Constance Wu | Hustlers, Destiny, and new perspectives

by W. Andrew Powell

Hustlers is a real gem. The film is star-studded, earnest and heartfelt, and it’s also a crime-drama about a group of women hustling Wall Street scumbags.

There’s a lot going on, and it feels like a heist movie, but there is so much more to it than that. And while it can be glamorous, it delves far deeper.

As star Constance Wu put it, “I definitely did do pole training for a really long time,” but she added a moment later, “I didn’t want this movie to simply just be a glitz and glam movie.”

Written and directed by Lorene Scafaria, and starring Jennifer Lopez, Julia Stiles, Keke Palmer, Lili Reinhart, Lizzo, Cardi B, wand with an appearance by Usher, the film is based on real events, following the financial crisis in 2007.

Wu plays Destiny, a stripper working at a club in New York City facing rough times when the crisis hits. Working with Ramona, played by Lopez, the two come up with a scheme to drug and steal from wealthy men working Wall Street. The rest is a wild ride that digs deep into their lives, their relationship, and how it all fell apart.

During the Toronto International Film Festival, Wu sat down to talk about the film, opening up about working with Lopez, the way the film changes Hollywood’s usual take on strippers and sex workers, and so much more.

Hustlers is out in theatres now.

Did you do a lot of training for the role?

Constance Wu: “Well, yeah I definitely did do pole training for a really long time, both in classes and private lessons, but for me what was way more important to me was the heart of this character and the emotional life of the character so that was my priority, because I didn’t want this movie to simply just be a glitz and glam movie. I wanted to make sure that it has heart, because I think these people have heart and Hollywood haven’t traditionally treated women in this occupation with heart.”

Did you meet the real Destiny? It seems like she has been very supportive of the film.

Wu: “Yes, I met her a couple nights ago, actually. But, she was a little bit cautious at first, so I didn’t get to meet her before the movie or during the film. She was cautious, obviously, because she has some legal stuff, so, it’s like how much should she say? How much is it based on her? But, now she’s fully on board, really excited, really supportive and she’s written a book about her experience with it, so, I think it’s doing really positive things for her and I’m glad I got to meet her.”

How did you handle approaching the story, and the characters, to make the film more of a judgment free space?

Wu: “You approach them the way you would approach any character. Be it a suburban mother on Fresh Off the Boat or an ingenue on Crazy Rich Asians; you just build. Everything that a person says and every quality that a character has is just a clue into their history.”

“So, you create a history for a character in order to understand that. You do that through empathy and you do that through imagination. And, so, instead of thinking, ‘Oh she’s a stripper, I’m gonna judge that,’ and make something like that. That’s not how I think, I think ‘Okay she’s a stripper, let’s think about that. She probably grew up around a culture that said that women are valued for their sexuality. She didn’t do that well in school so she couldn’t really go that route.'”

“So that was a clue into understanding the types of media she was exposed to when she was younger and that’s part of building the life of a character and when you can do that it’s your private work that nobody knows, it’s not even on a page. You just have it in the marrow of your bones. So, hopefully when you’re out there, it’s not Constance but it’s somebody else speaking through your body.”

Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu in Hustlers
Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu in Hustlers

Can you describe a bit about how she’s different from the other women? Why does she have to juggle between being tempted by the luxury of this world and at the same time keeping her conscience?

Wu: “Great question. I mean, Destiny is a deeply lonely person, and I think this originated from when her mother left her when she was a very young child. Of all the women who are always supposed to be there for you, your mother should be the one, and, I think, because her mother left her, that was a great trauma and I think it left her with abandonment issues and trust issues.”

“And, I think, that’s why she says to Ramona ‘I don’t want to be dependent on anybody. I want to be independent,’ because she’s scared that if she’s ever dependent on somebody they’re just going to let her down like her mom did. So, that’s her way of protecting her heart, but really deep down inside, people need people.”

“She wants a mother, she wants to know why she wants all these kinds of things. So when she finds this sort of relationship with Ramona, it’s kind of like all of her dreams come true and I think the whole moral thing, because, yes, objectively what they’re doing is bad; drugging them, stealing their money is bad. And I think Destiny is the first one to, sort of, realize that it’s kind of bad.”

“Because in Ramona’s head, she thinks it’s like a Robin Hood thing, which, that’s it’s own argument. I think the reason Destiny even does it, is she just gets caught up in the feeling of being a part of something, that she doesn’t even think because, it’s the answer to all her childhood trauma. She’s a part of something bigger than her, she’s part of a family, she’s loved.”

“And then when she talks to this guy, Doug, it catches up to her and she’s like ‘I got into this because I’m a part of a family and I’m destroying somebody else’s family. That could’ve been me.’ And so she’s grappling with her sense of integrity to the kid that she was and her own kid. And, she has to sacrifice pretty much the best thing she ever had in her life for her kid, and for kids like the kids of Doug.”

How do you feel society looks at women who work in strip clubs or sex workers? How easy is it to move from one world to another?

Wu: “It’s really difficult. I mean, there’s a lot of judgment around it.”

“If you think about what strippers do, they use their bodies for entertainment to make money. That’s the exact same thing a pro athlete does, but we judge and we shame strippers. We don’t judge and shame athletes–they can get whatever job they want when they retire. So it’s a comment on how we view sexuality and its just this horrible tug of war because it’s like you’re supposed to be sexy but then you’re not supposed to be sexy and it’s just hard to know which side to fall on because there is no one right side.”

