Like many actresses, Gemma Chan started out as a model. Unlike most, she didn’t jump right to movies or TV.
Instead, she modeled to pay for a corporate-law degree at Oxford, spurred on by her showbiz-skeptical parents. “I had some parental guilt and pressure in terms in what I was going to study,” Chan, 36, admitted. “They encouraged law school. It’s not that unusual in our world. On ‘Crazy Rich Asians,’ three of us actors had studied law.”
Chan co-stars in the buzzy new film, which opens Wednesday and is the first Western-produced movie to have an all-Asian cast since 1993’s “The Joy Luck Club.”
In fact, Chan always wanted to act, “but I never realized I could do it as a job! Growing up in the UK, I saw very few faces like mine. Representation there is lagging behind America. Becoming an actress didn’t feel like an option.”
Her maternal grandparents, a nurse and a teacher, left Communist China just ahead of the Cultural Revolution, landing in Greenock, Scotland; they were the very first Chinese family to live there. Chan’s mother became a pharmacist in London; her father was a Hong Kong-trained engineer. The couple raised Chan and her younger sister near London.
After graduating from Oxford and receiving a job offer at a law firm, Chan gave it all up to study acting.
“When I left drama school, I was told I would really struggle to get parts because most of UK drama is period drama,” she recalled. “In some places outside of London, Asians are still not considered fully British . . . [But] I was trained to play anything — an old woman, a man. I always intended to play a whole range of characters. Every actor has to fight against being typecast.”
Chan was cast in the BBC’s “Doctor Who” and quickly landed more roles on British TV, including “Sherlock” and “Secret Diary of a Call Girl,” which aired on Showtime in the US. She also did some theater and moved on to films, with roles in “Jack Ryan: The Shadow Recruit” and “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.” She recently wrapped three seasons on American television, with the AMC sci-fi show “Humans.”
Her “Crazy Rich Asians” role — Astrid, the sister of main character Nick, played by Henry Golden — takes Chan back to her high-fashion modeling roots. “Astrid appears to have the perfect life: designer clothes, jewelry, a seemingly perfect marriage,” said Chan, who dated British actor Jack Whitehall for six years, breaking up in 2017. “But she’s actually struggling to hold it all together. She comes from unbelievable privilege but doesn’t buy into the trappings . . . I like that, that’s fun to play. But she does get a fantastic wardrobe!”
Astrid also later becomes a main character in the book trilogy, by Kevin Kwan, on which the film is based. “[Director] John [Chu] and I have talked about that for future film possibilities,” Chan revealed.
She’s also already got two major movies in the can: December’s “Mary Queen of Scots,” in which she plays a real-life countess who was Caucasian; and “Captain Marvel,” out in March 2019.
But she’s not sitting around waiting for calls to come in. “I’m developing a project from a book,” she said. “We have to find our own stories and tell them ourselves. I hope we don’t have to wait another 25 years for a story to be centered around Asian leads — or any minority, race, gender, age . . . The more specific you are in your storytelling, the more universal it becomes.”