Gemma Chan dealt with a decade of discrimination before she found blockbuster success: Meet GLAMOUR’s March digital cover star

The real GC on refusing to stay in her lane and calling out lazy stereotypes.

20 Mar 2019

Meet Gemma Chan, the Captain Marvel star and a real-life activist Avenger, who’s on a mission to shatter racial stereotypes and end discrimination. GLAMOUR’s Josh Smith gets a heavy helping of empowerment from an actress at the height of her power.

Photography by Lucas Suchorab, Styled by Rebecca Corbin-Murray

“Everyday sexism is bullshit,” Gemma Chan exclaims. It’s a fitting chant for our #EverydayIsWomensDay cover star, but as I rapidly realise, for this British-born actress, empowerment – and a healthy dose of swearing – practically punctuates her every sentence.

You wouldn’t expect anything else from the star of Marvel’s first female-led movie, Captain Marvel. After a decade of discrimination and being continuously overlooked by casting directors for being ‘too Asian’ or ‘not Asian enough’, she arrived on the international scene with her mainstream cinematic debut Crazy Rich Asians, last year. As the first Hollywood movie with an Asian ensemble cast in 25 years, it was long overdue.

Today, sitting in her London hotel suite after her GLAMOUR cover shoot, wearing a fresh-off-the-runway printed Louis Vuitton dress, it’s clear she has come a long way from her un-showbiz upbringing in Kent. Alongside her siblings, Gemma was raised by her engineer father, originally from Hong Kong, and her mother, a pharmacist of Chinese-Scottish heritage, both of whom expressed concerns over her desire to become an actress.

Yet acting wasn’t always the most likely career choice for this 36-year-old. Before her breakthrough TV appearance opposite Billie Piper in the racy hit Secret Diary Of A Call Girl in 2011, Gemma had an unusual CV. After perfecting her front crawl, she dived in at the deep end and became a swimmer at national level. She then went on to study law at Oxford, before turning her back on the ‘Elle Woods life’ to hone her acting craft at the Drama Centre London. Oh, and there was the small matter of modelling, competing on the TV talent show <Project Catwalk> and a spot of violin playing, too. Girl clearly got some skillz.

Skirt £760, Top £490, both JW Anderson, Earrings £3160, Sabine Getty

Gemma’s Oxford-honed intellect is in full flow today, and with coffee as her weapon of choice, she’s not letting severe jet lag (the evil that comes with being so in demand) get in the way of her mission: fighting sexism. “It’s rubbish, it’s bollocks,” she practically chants. She is, after all, no stranger to fighting for what she believes in, having joined her pals, Dominic Cooper,Lily Jamesand Douglas Booth on the Brexit People’s Vote march last summer, with a banner that read, “Even Baldrick had a f*cking plan,” in multi-coloured felt-tip pen.

Taking on the ‘blue bitch role’, as she affectionately calls her character, Doctor Minerva, in such a deeply feminist movie as Captain Marvel, has also led to Gemma evaluating her own power as a woman and reviewing how she has been treated unfairly in the past. “I retweeted an article the other day about the winners of the Grammy Awards and it listed all the ages of the female nominees but it didn’t mention the men’s ages,” she says. “That’s everyday sexism.”

All fired up, she continues, “When I talk to my friends, there are a number of times little things that happen throughout the day can build up. They can weigh you down and they can get on top of you. That is the sad and terrifying reality that many of us women and men have to face. I think it’s important that we do call people out on it, but ultimately, it’s a pattern of behaviour. It’s all part of a system that I very much don’t see it as men versus women. It’s about us working together to dismantle a system that is really oppressive to all of us.”

Like any Avenger worth their superpower, we all need allies to help defeat evil, and feminism needs men to get behind the cause. “It always really heartens me when a man does speak out not to just defend women, but to make it clear they are an ally,” she says. “It is so important. We can’t do it without allies to the cause. As much as we ask, ‘How can we solve violence against women?’, the majority of violence is perpetuated by men. We need to be talking to boys and men about that and men need to be talking to their peers and to the younger generation and educating them about challenging ideas about toxic masculinity. We can’t do it without bringing men along for the ride.”

Dress £2820, Trainers £740, both Louis Vuitton, Earrings £3720, Sabine Getty

It isn’t lost on Gemma that on the Captain Marvel press tour, sitting alongside her costars Jude Law and Samuel L Jackson and being asked approximately one thousand questions a day, she doesn’t get the same line of questioning as a man. Is anyone going to ask Jude how he’s dealing with the ageing process? Actresses have to navigate this line of questioning every single day.

“Discussions around ageing have been a way of controlling women, making women feel insecure about ourselves and as if they aren’t adequate,” Gemma says. “We need to change things, especially in the beauty industry. The ageing process is going to happen to all of us – how are we going to deal with it? I think ‘anti-ageing’ is a prehistoric term.”

Gemma is a realist when it comes to her own feelings on the subject. “Obviously, I will probably have a huge freak out about it,” she confides. “I completely recognise that I work in an industry where your looks and your appearance do play a part in what you get cast in, for better or for worse. It’s going to be tough but at the same time I hope that I can deal with it with some grace. If you have enough in your life that you are invested in, that you care about beyond the surface, I think you can deal with it. If you only care about the superficial and appearances, then you are setting yourself up for a fall.”

