A Healthy Dose Of Improv Helped Create The Comedic Heart Of Crazy Rich Asians

Based on the 2013 novel by Kevin Kwan, Jon M. Chu's 2018 film "Crazy Rich Asians" follows a young woman named Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), an econ professor who is dating the charming and handsome Nick Young (Harry Golding). Throughout their relationship, Nick has been hiding his massive, massive wealth from Rachel, something he will no longer be able to do when he brings Rachel to Singapore for a friend's wedding. It will be Rachel's rich friend Peik Lin (Awkwafina) who will be the one to tell Rachel that Nick is in fact, a member of one of the richest families on the planet and practically royalty in Singapore. The rest of the film will be Rachel having to reconcile her boyfriend's wealth, but also confront the fact that his family (led by Michelle Yeoh) hardly approves of her lower class and that Nick frequently keeps her hidden. 

Jon M. Chu keeps the characterization florid, the sets complicated, and the tone light throughout. The film is funny, romantic, and Wu is a heck of a leading actress, able to face down the intimidating Yeoh in a climactic scene near the film's conclusion. "Crazy Rich Asians" was a massive worldwide success, earning $239 million on a budget of $30 million. 

Chu, fond of improv and allowing actors and performers to bring their own personalities to roles (as seen in his excellent "Step Up 3D"), gave his actors permission to improvise lines here and there, leading to an increased comedy quotient, and shifting the entire film from mere romance into romantic comedy. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Awkwafina recalls a crass one-liner that she felt she had to apologize for. 

Awkwafina's improv

"Crazy Rich Asians" was part of a breakout year for Awkwafina as a film actress. While she had previously appeared in the animated film "Storks" and a low-profile Netflix film called "Dude," it was 2018's one-two punch of "Ocean's 8" and "Crazy Rich Asians" that brought her to widespread national attention. In the Hollywood Reporter interview, Awkwafina acknowledges that Peik Lin — crass, flip, and quippy — was a standout in the novel, but that Chu was very open to letting her recreate the character in her own idiom. Awkwafina, still relatively new to acting, admits to feeling nervous on set and having to fall back on some awkward(fina) real-life habits of hers. Luckily. Chu left them in the movie.

"I don't know what the hell I was doing. She at times goes into this Southern accent because that's what I do when I'm nervous. One of the lines that I say at one point, like, 'Yeah, yeah, I'll f***ing come to dinner' — that was an improv take that I immediately apologized for.'

She needn't have apologized; Peik Lin emerged as one of the funnier characters in a movie full of them. In a 2018 interview with Elle, Awkwafina described her version of the character, and Chu's reaction to her naughty sense of humor. Awkwafina, it turns out, had a big hand in dictating the film's entire tone: 

"She's bawdy, brash, she's constantly screaming, she's freaking out ... [Jon M. Chu] said it's either going to make the movie, or ruin the movie."

It turns out it was closer to the latter. 

Ken Jeong's improv

Also permitted to ply his comedic talents was Ken Jeong, who appears in "Crazy Rich Asians" as Wye Mun, Peik Lin's rich, ostentatious father. Jeong, as it turns out, adored working with Awkwafina, and was happy to talk about her in interviews. Also from Elle: 

"When I think of Nora [Awkwafina's real name], I don't qualify it, like: Oh, she's the funniest Asian-American millennial woman under 5'9". I just think she's one of the funniest comedic actors working today."

Jeong, a talented comedic presence in his own right, talked with Esquire about his ability to improvise and how he came to create his version of his "Crazy Rich" character. Jeong admits that he had to blend the over-the-top comedy he had previously been known for (Jeong had a notable boost in fame following his comedic turn in the 2009 comedy "The Hangover"), with the humane straight man he played on his TV series "Dr. Ken":

"That was a last second switch. Jon Chu is wonderful and let me improvise—me and Awkwafina. So, all of that was improvised. What I liked in working with Jon is that we were so relaxed that day and talking about the character and how native he is. He studied in the States and we were both like, 'What if I do a misdirect and have this little tweak?' Now that I look back at it, it was kind of bringing back the over the top comedy I'm known for and giving it a dose of humanity. In real life I'm the father of two girls. In my show Dr. Ken, I had experience playing the straight man. So if you kind of blended both worlds, it was kind of cool to play that."


His praise of Awkwafina earned Jeong the nickname of "Papafina." Jeong also mentioned in Esquire how much he enjoyed working with Awkwafina, and how the two of them approach their comedy in similar ways. It was their chemistry and fun that not only injected an important element of levity into "Crazy Rich Asians," but allowed the film to emerge as a comedy overall; it's difficult for the film's fans to think of "Crazy Rich" without thinking about its humor.

"I love working with Nora — Awkwafina — because we hadn't met prior to [filming], but we were on the same page comedically. We're always doing bits. We become very close, and we both come from the same silly place, and really it's one of my favorite scenes I've ever done, period."

The Huffington Post ran an article in 2018, revealing that both Wu was also encouraged to improvise and that the "Bok bok, bitch" line was an improv. Wu talks in that article about how Jon M. Chu was open and easy with such lines. Awkwafina was also quoted in that same article, reiterating how free she was, and how Chu let his actors fly: 

"Jon Chu really trusted his actors and he let us improv. It's hard to improv because when you take that liberty and do a line and the director yells, 'Mmm, let's just do it off the book,' it's like a small death occurs. Jon was not like that."

"Crazy Rich Asians" is currently available to stream on HBO Max. Jon M. Chu, the luminary behind "In the Heights" will next work on a film adaptation of the Dr. Seuss book "Oh, the Places You'll Go!," as well as a massive feature film adaptation of the Broadway smash "Wicked."