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Gemma Chan interview: 'Actors of East Asian descent don’t get the opportunities white actors do.'

As she prepares to make her debut at the National Theatre, the versatile actress talks candidly about casting culture

What’s ‘Yellow Face’ about?
‘It’s inspired by real events. After Jonathan Pryce was cast in yellow face in the original Broadway production of “Miss Saigon”, our playwright, David Henry Hwang, led the protests against it, then kind of backtracked, and it all became a huge mess. In “Yellow Face” his character writes a play in response, and accidentally casts a white man as an Asian. To cover his own blunder he tries to pass off the white guy as a Siberian Jew. It’s political but it’s a comedy first and foremost… it’s fucking joyous!’

NT boss Nicholas Hytner directed the original ‘Miss Saigon’, and has programmed ‘Yellow Face’ just as ‘Miss Saigon’ returns to the West End – was that him being mischievous?
‘I don’t think it was deliberate, but I think he is amused by it. He and the playwright are friends now. He can see the funny side of it.’

The controversy was 20 years ago. Are things better now?
‘From my experience I would say no: actors of East Asian descent don’t get the opportunities white actors do. I know that’s inherently a problem in a country that produces a lot of period drama, but I have to fight so hard to get parts that don’t have something to do with China. David Yip, who is also in the cast, was the last East Asian actor to play the lead in a British TV show, “The Chinese Detective”, 30 years ago.’

But we’ve moved on from actual yellow face?
‘I’ve heard about productions where it still happens: yellow face, taping up the eyes. It’s hard to talk about it in a constructive way.’

How does casting hassle compare to all articles about you mentioning your boyfriend (comic Jack Whitehall)?
‘Oh God… Well it’s not just me: I read an interview with Rachel Weisz a while back and it called her “Mrs 007” and I thought: She’s an Oscar-winning actress who is amazing; don’t reduce her to being an appendage. I’ve accepted that it’s going to be the case and I’m not going to let it bother me.’

Any plans to see ‘Miss Saigon’?
‘Yeah! I’ve actually never seen the musical, believe it or not, I think we might go on a cast trip.’

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clarissa g
clarissa g

Gemma - being from the U.K. - may not know that here in Hong Kong Eurasians are still thought of as `white` - ie called gwei-jai, gwei-moijai! My point being that the part she is talking about in Ms Saigon is supposed to be a Eurasian, thus would have been played by someone white here too - and no one would have thought anything of it!

When 3 of my grandchildren were born each time their Por Por (mother`s mother) asked why they didn`t have yellow hair and blue eyes, even though they are 75% Chinese! this despite the fact that being mixed myself I don`t have blond hair and blue eyes!

I am not trying to say that the whole concept of `yellow face` is not dreadful - and when people go on about the problems Black actors have in the U.K. I and my whole family always ask what about Asians - however let`s be honest and admit that we all have our own blind spots..............even whole cultures can do so!