer programmer, Constance Wu’s family had always expected her to be an actress. Wu started with theater as a child and went on to graduate from Purchase College with a BA in acting. However, the Crazy Rich Asians star did go through a non-acting period. A “little beat up and tired of it,” the actress did a post-baccalaureate in linguistics and speech language pathology at Queens College. Wu was even accepted into a speech language pathology graduate program at Columbia University, but says she ended up not going because of a heartbreak. It seems awful to say you’re glad someone got dumped, but the entertainment industry just wouldn’t be the same without Wu’s talent and humor in groundbreaking, landmark projects like Fresh Off the Boat and Crazy Rich Asians.