Gemma Chan On Navigating Fame And Her Private Life, Representation And 'Eternals'

Alice Wignall
·13-min read
Photo credit: Marcin Kempski
Photo credit: Marcin Kempski

From ELLE

When is a celebrity not a celebrity?

When you’re Gemma Chan, of course – or so says Gemma Chan. ‘I don’t think of myself like that at all,’ she says. ‘My life is fairly low-key.’

What, because you don’t drive a gold Cadillac?

She laughs. ‘I don’t live in a mansion, I don’t have an assistant,’ she says. ‘All that kind of stuff.’

I remain unconvinced, and mount my counterargument, ticking off the evidence on my fingers: one, a starring role in an enormous movie franchise (Sersi in Eternals, part of the world-conquering juggernaut that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, due for release in late 2020 but Covid-delayed until late 2021); two, a new contract with L’Oréal Paris as an international spokesperson; and, three, another recently announced UK ambassador role with Unicef.

Guaranteed blockbuster, cosmetics contract, high-profile charity patron: this is the star-making Big Three; the trifecta of global fame. Come on, I say. This year, your face is going to be everywhere.

‘Er, yeah,’ she says, looking genuinely quite alarmed.

Photo credit: Marcin Kempski
Photo credit: Marcin Kempski

Chan's path to this point has been one of steady progress, rather than precipitous acceleration, which is maybe why she finds it hard to contemplate the quantum leap her career is about to take.

At 38, and with more than a decade and a half of experience behind her, she’s done it all: BBC bit parts (including Doctor Who and Sherlock) and a breakout TV role in Channel 4’s Humans; high-brow theatre and big-budget films (in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and, indeed, a previous Marvel movie, as the sniper Minn-Erva in Captain Marvel. The two characters are unrelated but, as she points out, ‘I was painted blue for that whole job, so it’s not like I’m very recognisable’), but nothing on a scale likely to upend her life.

The closest she’s come to that so far is her performance as Astrid in 2018’s surprise smash hit Crazy Rich Asians, which made $238.5m against a budget of $30m and became the top-earning romantic comedy of the Noughties.

‘[Because] Crazy Rich Asians did so well internationally, I definitely felt a shift at that time,’ Chan says. ‘Like, on the Captain Marvel press tour, not being able to walk through [Singapore] airport. Then again, things have settled and the slight craziness of that time has gone away. I do feel like I can – touch wood – go about my life normally now.’

Photo credit: Marcin Kempski
Photo credit: Marcin Kempski

The biggest impact, she says, was professional: ‘Before Crazy Rich Asians, I wasn’t being considered for lead roles in feature films. There [is] a very select group of actors in that pool and I wouldn’t even get an audition, I wasn’t in that conversation. Whereas now... I’m being talked about for certain things and then you may meet the director, or you at least get to have your shot. So that feels a bit different.’

Her most recent project is certainly the kind of job you can imagine being fought over in casting rooms around the world: hey, how would you like to get on a luxury cruise liner with acclaimed director Steven Soderbergh and a killer cast including, oh, I don’t know, Meryl Streep and make an intelligent comedy drama about betrayal, responsibility and enduring love? Who wouldn’t? But Chan was the one who was picked for Let Them All Talk, which was filmed on board the Queen Mary 2 as it crossed the Atlantic from New York to Southampton. It tells the story of a lionised novelist, played by Streep on magisterial form, en route to collect a prestigious writing award in England, accompanied by two old friends and her nephew. Chan is her recently promoted literary agent, who has also bought a ticket for the crossing, in the hope that she can clandestinely find out what her secretive client’s much-anticipated next book is about.

‘Obviously I jumped at the chance,’ says Chan. ‘It was a dream project.’ Though not a stress-free one: ‘A lot of the dialogue was improvised,’ says Chan. ‘There’s a scene, a lunch in New York with Meryl, which was actually the first scene that I shot. So I arrived on set and the restaurant was full of 200 extras; you could hear a pin drop. I went in and sat down, then Meryl came in and sat down, and we just had to improvise a scene. I don’t think I’ve ever had such a clenched bum! I was petrified. There I am, with possibly the greatest actress of all time, and... “Action!”’

