In Ryan Murphy’s revisionist take on the Golden Age of Tinseltown, Hollywood, the stories of real-life, marginalized people get a rewrite -- and a happy ending they deserve. “I was always just so sad about how they were treated and the injustice of their situation,” he tells ET about actors like the closeted Rock Hudson, the first African American Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel and Chinese American actress Anna May Wong, who was one of the era’s first breakout performers of color but was so unfairly treated and disrespected by the same industry that also made her a star that she quit acting for a year.
Despite Wong’s growing popularity and international fame, she was often relegated to supporting roles that played on Asian stereotypes. The worst aggrievance she faced was in 1935, when MGM Studios refused to consider her for the lead role -- a Chinese character named O-Lan -- in the film adaptation of The Good Earth. Instead, the part went to Luise Rainer, who later won an Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance. The offense sent Wong on a yearlong tour of China, where she reconnected with her family and ancestral culture.
On the Netflix series, Wong is portrayed by Taiwanese American actress Michelle Krusiec, who not only gets to help right the wrongs faced by the Asian American icon but also found her experiences on set and within the industry paralleled what happened nearly 100 years ago. (Warning: Spoilers for Hollywood, which is now streaming.)
Having worked on film and TV since the early ‘90s from Murphy’s first series Popular to ABC’s Dirty Sexy Money and most recently on Hawaii Five-0, Krusiec is used to coming in and doing one-off parts or small arcs that are in service to the larger story or main character. “I haven't ever felt sometimes that when I do some of these parts that they're going to actually give me a really nice arc,” she tells ET by phone.
And so when it came to joining Murphy’s Hollywood -- even as Wong -- Krusiec thought it was going to be a similar experience. She’d come in for one episode, to perform opposite Darren Criss’ aspiring filmmaker, Raymond Ainsley, and that was it. “When Darren’s character says goodbye to me [in episode two], I just assumed that was a real goodbye to me as Anna May in the series,” she says of the bitter moment between the two characters when Ainsley approaches Wong about working again. At the time, Krusiec did not realize that Wong would reappear on the series as a cast member in Ainsley’s film, Meg, marking the actress’ return to the industry. “So when they were bringing me back, I was delighted in the same way that I think Anna May was delighted.”
That joy soon spilled over when Krusiec learned that Wong was going to win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Meg in the series finale. “I was really flabbergasted,” she says, adding that she was personally moved by Murphy’s decision in the story. “I felt it was the right thing to do in terms of correcting history.”
Krusiec continues by saying, “What you see in the show is a true reflection of me feeling like Anna deserved it and was so moved to tears that she would finally get the winning moment, which she never got in reality -- which is also tragic.”
While the actress’ happy emotions shined through the character in those scenes, there were other moments where she had to find an appropriate balance in her portrayal. When Wong first appears on the series, she is somewhat of a recluse, a heavy drinker and still resentful over what happened with The Good Earth. “She was so elegant, even when she was being hypersexualized,” Krusiec says of the daunting experience of portraying Wong, who always maintained her composure in the face of adversity. But when Ainsley talks to her about working again it catches her off guard, “You're catching her in a moment where the mask is off,” she adds.
That was a particularly identifiable moment for Krusiec. “I really feel like as an Asian American, we don't get to take our masks off that often,” she says. “It was an opportunity to reveal a lot of pain that I think my community struggles with, in terms of how to explain our identity and the struggles that we’re confronted with. How do you go about expressing something that's inarticulable? And that for me was kind of where I tried to bring the visceral experience of who I thought she was underneath all of that.”
What also makes Krusiec’s performance as Wong feel special -- and vitally important -- is the opportunity to expose the late actress’ story and struggles to audiences who may have never heard of her before. “We’re in a very exciting time where people who are needing representation are finally demanding it,” Krusiec says. “In the past, I would say maybe even 10 years ago, even then I would call things out but I would do so in a very sort of respectful manner.”
But now, she says that has changed. “I think that what is effective is the vehemence of people saying, ‘This has to stop. Please take accountability for these mistakes, these grievances that you're making against people who are a part of this culture, a part of his landscape, a part of our history. Stop erasing us. Stop dismissing us, ignoring us, and writing us out of history,’” she explains, adding:
“I think for the first time people are actually paying attention because there's now enough people who are not getting enough representation that are saying, ‘This is not right to continue this path where we're not being allowed to be a part of our present reality.’”
That opportunity for change is on screen, Krusiec says, explaining that more people are interested in hearing and amplifying those voices. “People are actually curious and leaning in now... There are people like Ryan, who are empowered and they're in a position of power that allows them to change the conversation.”
Despite the progress in storytelling, there are still plenty of shortcomings within the industry and things that have not really changed since Wong’s days in Hollywood. “It hit me that our experiences were rather similar, even though my scope is a little bit different than hers, but the experience of what she was up against and what she was confronted with -- that has not changed, unfortunately,” says Krusiec, who channeled that experience of being a marginalized person into the role, adding:
“I entered the industry with huge aspirations and it’s taken me 20 years to start to see that there are systems in place. I don't know if it'll change in my lifetime, and right now, I am starting to question whether or not that's a certainty now. Like, I had kind of resigned myself into thinking I can do as much as I can to help change but I don’t know if I’ve really witnessed true change. But recently I am starting to think that I am wrong.”
May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month in the U.S., which celebrates the contributions and influences of the Asian community. To capture the current state of representation in entertainment, ET Online will be spotlighting Asian performers and projects all month long.