It has already been a Marvel-heavy year, with WandaVision, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Loki, Black Widow, whatever else I’ve left off this list, and with less than six months to go before the end of 2021, there are still two major Marvel releases yet to come – and both of them feature East Asian performers in the lead roles. We are just a week away from the big blockbuster Hollywood red carpet premiere of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, starring Simu Liu, before it opens in theatres on September 3. And then in November, it’s Marvel’s Eternals. Eternals is plural, and it’s an ensemble cast, but as Marvel head Kevin Feige said:
“….and if there was a lead in this ensemble, it is Sersi, it is Gemma Chan.”
Which is why Gemma covers the September issue of British Vogue, arguably the most important issue all year in magazine publishing. She is the First Eternal, and once you go Marvel, the fame is stratospheric. The MCU is launching a new supergroup with Gemma as one of its most prominent faces. This is a big, big moment in her career.
So there’s a lot to love in this cover story. First of all, she looks incredible, this is a fashion and beauty publication after all, but the aesthetic here goes deeper than that. Gemma was photographed by Hanna Moon, who was born in South Korea. Most of the glam squad working with Gemma was East Asian too – makeup artist Hiromi Ueda, hair by Shon Hyungsun Ju, and nails by Chisato Yamamoto. And the profile was written by Zing Tsjeng.
Not too long ago, it would have been a stretch to even imagine an East Asian actor on the cover of the September issue of British Vogue. And now we’re not only seeing Gemma on the front page but there’s a whole team of creatives who were part of this package. This is progress. Progress is slow, but there are some signs of it. That said, progress is often met with resistance. And there is pressure here. It’s a huge opportunity for Gemma but there are also huge stakes. The MCU is moving to the next phase after the unprecedented, industry-transforming success of the Avengers, led by stars and characters who are now firmly part of the culture. So while this is exciting, obviously, it’s probably also really stressful.
But, as noted by the magazine, Gemma is “unveiling herself as a new kind of star: unashamedly political, community-oriented and entirely capable of fronting a $200 million superhero franchise”. She is 38 years old, she’s been in the business for a while, waiting for it to catch up to her. She is experienced and she is ready – not because she’s playing by traditional standards but because she is part of a cohort of creatives who is trying to reset the standard. And one of the reasons is that she had to exist for a long time in the old standard, born to parents from Hong Kong who immigrated to England in the 70s. She knows about how the culture limits people of colour and women. So she knows what has to change and now she’s in a position to contribute to it:
“It meant years of taking on “every job going – bit parts, one line parts, anything,” she says. It included roles that now, with the benefit of hindsight, she considers to have short-changed her heritage. In a 2010 episode of Sherlock set in Chinatown, she played a witheringly stereotypical damsel in distress. Critics and fans accused it of being a racially tone-deaf exercise in orientalism, with Chan cast as the wilting lotus blossom. “Would I necessarily make the same choices now, if given the choice? Maybe not. I think I would speak up more if I felt that a role was leaning into an orientalist trope of some sort,” she says. “I’m much more aware. And I think I’m in more of a position where I could say something.” At the time, I say, I wasn’t angry – I was just, as a South-east Asian woman, sad that it was one of the few Asian roles I’d seen for women on British television. Chan nods, her eyes brimming with empathy. “With complete respect to everyone involved… I’m not here to throw shade on anyone… but yeah, I totally hear what you’re saying.” Her history as a “jobbing actress”, as she charmingly puts it, also means, “I don’t look down on anyone doing any position or in any job on set. The industry has really shifted, even in just the time that I’ve been working,” she says, but notes, “Changing the actual culture – changing in practice – takes longer.”
Now contrast this answer with an interview that made headlines last week about Jason Momoa. In an interview with David Marchese for the New York Times Magazine, Jason was asked about Game of Thrones and its depiction of women and glorification of rape culture. Emilia Clarke has said in the past that Jason was wonderful while shooting the controversial scenes, making her feel safe and protected, despite the shortcomings of so many other decision-makers at the time. But this was the question:
“I don’t know how much you followed any of this, but “Game of Thrones” inspired a lot of discussion about its depiction of scenes of sexual assault and its treatment of women generally. Do you think differently today about those scenes? Would you do one now? Do you have any regrets? Those types of scenes can seem as if they belong to an older cultural moment.”
Jason answered, and it was a solid answer, but then at the end of the discussion, he told David Marchese that he didn’t appreciate the question:
“Yeah, and I wanted to bring something up that left a bad feeling in my stomach. When you brought up “Game of Thrones,” you brought up stuff about what’s happening with my character and would I do it again. I was bummed when you asked me that. It just feels icky — putting it upon me to remove something. As if an actor even had the choice to do that. We’re not really allowed to do anything. There are producers, there are writers, there are directors, and you don’t get to come in and be like, “I’m not going do that because this isn’t kosher right now and not right in the political climate.” That never happens. So it’s a question that feels icky. I just wanted you to know that.”
A lot of the online conversation was critical of David Marchese’s question, with many saying that it wasn’t fair to ask this of Jason. I disagree. I think it’s a fair question. David wasn’t asking Jason to take responsibility for those scenes, he wasn’t putting the blame on him – he was trying to talk about making different choices at different times in a career. Or getting to a point in a career where you can use your capital to have input on creative choices. It’s not entirely true that actors don’t have the choice. Young actors, actors without influence, actors lower on the call sheet, they don’t have much or as much choice. But as Gemma tells Zing Tsjeng, she is now, like Jason (who produces multiple projects now and also is the star of his own superhero franchise, Aquaman) in “more of a position where [she] can say something” and, further, she took the time to empathise with those actors who are not yet in the position, or will never be in the position, to say something. Because of the status quo, because of power imbalances. Because of inequities.
The conversation with Jason and the conversation with Gemma wasn’t about casting blame but advancing the dialogue and opening up more space for storytelling. Was Gemma’s answer more productive about the situation because she was speaking to someone who can relate to having to tell a narrow range of stories? Would Jason’s answer have been more complete had he been talking to someone with whom he could have shared the same shorthand between Gemma and Zing? Perhaps. But my point is, there was some nuance that I think was missed in the assessment of Jason’s interview with David Marchese and I’m not sure the coverage of it reflected that.
Speaking of shorthand though, I laughed at Gemma's anecdote about her dad and his shopping bag.
“At a recent dinner, she recalls, her father produced a long-out-of-production St Michael (the old Marks & Spencer brand) plastic bag for Chan to take some leftovers home in. “Those bags haven’t been produced for maybe 20 years,” she says. “He said he pulled it out in a shop and everyone gathered around because they hadn’t seen one of those bags for so long.”
LOLOLOLOL that is big Chinese parent energy. My parents, who are also from Hong Kong, save bags for decades too. Right now the handle is broken on their refrigerator and duct-taped together. Towels are threadbare. And it’s not like they don’t have the money to replace them. It’s just that the bags and the fridge and the towels are still working…so why bother?
Not surprisingly, Zing related to this too. And the plastic bag story is just one example of Gemma making it so that others are seen through her experiences.
To read the full interview with Gemma Chan, head to British Vogue.