There is an alternate timeline, of course, in which Chan genuinely isn’t famous. If she’d followed the path that her early years suggested, her current life would be, if not stress-free, less likely to include head-to-heads with multi-time Oscar winners.

Photo credit: Marcin Kempski
Photo credit: Marcin Kempski

Raised in Kent to Chinese parents, she attended an academically selective school before studying law at Oxford. She also played violin to a high standard and swam competitively at a national level. All in all, the perfect image of a relentless high-achiever, bound for success in a stable career – until she took a post-graduation gap year swerve into acting, at first with evening classes, then a full-time course.

Even now – when the gamble has decisively paid off – she sounds tentative when discussing her original ambitions to act. She did some am-dram at school, ‘but never thought, I could do this for a job.’ Embarking on her acting studies, the idea of a career was there, but ‘at the back of my mind’.

That might be because this period of Chan’s life was fraught: her parents were alarmed that she declined a training contract with a prestigious London law firm, and thought she was making a mistake. Perhaps she still finds it hard to unequivocally state that the path she chose is not one they initially approved of.

‘The key for both of them and therefore for myself, and my sister, was the importance of education,’ she says. ‘It allowed my father to have a completely different life to his father, mother and some of his brothers and sisters. Both of my parents are immigrants who came from very humble backgrounds,’ she adds. ‘They definitely instilled in me a work ethic from a young age and a sense of, “The world doesn’t owe you a living, you have to make your own way.” At one point in my dad’s childhood, he was homeless. My amah, his mum, raised six kids on her own. They had absolutely nothing, they lived in a shack on a hillside in Hong Kong. I’m one generation away from that.’

You can sense the shadow of the lawyer she could have been when she talks, and almost hear the weighing up of pros and cons she has done to determine what steps to take. Of L’Oréal Paris, she says: ‘I have been a little bit cautious when it comes to brand partnerships and things like that. I wanted to wait till it felt like it was right. [I chose] L’Oréal Paris because the brand stands for uplifting women and empowerment and they have a strong philanthropic side to what they do, such as their partnership with The Prince’s Trust.’

Photo credit: Marcin Kempski
Photo credit: Marcin Kempski

She talks about carefully considering joining the Marvel universe, knowing it could mean giving over a share of the next 10 years of her life (‘You’re not signing up for one film, because they have additional films and spin-offs and they cover themselves’). She chooses her words with utmost caution when talking about Eternals: ‘Marvel is pretty strict about these kinds of things and I’ve got an non-disclosure agreement like that,’ she says, miming a massive wodge of a legal document.

She insists that alongside this diligence there’s a flip side to her personality: ‘I have a slightly rebellious nature. I wasn’t always the best behaved and, yeah, I do work hard but I’m also quite chaotic. Hopefully I’ve found a bit of balance but when I was younger I was like, “I’ll leave it as late as I can, then I’ll pull an all-nighter.” That’s kind of the person I was.’ It’s impossible to tell if this ‘rebellious’ streak would register on most people’s radars, or if it was only noticeable in the context of her own – or her family’s – high standards. I suspect you’d have to know her very well to find out, and she’s far too protective of her private life to make peeking through the veil a possibility.

Despite – or perhaps because of – two long-term relationships with high-profile men (she dated comedian Jack Whitehall from 2011 to 2017, and has been in a relationship with actor Dominic Cooper since 2018), she doesn’t discuss her personal life. It’s not exactly a state secret – she makes mention of ‘my partner’ when talking about what she did in the first lockdown (volunteering pretty much full-time for her friend Lulu Dillon’s charity, Cook 19, delivering meals to London hospitals) and Cooper makes the odd appearance on her Instagram account – but she’s certainly not going to give rolling updates on her romantic life.

‘Over 10 years, you learn the importance of privacy, what you choose to share and what you don’t. When you start out, you don’t even know what is important to keep for yourself – I didn’t anyway – whereas now I think there are certain things that I absolutely know, “That’s mine and it’s private.” For me, my comfort level is to have a clear distinction between what is for me and what I’m happy to talk about.’

I ask if she’s had any bad experiences with the press. ‘Nothing too horrendous, but some experiences of not having my wits about me. I’m aware now that anything I say could become a clickbait headline – well, on a slow news day.’

