After roles in ‘90s English-language films like The Joy Luck Club, Vivian Wu is back with her first major Hollywood project in nearly 25 years, portraying Chinese astronaut Lu Wang on Away, Netflix’s space drama about the first manned mission to Mars. And Wu tells ET that after a great run in China, she’s happy to be back, portraying a modern, Chinese woman in such a positive light.
“This script came to me while I was shooting in the mountains playing an Empress from a thousand years ago,” Wu says. “So to me, the fact that I would be wearing a spacesuit and going to Mars with Hilary Swank sounded fantastic to me.”
In the series created by Andrew Hinderaker (Pure Genius) and executive produced by Jason Katims (Parenthood), Emma Green (Swank) has been selected to lead an international crew — engineer Misha Popov (Mark Ivanir), botanist Dr. Kwesi Weisberg-Abban (Ato Essandoh), fighter pilot Ram Arya (Ray Panthaki), chemist Lu Wang (Wu) — on a three-year round trip to Mars.
Despite taking every precaution and training for anything that could happen, life aboard the spacecraft intensifies the further the crew — each of whom have their own baggage back on Earth to deal with — travels from home and the more they journey into the unknown.
For Lu, that’s trying to form meaningful bonds with her crewmates, the pressures of representing China as the first person to set foot on the red planet, and coming to terms with her sexuality as a lesbian. “She has a real human struggle inside of her given the fact that she was so ingrained and programmed to be a great national hero,” Wu says.
“Lu’s story I just think is so beautiful. It’s a really beautiful piece of television,” showrunner Jessica Goldberg says, adding, “That was something we always thought was really interesting about her character and something we wanted to keep unpacking.”
In episode three, it’s revealed that back on Earth, a mission control employee, Mei (Nadia Hatta), offered to help Lu with her English in exchange for calligraphy lessons. Over the course of their tutoring, the two become close and eventually fall in love with each other. Because Lu is married, she mostly keeps Mei at arms length for fear of being caught — and losing her place on the mission.
Although this is the first time Wu has played an LGBTQ role, she felt it was important to portray Lu’s “finding her authentic self” onscreen. “Parts like this are hardly portrayed or seen on television,” the actress says.
While Wu herself is married to director Oscar Luis Costo, she was able to bring another layer of authenticity to the character through her own experiences as a Chinese woman. She says that the Away creative team encouraged her to bring her own voice to Lu to make her as real as possible. Two things she added to the portrayal were the practice of Tai Chi and her own lifelong knowledge of Chinese calligraphy, the latter of which ends up playing a key role in the character’s backstory.
This is not the first time, however, audiences have seen her expertise in the visual arts, which she first learned as a child and is something she brings to sets of her films to help her relax in between takes. In The Pillow Book, her character “showed off a lot of calligraphy,” she says. “In that film, I was actually doing calligraphy on Ewan McGregor’s body. It was very sensual.”
But when it comes to her experience on the set of Away, “that’s not the Hollywood I remember,” Wu muses, explaining that she was grateful that this time around the writers were so receptive to her input and were able to create such a rounded character.
And when it comes to her success in Hollywood overall, Wu feels like she’s “one of the lucky ones.” After making her screen debut in the 1987 film The Last Emperor, she saw an opportunity to pursue acting in the United States. There, she landed supporting roles in the beloved Joy Luck Club, Oliver Stone’s Heaven & Earth and eventually starred opposite McGregor in The Pillow Book.
However, after a decade of success, her dad fell ill and she returned to China to be with her family. There she continued to act, with a flourishing career and adoring fan base. “After a great run in China, my goal was to return to Hollywood,” she says, before revealing that despite having established herself early on, finding a way back in proved difficult.
While she was continuing to receive scripts, the roles did not compare to the ones she was getting in China. “They weren’t very attractive or appealing to me,” the actress says. In fact, she didn’t see any interesting, emotionally layered roles from the U.S. until Away came along.
“The energy of the universe runs in its own miraculous way,” Wu says now, ecstatic that she’s found such a great part. “I’m very fortunate, especially with Lu. I hope audiences will love her and enjoy watching her journey as much as I did.”
Away is now streaming on Netflix.
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