Since the #MeToo movement has helped to create an environment that allows women to stand up against toxic masculinity, Gemma is feeling more empowered than ever before. “I feel that I’m very lucky to have a platform,” she says proudly. “I know that also there can be a backlash against people with a platform speaking out. You’re told to, ‘stay in your lane, stick to acting,’ – that happens. But I think there are so many people who don’t have a voice and if there is anything I can do to help those who have less power than myself, then that’s something I have to try and do.”

Shirt £645, Skirt £595, both Christopher Kane, Earrings £2900, Venyx

In reaching this platform, Gemma has had to fly in the face of every racial casting type, going on to as she puts it, “Achieve the holy grail: you are cast only because you are right for the role and it’s nothing to do with your race or ethnicity.” Gemma achieved just that at the end of last year when she slipped into a bustle to play Bess in Mary Queen Of Scots opposite Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie. In the process, she shattered the outdated, ‘Asian girls can’t be cast in period dramas’ myth.

“Back when I started out a lot of the parts that I would be asked to audition for would be specifically ethnic parts. But I was told things like, ‘We really liked you, we liked your read, but can you do more of an accent? You sound too English!’ There were preconceived ideas of what someone like me should sound like,” Gemma continues.

“You just have to brush that off and think that’s people being ignorant and I very much wanted to be a part of a change. I’m so proud and so happy to have been part of a film like Crazy Rich Asians. I’m happy that it’s happened within my working life.”

Before her Hollywood breakthrough in Crazy Rich Asians, TV rolesdid come along, with a comedic turn in Fresh Meat – where she met her now-ex-boyfriend of six years, Jack Whitehall – and the chilling robotic drama, Humans. However, rejections in between these roles did affect Gemma’s confidence. “It does hurt,” she says. “Of course it hurts, no matter how you deal with it. There have been times when I’ve been really angry and really furious. I’ve let it upset me, but there are other times where I can shake it off much quicker and just say, ‘That’s on them, it’s not me.’ It says much more about them and their limited world view.”

WATCH: Gemma and Jude Law reveal their hilarious MSN Messenger handles

But nothing can truly get in the way of Gemma’s determination. Rejection became her fuel. “I put that energy into my work and it just makes me more determined to do what I do,” she says. “That’s why it’s so important for a film Crazy Rich Asians to come out and challenge and subvert people’s ideas of what Asian people are like or perhaps what women are capable of. I think we need to constantly challenge those norms, those received ideas and stereotypes about what different people can do, what different abilities can do, right down to disabilities, social economic classes and so on. I think we need to challenge prejudice as a whole.”

What angers her most is any belief that discrimination is a thing of the past. “It’s a lazy comment and people who say that, who say homophobia doesn’t exist, that racism doesn’t exist, they say that from such a privileged place,” Gemma says. “Usually, it comes from people who are not gay or not a person of colour and just because you haven’t seen it or experienced it doesn’t mean that someone else isn’t experiencing it. Just open your eyes to what is going on in the world!”

She believes change needs to start with better education around race. “I’ve certainly become better educated about what, for example, black people have gone through as well as what other kinds of Asians have gone through and what Jewish people have to face,” she says. “We all have skin in the game, it is imperative that all of us stand up for each other, because prejudice against one group will bleed into prejudice against other groups.”

With one blockbuster role after another – not to mention the makings of an iconic wardrobe – Gemma finds herself verging on 1 million Instagram followers. But with an acceleration in likes and comments comes trolls, too. She admits, “I haven’t experienced a barrage of it in the way people have been hounded off social media – I get active with that old mute button.”

Jacket £4450, Dress £2170, Belt £740, Trainers £740, all Louis Vuitton, Earrings £10200, Noor Fares

The trolling she does get, is when she stands up for other people. “The time when I get the most blowback is when I say anything political or when I say anything that is standing up for women’s rights, gay rights – that’s when I get the backlash,” she says. “But you just can’t let that stop you from speaking up, because if you don’t speak up, you’re leaving that space purely to the worst elements – the internet. It’s savage.”

This level of awareness only really comes with age and Gemma’s secret to success actually goes against the Hollywood grain: it’s finding fame later on. “I’m glad I didn’t start acting too young, because to be honest this is all it is,” she muses. “It’s amazing and it is lovely and parts of it are glamorous, but there are other bits that are much less glamorous than people might think.

Watch: Gemma Chan and Awkwafina show you how to style out the walk of shame

“At the end of the day, I know what my priorities are and my family, my close friends, my loved ones, know me well. I feel like I know myself a bit better and ‘fame’ is really nothing. I’m not going to be swept away in this whirlwind as ultimately quite a lot of it is nonsense. The things I care about now and that are important to me are exactly the same as a year ago, five years ago. They say you’ve got to work for a decade to become an overnight success and I have been acting now for ten years. I feel pretty comfortable with where I am!”

As we wrap up and Gemma heads off to pack yet another couture gown into her case for the next destination, she shares her ultimate rallying cry. Showing flashes of her irreverent side – also seen when she hit the karaoke singing Gangster’s Paradise with her Crazy Rich Asians costar, Awkwafina – Gemma declares, “Don’t let the bastards grind you down. I think you have to keep on getting up. It’s not always going to be plain sailing and you’re going to have moments of shit, but pick yourself up, dust yourself off, have a drink and carry on.” Cheers to Chan, a heroine for our time.

Captain Marvel is in cinemas now

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