When "Fresh Off the Boat" was headed toward cancellation after five groundbreaking seasons, Asian Americans were riddled with disappointment. But not Constance Wu. The up-and-coming actress was ready to move on from her breakthrough role to pursue other career opportunities.
Its last-minute renewal, however, surprised both fans and cast members, prompting profanity-ridden tweets from Wu. Her anger and frustration, interpreted by many as ungratefulness, ignited a firestorm of death threats, hate messages and DM exchanges with a fellow Asian actress that were so damaging that Wu tried to end her own life.
"I wasn't ready to (talk about this) back when I was still pretty raw and wounded by it. But now that I've gone through a ton of therapy, even though it's very scary to talk about, I feel equipped with the tools to talk about it and open up conversations," Wu tells USA TODAY. She's ready to open up to the public in her debut book, "Making a Scene" (Scribner, 336 pp., out Tuesday).
Luckily, times have changed since even three years ago. Wu, now a first-time mom, has secured herself in a cutthroat industry with roles in "Crazy Rich Asians" and "Hustlers." In addition, Hollywood's belated diversity push has relieved shows like "Fresh Off the Boat" of the unrealistic burden to single-handedly represent a complex community. Now, we have "Kim's Convenience," "The Farewell," "Minari" and "Everything Everywhere All at Once."
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Speaking to Wu on the phone, she seems at peace. Since her return to social media, she says she's received overwhelming support from friends, fans and co-stars.
But what about apologies?
"She has not contacted me at all," Wu answers, regarding the unnamed Asian actress who messaged her.
"She's just a very different kind of person than I. I'm loose and American and really crass, and I choose to be real even if it risks not always being polite."
Nonetheless, Wu forgives her.
For three years, her suicide attempt was a secret known only to her therapist and doctors. Not even her parents were aware of the gravity of her circumstances until this year. A suicide attempt, she says, is not exactly appropriate coffee chat material, nor is it welcomed in Asian American households, where even saying "I love you" is an uncomfortable feat.
But Wu is done hiding her emotions. After years of internalizing that good girls stay quiet – that Asian women in particular should be passive – she is sharing her truths, unforgivingly and poignantly.
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"Making a Scene," which is less a memoir and more a collection of intimate essays, explores Wu's innermost thoughts about topics ranging from young love and heartbreak to her hard-won path to success. It's clear that Wu, like many Asian American women, has been suppressing her bold character in the public eye in order to appease others.
At the time of the "Fresh Off the Boat" controversy, Wu attributed her "reckless" tweets to her frustration about leaving another project – a statement that is partially true. In reality, it was a response to more years of tolerating a toxic, abusive work environment.
"My reaction on Twitter definitely seemed uncharacteristic," Wu admits, adding that she was privately processing a bout of trauma at the time. "But it made me realize that it wasn't uncharacteristic. I swallowed abuse for so long, and when you repress your feelings, they don't just go away because you willed them to. That's not how feelings work."
Behind the scenes of what critics hailed as a hallmark work of Asian American inclusion, Wu recalls being sexually harassed, manipulated and intimidated by a powerful Asian male producer she does not name. In an essay titled "You Do What I Say," she alleges he berated her, threatened her future, gave unsolicited personal advice about her love life and in one instance, touched her inappropriately at a basketball game – all while treating the other cast and crew members with "utmost respect."
Representatives for ABC declined to comment.
"It was totally isolating because I was the only one that he was harassing on a daily basis and intimidating and implying that he could fire me if it didn't do what he said," Wu says, her voice cracking as she starts getting emotional.
At times, she contemplated reporting his behavior. But in an era before #MeToo, would people believe a relatively new cast member over an established producer? She also worried what her accusations would mean for her co-stars, as well as the representation of her community.
"I did not want to stain the reputation of the one show that Asian Americans had for themselves," Wu says. "So what happened was I swallowed a lot of abuse, and I isolated myself on set, because it was painful to see people being friendly with my abuser. It felt like a betrayal."
Conflicted, she did what most women have been conditioned to do: She sacrificed her own well-being: "I shut my mouth for six years so everybody else could keep their jobs, so the show was still a positive beacon of representation.
"So when they told me ("Fresh Off the Boat") probably wasn't going to be renewed, I was like, 'good.' I handled all the abuse. I moved on, and I was really excited to go somewhere with a clean slate where I don't have to start with this foundation of harassment and intimidation."
After a brief pause, Wu's tone changes, as if she's relieved to let this out.
'Don't think about the girl making a scene. Think about the scenes that made the girl.'
It's a simple yet powerful word that freed Wu and allowed her to preserve her peace. As expected, setting boundaries in Hollywood came at a cost: She was branded a "diva" or "high maintenance" by some – stigmatizing labels meant to undermine successful, powerful women (and only women).
As an Asian American woman in an overwhelmingly white industry, has the severity of the backlash to her tweets felt unfair? After all, many pointed out, white, male stars (like Robert Pattinson) also publicly criticized the roles that catapulted them into the spotlight, with little pushback.
Thinking about it, Wu says she isn't sure.
"I don't know what Robert Pattinson's experience was," she says. "Maybe he did get backlash, and I don't know because I wasn't in the middle of his storm. But I do think it's (more) indicative of our expectations for women's behaviors, particularly women of color, than it is for straight, white, cisgender males."
Regardless, it's inevitable to make mistakes and act out of impulse. But being able to express yourself, without having to apologize, is the message in "Making a Scene." Wu isn't sure how she would have behaved in hindsight, but context has helped her "understand why I had those large emotions. It made me learn that in the future, I should just be honest about the abuse and discomfort, rather than trying to swallow my pain to save everyone else."
She urges, "Don't think about the girl making a scene. Think about the scenes that made the girl." For Wu, this means engaging your empathy and curiosity, not necessarily to defend their actions, but to show compassion, rather than judgement – lending an ear, rather than sending death threats for out-of-context tweets.
If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health crisis, call the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline which provides confidential 24/7 support by dialing 9-8-8.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Making a Scene': Constance Wu talks 'Fresh Off the Boat' trauma