Photo credit: Marcin Kempski
Photo credit: Marcin Kempski

(As if to prove her point, in the week that we talk, Jack Whitehall makes headlines in multiple news outlets in the UK – and, indeed, around the world – for making an off-hand comment in an episode of his Netflix show that he ‘could have got married’ to Chan, but he ‘f*cked up my chance of that’. And, given that this was midway through a global pandemic, it wasn’t even a particularly slow news day.)

What she's happy to share on her social media – in fact, what makes up the bulk of her feeds – are her thoughts on a range of social and political subjects, from domestic abuse campaigns, to equal access to education, to Black Lives Matter, to protesting against anti-Asian racism. Which doesn’t always go down well: ‘Every time you say anything political, if it’s in the most uncontroversial way, you’ll be criticised for it; you need to be prepared for that. Every time I post something [like that], I lose followers, so it’s probably not the best business sense...’. But she’s not going to stop: ‘I want to highlight things that are important to me but without preaching. I’m still working it out, how to be an advocate in the most effective way.’

Photo credit: Marcin Kempski
Photo credit: Marcin Kempski

I ask if she feels hopeful about the future, given the myriad challenges she mentions. She pauses. ‘I’ve definitely struggled and felt hopeless,’ she says. ‘I think most of us have realised how powerless we are in terms of the day-to- day governing of our [country]. There no longer seems to be any accountability; there’s a lack of shame. Things that a minister or an advisor would have resigned for 10 years ago, now there are no repercussions. That’s incredibly frustrating, especially when people’s lives are at stake. But, I do have hope – mainly because of the next generation. They’re more politically aware than I was, more involved. Often in the media the most boorish voices seem to monopolise headlines, but actually there are decent people who want to make things better for their fellow humans. There are more of them than youmight think. During the pandemic, obviously it was a terrible time, but there were things that sprung up on a local community level of people trying to help each other. That was encouraging.’

And, of course, last year Black Lives Matter protests pushed questions about race and identity to the forefront as never before. How does Chan feel about her own role in increasing representation as a British Asian? ‘I get moments where I think, I wish we didn’t have to talk about race anymore. In the same way I wish we didn’t have to talk about why it’s unusual to have a female lead. Why is it still the exception? Why is it still so unusual to have half of the human race being centred in these stories? It seems ridiculous to still be flagging that as a talking point.’

She talks about a structure that actor Riz Ahmed has described: on tier one, a minority actor will play stereotypical, reductive roles. On tier two, your race is still prominent, but the character is nuanced and well-rounded. ‘And the holy grail is tier three, where you’re just viewed as a human. But, while we’re still working towards that goal of much more equal representation, it’s going to be something that we have to be more consciously aware of, and it is going to be part of the conversation.’

It’s a classic Gemma Chan answer. I can feel the burn of her frustration, and I see how she’s thought through her best approach. She’s got a goal, and she knows how to get there.

Photo credit: Marcin Kempski
Photo credit: Marcin Kempski

As for her own goals – well, there’s a packed schedule ahead: when we talk, she’s about to join Florence Pugh and Chris Pine for director Olivia Wilde’s follow-up to Booksmart, Don’t Worry Darling. Then, when the pandemic allows, there are the delayed back-to-back shoots for Crazy Rich Asians 2 and 3, not to mention the release of Eternals.

She’s also set up a production company, which is working on a range of projects focusing on ‘women whose stories haven’t been given their due, who are these unsung heroes of history’. She loves producing (‘You get a bit more control’), so much so that one day it might be all she does. ‘There may be a point where I want to take a step back from the acting side and, if the producing is established by then, that would be great.’

Hmm, I think. The thing about being globally famous is that once you are, it’s kind of hard to stop. But if anyone can manage blockbusters one month, normal life the next, it’s someone with a big brain, a ton of experience and her eye on the prize. Someone a bit like Gemma Chan. So, when is a celebrity not a celebrity? We might be about to find out.

Gemma is an international spokesperson for L’Oréal Paris and the face of Revitalift Filler Day Cream.

ELLE's February 2021 issue hits newsstands on January 7 2021.


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Photo credit: .

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