“There’s one that’s authentic to yourself, but I think we could all do better to not judge people’s choices just because they don’t align with ours. Because it does make it harder, like when my character applies of a job at a department store. It makes it harder, and that’s why we need stories like this, taking people with these professions who have previously been judged and giving them a life behind it. Humanizing them.”

Is there a connection, would you say, between what female strippers go through and actresses compared to men?

Wu: “Yeah, I mean, actors definitely get a version of it, it’s not as bad, as the judgment that strippers get because people definitely reward it and stuff like that but, I mean, you guys remember that movie, in think it was Lust, Caution, and how the woman who was in it was punished, like, jailed or something, because she appeared naked and sexual in it. But, so did the guy in it, and he didn’t get punished at all. So, I mean, that’s the same thing that were talking about here. That happens.”

Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu in Hustlers
Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu in Hustlers

Your character’s relationship with Lopez’s seems very genuine. How did you work on that and what was it like working with nearly an entirely female cast with a female director?

Wu: “Yeah, working with Jen was great. She’s probably one of the most caring actresses I’ve ever worked with. She’s an icon, she could do whatever she wants but she’s checking to see if I was okay and asking what she could do to like make me feel better if I was uncomfortable because she cared about her girls and that was just really special and rare and then we also talked like girlfriends, you know, talking about our ex boyfriends, whatever. What clothes we wanted to wear, where we want to eat for dinner. We talked about all that kind of stuff.”

“And what’s been interesting about doing these press rounds is a lot of people have been like ‘oh it’s all women, were you catty and competitive?’ And I’m like that is an untrue stereotype because we’re so used to a patriarchal society that only gives women one seat at the table, so, if you only think you have one seat at the table, of course you’re going to be competitive but that’s a commentary on scarcity not on gender and the way things ran on our set if proof of that because it was all women.”

“Nobody had to pretend like they were one of the guys to get ahead, which often I feel like I have to do, or they’re super cute to get ahead. They could just be themselves. We could talk about tampons without freaking people out. We could just be ourselves and it was so freeing to be that way and the fact that Lorraine hired women of so many different ages shapes sizes backgrounds just made it even better, right? Because we could just be ourselves. So, God, I would love to work with an all female cast again.”

Did you have a favorite scene? One that opened up the character more for you than say some of the other scenes?

Wu: “Yeah… there’s ones scene that really got deep into Destiny for me. I don’t even have lines in it, but it’s the scene where I first meet Dawn and I see Ramona becoming friends with this other girl. And, you know, Destiny gets kind of jealous but she has so many things going on at that time, like worrying about the future, losing her best friend.”

“I just remember doing that scene, as an artist, it was so revelatory, to me because it was like I didn’t prescribe these things that were happening, I just knew how my character was supposed to feel about Dawn and I sat down and walked in the room and I saw them, my whole body, like, it flowed through my whole body, just, this fear of losing her, but also wanting to seem cool and like I didn’t care because if I seem uncool maybe I’ll lose her that way too. And I think the fact that all just happened to me was almost like somebody else was speaking through me and so it was a pretty magical moment for me. And difficult.”

Coming from the success of your previous movie, are there parallels that reflect on this film and your performance in any way?

Constance Wu: “Well, you know, Crazy Rich Asians became a big deal, right? First Asian American centered movie in, like, twenty five years in Hollywood.”

“What it made me think of is the writer… when she talks about the danger of a single story because you check it off and you’re like, oh one story that represents everybody. So my hope for the parallels between Crazy Rich Asians and Hustlers is that it’s not just one single story about embodying women, see, because now we have all these other Asian American projects in the pipelines and that’s great. I hope that this movie helps spur on content from other female creatives and teams, because, people want to see it.”

“People always say, it’s a great time for women; I think it’s a great time for men. I really do because men are finally getting to see the content and the perspectives that they didn’t get to see in media and in culture when they were growing up and that’s only going to grow their empathy and that’s only going to make them a better person.”

“And even the Me Too movement, I understand when you’re like, accused of something you want to be like defensive and say ‘I had good intentions.’ Of course, nobody’s saying you didn’t have good intentions but somebody else has a different perspective of that experience so they’re finally getting to understand a perspective that doesn’t center themselves and their innocence. My male director friends are like ‘Oh, its hard for me to get a job.’ I’m like, but look at all this content that you can–if you’re thinking about art and all this exposure–that you can have, rather than thinking about your job, your project, you’re actually in a very blessed time, that you get to experience all these new stories that you didn’t get to experience before. It’s a great time for [men], I think.”

What has been the biggest thing that you noticed as you go from TV to this point and what have you learned about the business and the, kind of, experience of having your profile raised in such a big way?

Wu: “I think I’ve learned that I’m still figuring it out, and that there’s never any one right way to do something. There’s only one that’s authentic to you and that takes time and patience with yourself and listening to both your friends and critics.”

Lili Reinhart, Jennifer Lopez, Keke Palmer, and Constance Wu star in Hustlers
Lili Reinhart, Jennifer Lopez, Keke Palmer, and Constance Wu star in Hustlers

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