Gemma Chan says she sees “definite shift” in industry with colour-blind casting

David Brown catches up with Gemma Chan ahead of the BAFTAs

Gemma Chan (Getty)

This interview is part of our BAFTA 2020 special for more interviews visit The Big Interview hub.

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When it comes to variety, 2018 will take some beating for Gemma Chan. In July, she’d finished shooting the big-budget film Captain Marvel in Hollywood and by September she was back in the UK working on a project for Channel 4 with her long-time friend Dominic Savage.

“On a Marvel film, you’re just a very small cog in a huge machine. So, when the opportunity came up to work with Dominic again, I jumped at it. I’d missed being on an intimate set with a small crew,” she says. “And working with Dominic is wonderfully freeing, but terrifying as well. You don’t know what’s going to work or where it’s going to end up.”

The pair first worked together on 2012’s True Love for BBC1 and had been seeking the right reunion. The result was I Am… Hannah, an intimate, semi-improvised tale about a single woman in her 30s struggling to fulfil society’s expectations, which Savage created in collaboration with her.

Dominic Minghella and Gemma Chan by Mark Harrison
Dominic Minghella and Gemma Chan (Mark Harrison)

“The pressures women face had been something I’d been talking to my girlfriends about for a while,” Chan says. “Women have far more options than they used to — there’s a chance to work and have a family, but also an expectation that you can have it all. It’s not an easy thing to make those decisions.”

It’s a subject that also resonates with Savage: “My mother is a big influence on me. A lot of women from her generation weren’t able to make choices that were right for them. She grew up in poverty and didn’t have a formal education. Hannah, like all three characters in the series, gets the chance to make something else of her life. But my mum could never choose.”

Chan finds the empathy Savage has for women unusual in the TV industry. “It’s not the norm to find someone who wants to shine a spotlight on women. There have been improvements over the past few years. Just think of Fleabag and I May Destroy You. But for a long time, the perception was that programmes like this were just for women.”

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Chan also feels positive about other changes in the industry, such as more colour-blind casting. Has she ever auditioned for, say, a period piece rather than a contemporary drama? “I’ve been working as an actor for 13 years and there’s a definite shift in what I’m being put up for now.

I recently saw The Personal History of David Copperfield [the 2019 film starring Dev Patel] and the casting was incredible. There’s a way to go, but I’m seeing definite improvement.”

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