It’s 11.45 am on day two of Milan fashion week and British actor Gemma Chan is perched on a grey velvet couch inside the city’s Park Hyatt hotel, her all-white Max Mara palazzo-pants-and-silk-shirt outfit looking like something her old-moneyed Singaporean Crazy Rich Asians character, Astrid Leong-Teo, would give the tick of approval. Chan has just arrived from the nearby Palazzo del Senato, where she sat front row at Max Mara’s A/W 2020 show, a privilege that comes with having just been announced as the 15th recipient of the Women In Film Max Mara Face of the Future Award. “This is actually my first Milan fashion week,” she admits. “I loved this collection. There were great twists on iconic classics — anything that had a hood, I loved. It comes from living in London. You want to feel cosy and protected.”
She speaks softly; at times she seems almost shy and reticent, her refined accent the by-product of a childhood growing up in Kent in England, and an Oxford University education. She studied law but turned down a prestigious job placement when she graduated in 2004 in favour of enrolling at Drama Centre London. It was a ballsy move, as there was a dearth of opportunities for Asian actors; Hollywood’s monotone vision has meant white actors have been cast in Asian roles for decades (from John Wayne as Genghis Khan to Emma Stone playing Allison Ng in Aloha), and there have only been limited sidekick roles on offer. But 2018 and 2019 heralded a new dawn. Last year, the Korean comedy-thriller Parasite was one of the highest-grossing foreign films and notched up four historic Oscar wins, including Best Picture. And the 2018 smash-hit Crazy Rich Asians, in which Chan stars, helped many realise projects with Asian leads can do well at the box office (it has garnered a whopping $378 million to date). And hopefully releases such as the Alan Yang-directed coming-of-age drama Tigertail (just released on Netflix) will help keep the floodgates open.
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