“I feel self-conscious going on a walk around the block with my daughter,” says Jon M. Chu. The Los Angeles-based filmmaker behind Crazy Rich Asians and the forthcoming Lin-Manuel Miranda joint In the Heights, isn’t prone to neuroticism and he doesn’t play the victim — that’s what actors are for. He’s an all-American success story, a NorCal boy made SoCal good. But he’s also of Chinese descent and, in the wake of the President attempting to rebrand Covid-19 as “the Chinese virus” and an uptick of racist incidents around the country, he’s not wrong to worry or to be angry that he has to worry.
“I’m a very patriotic dude,” he adds. “I’m California all the way. This is my spot.”
So what’s a big-time director turned locked-down dad and potential target for bigots to do? Chu is hosting fruit punch cocktail hours for his 3-year-old daughter Willow and hanging out with 8-month-old son Heights, born on set in NYC. He calls the shelter in place order a mixed blessing. He’s happy to be with family, but he’d be happier to be with family somewhere else — or a variety of other places. And he’d be happier if he didn’t feel so compelled to keep an eye out.
Chu spoke to Fatherly about his new Apple TV+ crime series Home Before Dark, the psychological whiplash of the Covid-19 moment, and what it means to feel like a stranger in your own home state.
Let’s start with the nice thing. You’ve got a new show for Apple TV+. It’s about a young girl solving a closed case on her own and makes journalism seems like a good thing to do so, you know, thanks for that.
We shot it last summer. I used a lot of my crew from Crazy Rich Asians. It was very much a family who made this. Truth and journalism is more important than ever and it’s a great time to tell this story. When we filmed this, I’d just had my first child, my daughter, so I was also going through my own father issues. It was therapy for me as well. I love true crime. It combined all these crazy things.
Alright, now let’s hit the shitty stuff. Your family has operated Chef Chu’s, a Chinese restaurant south of San Francisco, for 50 years so you were born in California and raised here. Do you feel that you’re being treated differently now, with all this talk of a “Chinese virus?”
It’s definitely an issue in Los Angeles and in New York. I feel so disappointed that we’re in a time when we should be coming together and we have a language that puts anyone in danger. It’s disappointing. I know friends who have been harassed. I feel more sad that instead of being united, it affects real human beings. Our community is strong and tough. We’ve been dealing with this for many years. There’s so much fear and yet we should fear this virus. I mean, it’s killing people.
Does it feel like a step backwards for you?
I’ve never felt that type of fear before. It feels very weird. It feels very not-American to me.
How’s the whole social distancing thing going for you, at home with two little kids?
I love getting to know my kids on another level. I love seeing what my wife does every day and respecting much more how intense that is. And with my son, I’ve only just started to get to know him. He was born while we were shooting In the Heights in New York.
I realizing how much I’m away from my family even when I’m actually present. I feel, in a weird way, that even though there’s so much tragedy around us that its good we have this time to talk to each other and appreciate each other. There’s nothing to draw us away. There’s no stress about time. Hopefully we learn from this.
Seeing your wife do her thing, what have you learned about her and her day-to-day specifically?
It’s the relentlessness. At work I can ignore a call. At work, I can take a meeting and hang out in my office if I want some time for myself. I can go to a pleasant lunch meeting. When you’re home, you’re on. You’re always on. The naps are the best thing, but you have to convince kids to nap.
I admire my wife’s consistency. I knew she had all that love in her but witnessing that and knowing how hard that is, is on a whole different level. A couple of months ago, I wanted her to read the trades and understand the business and the gossip so we could talk about it at night. She told me, ‘When would I do that, Jon?’ Now, I fully understand. Who has the time? The thought of getting dressed up and going out to some fancy premiere and getting the babysitter, it’s 18 steps and she’s tired. I get it.
Your daughter makes cameos on your social media and she’s quite opinionated. I assume she knows what you do for a living during normal times?
She definitely knows. She comes to set. She has her own chair. She tells us what to do and directs me when we’re playing at home now. She’s been around auditions and performances. She knows how to dance. She knows we are creative. She calls Henry Golding “Uncle Henry” when she sees him on posters in New York.
Next up for you is, I imagine, is wrapping up In the Heights. Can you even begin to make a plan right now?
We have a plan. And another plan. And another plan. But plans change. The reality is, we were almost done with Heights. We have to get back to it. The things we can do at home are being done. And we’re figuring out a release date. We want this to be in the theater where people can watch it together.