Growing up in the UK, Gemma Chan didn’t see many faces that looked like hers on television, so even though she was always drawn to acting, she didn’t believe it was a viable career. Instead, she went on to immerse herself in academia, excelled as a swimmer and a violinist and eventually attended Oxford University to study law. Chan was considering a job offer from a major firm when she made the choice to apply to the esteemed Drama Centre London at Central Saint Martins (in secret, so as not to upset her parents). “I knew I’d probably be a miserable lawyer,” she says of her decision. “It is a privilege to be able to take a chance but, if you can, it is better to try and fail. Disappointment is temporary but regret lasts forever.”
Indeed, fortune favours the bold, and while the 36-year-old actor’s decade-long path to present-day stardom was punctuated with discouraging moments—like when she was told she would never be cast in a period drama as an “actor of colour”—she can now take a moment to relax a bit. Not only did Chan light up the screen as the supremely chic Astrid Young Teo in last September’s smash-hit Crazy Rich Asians (which raked in more than $338 million worldwide), but the all-Asian cast also exposed a cultural blind spot in cinema that is now impossible to ignore.
“We definitely felt that responsibility,” the actor says of the group’s collective mission for the film. “We didn’t want it to be a thing [where] people could say, ‘Oh, that film hasn’t performed,’ and then other [Asian] films may not be green-lighted. It is a slightly unrealistic expectation that whenever you have a woman or a person of colour directing or starring in a film, it’s treated as a referendum on whether or not that group should be able to make movies.”
Fast-forward a few months and guess what? January this year saw Chan break into period dramas after all, playing Bess of Hardwick, confidant to Queen Elizabeth I, in Mary Queen of Scots, in which director Josie Rourke took a colourblind approach to casting. And now, Chan is starring alongside Brie Larson and Samuel L. Jackson in global blockbuster Captain Marvel, playing a blue-skinned sniper named Minn-Erva. She’s dipped into the production world, too, making plans to develop a few of her own projects. And when it comes to the rollcall of red-carpet premieres and awards show —now a reality of her flourishing career—fashion houses are clamouring to dress the actor, lending her instant cover-star cachet. But Chan isn’t one to rest on her laurels. “I want to keep challenging people’s perceptions,” she says of her new-found fame. “I hope that the message has been received by now that diversity does pay off. People want to see these stories.”
For more with Gemma Chan pick-up the May issue of InStyle Australia available from April 18, 2019.