Along with the rest of the nation, we've been devouring every morsel Netflix has had to offer these last few months; heavily relying on various streaming services to get us through lockdown life.
Despite many filming schedules having to be postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, those lucky enough to have wrapped filming ahead of time, have been allowed to enjoy the world’s undivided attention upon their release date. One such show is Netflix’s Hollywood.
Set in 1940's post-war LA, the glamorous series – produced by Glee’s Ryan Murphy – focuses on the lives of a group of wannabe actors, filmmakers and directors, as they try to overcome the odds and beat the stiff competition to make it in Tinseltown.
Dealing with the ever-present and timely topics of adversity, racism and #MeToo style casting issues, the series sees Hollywood heavyweights take advantage of the group’s collective hunger to break into the industry, but ends up righting various wrongs not recognised until decades later.
This includes real-life character Anna May Wong (played in the show by Michelle Krusiec) winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar she was denied a nomination for in real life. Thus casting the Golden Age of cinema in a much more favourable light than the reality of the time.
If you’ve been catching up on the stylish series, after its Netflix release last month, you’ll undoubtedly remember Michelle Krusiec’s heart-breaking performance of Anna May Wong.
As the first major Chinese actress in Hollywood, Wong faced a barrage of racism as she tried to succeed in the notoriously white-washed film industry – being passed over for the lead Chinese role of O-lan in The Good Earth, in favour of German actress Luise Rainer, who later won an Oscar for her performance. Something Krusiec can relate to after two decades in the industry.
'Very little has changed over the last hundred years,' Krusiec tells Red over the phone from L.A. (where she’s been riding out the lockdown with her husband and two kids). 'I was excited to pay this part [of Anna May Wong], because it finally brought to life this very private, uncomfortable and visceral experience of talking about race.'
Describing Wong's scenes in the script as things Krusiec had 'definitely experienced personally before', she explained that it 'felt like it was time for story to be told.'
The Hollywood star was so set on the role, she got a dialect coach to help her perfect Wong’s accent, and even hired a professional hair and makeup artist for the audition to help transform her into character. ‘He helped create a wig for me,’ she says.
After 22 years in the industry, Krusiec is no stranger to adversity herself – revealing that, despite noticing 'a sea change towards attitudes and openness,' compared to Wong’s time in the spotlight, she still doesn’t feel accurately represented on screen.
'To be seen as a person whose race isn’t a part of their identity, goes against who I fundamentally am in the world,' and yet, 'as an Asian-American woman, I’m not seeing [roles that are] necessarily right for me.'
'I entered the industry thinking being Asian was an asset,' she says. Quickly learning that to be successful, she actually needed to be seen as a woman who 'just happens' to be Asian because of 'a white power construct' that makes ethnicity be seen as 'less than equal'.
This is something that Krusiec is simply not putting up with anymore. Especially since the tragic death of African-American man George Floyd in police custody last month and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests in the US and the UK.
'America is in upheaval at the moment,' she says, hoping that it's a sign the 'tide is finally shifting'.
Krusiec, who turns 46 this year, is desperate to 'change the narrative' and create roles for both women her age and people might fit into the category of 'other'.
'I am a woman of colour, I am Asian. I have power,' she says, keen to turn her hand to directing and writing these roles for herself and other under-represented minorities.
'I’ve started to understand that I can’t really expect someone who doesn’t have my experience, to write [roles] for me,' she says, explaining that 'most people write what’s close to them', or write stories about themselves and 'the world that they know'.
She adds: 'If a role speaks to me (like the part of Anna May Wong in Netflix's Hollywood), then I will do it – but if it doesn’t, I'd rather be writing and directing my own material.'
In fact, she became so fascinated with Wong's tale during filming, she tells Red her ideal next step would be to write and direct her biopic: 'I would love to see her have a fuller, richer life.'
For 'peas in a pod' Krusiec and fellow Asian-American actress and friend Sandra Oh, with whom she she shares an acting coach and has plans to collaborate with post-lockdown, that material involves having a 'larger conversation' about race.
Two years ago, Oh – who has become a household name over the last decade, thanks to prominent lead roles in the critically-acclaimed series' Grey's Anatomy and, most recently, Killing Eve – became the first actress of Asian descent to be nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series (an accolade she celebrated by posting a picture with Krusiec to her Twitter account).
Oh recently told Elle Canada that she’s now in a place in her career where she’s 'specifically interested in roles that explore a character’s race'. This will undoubtedly be the focus of any future collaborations between Oh and Krusiec, who have had 'almost identical experiences' of their time in the film industry, according to the latter.
She's come to terms with the fact that 'talking about racism and invisibility just comes with the territory' of being an Asian-American actress: 'As a person of colour, my identity is always political.'
Politics she hopes will see a significant shift, following the global events of the past week. Krusiec says the fact that George Floyd's death has struck such a chord with the rest of the world is 'heartbreaking', as it means this same oppression is happening everywhere.
'I'm enraged,' she tells Red. 'My experience with racism is different than [that of her Black and Brown brothers and sisters], but I absolutely feel the pain of its impact.'
Wanting to 'do something' with her anger, Krusiec has this advice for those looking to support the Black Lives Matter movement:
'Get angry, stay angry and channel it into every day decisions,' she says. Decisions like 'forming new alliances', partaking in 'activism,' conducting 'self-examination' of our own behaviour, and empowering female leaders, will hopefully be the catalyst for 'real change.'
Getting to know Michelle...
What book are you reading right now?
Anna May Wong’s biography by Hodges, as I research potentially writing her biopic!
Favourite box set?
I love Killing Eve. You can really hear Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s voice in the first season (I love her) and there was such a delight when it came out; it was so fresh! I'm also a big fan of Fleabag. [Phoebe Waller-Bridge's] material is so rich and savvy, and always on the mark.
What does happiness mean to you?
Not worrying, not being anxious.
How do you let your hair down?
I dance in my living room!
Comedy or drama?
Both, but probably drama
Morning lark or a night owl?
I’m a night owl.
Go-to dinner party dish?
It used to be prime rib but everyone here has stopped eating meat, so now have to come up with something vegetarian.
I love salami late at night. I could just eat an entire packet – I finish the entire thing and it’s is really embarrassing.
I hate bitchy people - when people bitch it really annoys me.
Sunscreen. I’m afraid I started way too late!
If you weren’t an actress, what would you be doing right now?
I would be a journalist. I love writing and researching and learning people stories.
If you could give your 20 year-old self advice, what would it be?
You are exactly where you need to be.
Is there anything you wish you had more time to do?
I wish I could travel more - that’s what I really miss with having children, because it’s much harder now. I grew up in a house where we never went anywhere, so as soon as I got out, I wanted to get as far away as possible and discover new things.
Most important life lesson you’ve learned?
It’s really hard to know yourself and it takes time, you just have to let it happen. You can’t rush it getting to know who you are; life shows you.
I was always in a rush to get to the destination. In my 20s and 30s I was constantly trying to be two steps ahead of myself, but when you get to your 40s, you realise that you have to go through it all to get to where you are now.
Will you pass these onto your own children?
Yes, my mother tried to forewarn me about the complexities of being a woman, but she did so in a way that terrified me. I want to speak to my children about life and give them the discipline they need to head straight into the fire, without giving them baggage and a legacy of fear.
Chinese culture is all about getting it right and not screwing it up, whereas American culture is all about 'freedom of self' and 'individual expression' – you have to find a happy medium between the two!
You can catch Michelle Krusiec in Hollywood on Netflix now.
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