“The American landscape has changed. The people who want to deny our place, have to be told their reality is not what America is anymore.”
Michelle Krusiec has starred in nearly 200 television episodes and is the only Asian American actress to be nominated for a Golden Horse; for her performance as Wilhelmina Pang in Alice Wu’s, Saving Face. Michelle’s latest role as Asian American movie star Anna May Wong in Netflix’s Hollywood rewrites history- giving Anna the recognition she deserved. Michelle’s exceptional performance as the golden age icon, not only strengthens the importance of diverse representation on-screen but reveals the obstacles Asian American actors continue to face today.
“When my manager got the call, they wanted me to audition in two days. I freaked out a little. Did they realize who they are asking me to play? She is a legend. She is an icon. I needed more time to do research,” says Michelle. Production granted Michelle’s request for more time to prepare, “I started by watching documentaries and then her films. She has a very specific sound, the way she talked, and the way she carried herself was so regal. I hired a friend of mine who is a hair and makeup artist who luckily loves classic Hollywood. He built me a wig with bangs and we did a 40’s makeup practice test. I also hired a dialect coach for the Mid-Atlantic accent actors at that time and were using.”
The casting of white actress Luise Ranier as the lead Chinese character O-Lan in The Good Earth is one of the most notorious cases of racist discrimination in Hollywood history. Anna wanted to play O-Lan and was not only denied the role, but the opportunity to screen test for the part. In Murphy’s Hollywood, audiences are given a glimpse of an authentic interpretation of The Good Earth starring Anna May Wong. Michelle shines as Anna, delivering an Oscar-worthy performance in the fictionalized screen test for O-Lan. “It was a really intense day for me. I was told they were going to recreate the actual scene from The Good Earth with Luise Ranier. The goal was to be as close, shot by shot as possible. I wanted her to have a moment of reckoning with the world in that screen test scene. I just felt she was so wronged by that transaction. I felt like everything in my bones had to prove that she should have been cast. It was my moral obligation to make sure that Anna May Wong came across as the winning actress for that role,” says Michelle.
In Hollywood, as Anna wipes off excess makeup from her eyes before her screen test she says, “You don’t have to make me look Asian. I already am Asian.” Yellowfacing and overall lack of diversity on film sets continue to perpetuate practices of racist artistry, particularly- makeup. In Michelle’s career, she continually encounters makeup artists who have little to no experience working on Asian faces- exaggerate and struggle with her physical features. “I was on a pilot and I had to hire my own makeup artist so I could show the makeup artist on the show, how to do my makeup. That makeup artist told me, I was the second Asian American actress who has done this on a pilot. I don’t think they realize how difficult it is for Asian people who have an identity that isn’t already being challenged. Caucasian actresses aren’t being asked, “Can you look more white? It has happened so many times. These makeup artists are not used to seeing Asian faces. I can’t tell you just how exhausting, draining, and very uncomfortable it is to tell someone how to do makeup for Asian faces, especially the eyes.”
Luise Ranier won the Best Actress Oscar for her performance in The Good Earth. In Hollywood, Anna wins her Oscar, not for The Good Earth but Meg. (Meg is the film the characters in the series make to stand-up against the prejudiced Hollywood system.) Michelle encompasses the passion and eloquence of Anna as she delivers her acceptance speech at the 1947 Oscars. The Oscar shoot was especially memorable for Michelle, “On that day, Google had done its logo as Anna May Wong. Everyone in the cast and crew kept coming up to me and showing me on their phones. It was so auspicious that her spirit was being presented in the world when we were conjuring her essence in the show by changing history and giving her an Oscar. I was so impressed by the production value and how detailed they were in making it feel like Hollywood, 1947. I felt I was transported to that era and I was doing something mystical with Anna May Wong’s approval and permission.”
Anna a third-generation American, went to China after facing continued discrimination in Hollywood. “I think it was courageous of her that she went to China and tried to establish a relationship. Pearl S. Buck the author of The Good Earth said Anna wasn’t Chinese enough for the part, which is ridiculous. In my career, I considered moving to Asia for more opportunities after being nominated for a Golden Horse. The agent I met in Asia told me I was great, but I was too American. That is when I realized- in America, I am too Chinese; in Taiwan, I am too American. That was also Anna May Wong’s dilemma and that hasn’t changed for Asian Americans unfortunately,” says Michelle.
If Anna were alive today, there would be many breakthroughs to celebrate but also much to continue fighting for. “I think she would be pleased with the progress we’ve made, films like Crazy Rich Asians leaving a box office mark. Filmmakers like Lulu Wang in recent years have been able to bring their stories to the mainstream landscape of storytelling. There are many movies now that probably wouldn’t have existed five years ago. It’s only been within the last three to five years things are slowly evolving. I think she would probably understand just how complex it is for us and how quickly we can get the rug pulled from underneath us. It’s like we’re given recognition but it feels contingent sometimes. Crazy Rich Asians was great but now we have to prove it’s not an exception,” says Michelle.
Michelle is now producing and directing to increase opportunities, “to see ourselves reflected in the culture, we are Americans. The American landscape has changed. The people who want to deny our place in reality have to be told, their reality is not what America is anymore. My role wasn’t huge, but Anna May Wong’s story is part of a larger conversation that Ryan is trying to show. Anna’s story has engaged so many people who are watching the show. Now that I’m seeing so much love and support being passed my way through this series, it’s really comforting and reassuring people are interested in her and that is a great sign.”
Watch Hollywood now on Netflix.
Photos courtesy of Persona PR & Netflix