Long before “Crazy Rich Asians” became the most buzzed-about romantic comedy of the summer, it was a very popular book — a bestseller that would go on to become a trilogy, with 1.8 million copies in print.
It began with the tale of Rachel Chu, a New York University economics professor who travels with her boyfriend, Nick Young, to visit his family in Singapore.
Once there, Rachel learns that Nick is the descendant of one of Asia’s wealthiest families. His family is crazy rich, crazy exclusive, and his mother doesn’t want Rachel to be part of her son’s life — or family dynasty.
Fans who devoured the romantic, comedic tale and immersed themselves in the wild, gorgeous lives of author Kevin Kwan’s characters quickly began logging their dream casts online. Wouldn’t it be perfect if Constance Wu, of the sitcom “Fresh Off the Boat,” could play Rachel? How about a star like Michelle Yeoh as Nick’s controlling mother?
Those questions led to bigger, more important concerns for fans.
Would Hollywood invest in a story led by an Asian cast? Would devotees of the book ever get the film they wanted to see?
The answer to those questions turned out to be, yes, mainly because of author Kwan, who refused to give his book to producers who might whitewash characters or underestimate the film’s appeal in the United States.
Kwan, who was determined to stay loyal to the spirit of his novels, which were inspired by his own childhood, teamed up with producers who understood his vision. They secured director Jon M. Chu (“Now You See Me 2”) and assembled a lineup that would please fans, from Wu, who stars as Rachel; to heartthrob Henry Golding, who plays Nick; to Awkwafina, who steals scenes as Rachel’s friend Goh Peik Lin.
A few weeks before the release of the film (it opens Wednesday), Kwan was joined in Boston by British actress Gemma Chan, who plays Nick’s cousin Astrid, and Jimmy O. Yang (“Silicon Valley, “Patriots Day”), who costars as Nick’s wild, bachelor-party-focused friend, Bernard Tai. The group spoke about a movie they hope will satisfy readers, expose American audiences to a different part of the world, and maybe bring back romantic comedies for fans who have missed them.
Q. When you’re a reader who loves a book, there’s a fear of adaptation. In your case, the social media buzz has been the opposite. Fans who’ve seen screenings seem wildly pleased.
Kevin Kwan: It’s really gratifying. I think my first loyalty was to the readers. That’s why I got so involved in the movie — in every aspect and every creative decision. I wanted to make sure it was as faithful as possible. I helped put together the team. I chose [producers] Nina Jacobson and Brad Simpson. We found the screenwriters together. We found John Chu together. We found the entire cast together. And then when we went into production, I worked with the costume designers and the production designers intimately.
Q. For the cast: Were you familiar with the books?
Gemma Chan: I read the [first] book soon after it came out. My sister had recommended it to me, and said, “You’ve got to read this book . . . it’s called, ‘Crazy Rich Asians,’” and I was like, “What? What’s that?” And I was almost like, “Should I be offended?” But I read it on vacation and loved it. It was such an easy read. It was funny, I loved the satire, and I remember thinking at the time, “This would make an amazing movie.” Less than a couple of years after that, I got a call from my agent saying, “They’re making the film and they’d love you to audition for it.”
Jimmy O. Yang: My publicist actually told me about the book. She’s half-Indian, half-Dutch, and she was like, “You’ve got to do this book. It’s called ‘Crazy Rich Asians.’ ” . . . I started listening to the audio book. I really didn’t know which role I was going to be considered for. Originally, I went in for the role of [Nick’s best friend] Colin, which is interesting. It’s played by Chris Pang now, and we look very different. And then I think they were like, “Would you like to do Bernard instead,” and I read the script and I was like, “Absolutely.” That’s the type of character that I really love to play. You can be so free and do so much.
Chan: And be such an [expletive].
Yang: Exactly. . . . I had a lot of fun.
Q. One thing I heard from people after an early screening was that it had been a very long time since they’d seen a romantic comedy of this size. Romantic comedies seem to have gone away — or they’re very small.
Chan: This does seem like a little bit of a revival of the genre. But I think what I love about our film is that it takes those tropes of romantic comedies and it gives it this fresh twist. Because it’s set in an environment that most people in the audience won’t be familiar with. It introduces them to this new culture in food, and music, and, obviously, the cast. We’re not standard. Many romantic comedies that I watched — that I loved in the ’90s — are all white. Let’s face it; they were all white. And I loved them. Absolutely loved them. I grew up watching them. But yeah, I feel that we’re giving a fresh kind of twist to it.
Q. The film explores Singapore and its culture of wealth in a way that seems to be accessible for people who know nothing about it — but also for people who do. One of my favorite scenes has Awkwafina’s character explaining some of the history of the development of Singapore by using a very expensive purse that happens to have a map on it.
Kwan: We knew that there would be a bit of an education involved, but we wanted to make it fun. Like, a beautiful romp. So you can’t be pedantic about it. But we were conscious that for a lot of people, this is a different world — not just racially, but socioeconomically.
Yang: When I saw a first cut of a trailer that John showed as at the wrap party, like, all of the fear or worry kind of went away because he wasn’t just taking us into an Asian world. John kind of took us — based on Kevin’s source material — to, like, Middle-earth, to, like, Narnia, this whole new world. Extremely colorful. I’ve got to give it up to Nelson [Coates], our set designer. Each set was like a different world. The visuals — it was incredible.
Q. Everything is so lush. I imagine that specific businesses probably wanted you to film there for tourism purposes.
Kwan: There certainly was that. Resorts and people kept calling. . . . I was really involved in the locations scouting; I literally would send Google map images of houses and places that I felt would make great scenes. [Nick’s family’s house] was inspired by photographs from my family albums. Nelson really dug deep into that archive, and really created a magic.
Chan: I think it’s incredible when you consider the modest budget we had. We made it look. . . .
Kwan: We made it look crazy rich.
Q. Can you talk about assembling the this cast?
Yang: When I first heard about this book, it was like, “This is something culturally important that I want to be a part of.” But then when we actually started shooting and landed in Malaysia and Singapore, and everyone was there, when everyone was just kind of in the lobby, chilling . . . we were just so much on the same page. You see all of these beautiful talented extremely funny people from all over the world. Gemma from the UK. Chris Remy from Australia, and local Singaporeans. Americans. All of us . . . it’s like the Justice League of Asians. And I think we all shared that same feeling.
Kwan: It was a beautiful cross-pollination of talent. . . . I think a lot of the homegrown talent, they didn’t really understand the struggles of the Asian actors that came from the West. Because Michelle Yeoh [“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Memoirs of a Geisha,” “Tomorrow Never Dies”] has been a star her whole life, ever since she began her career in Hong Kong, in Malaysia, and Singapore: She’s a global star. Her struggles have been real, but very different than the struggles of someone like Gemma, breaking into an industry where 99 percent of everyone is not the same skin tone, and the roles are very stereotypical. Or really sort of nonexistent.
Q. The excitement and hope surrounding this film seem so big. Its success seems to means so much.
Chan: I’m very conscious that, you know, this is just one movie, and it can’t be everything to everyone. For me, my biggest hope is that it does well enough. That it means that other people have an opportunity to make their films. And they may be in different genres, maybe it’s a horror, maybe it’s a straight drama movie, maybe it’s a comedy drama. I hope it’s a start of something.
Meredith Goldstein can be reached at meredith.goldstein@