Gemma Chan studied law at Oxford but only ever wanted to be an actress. Modelling proved a means to that end and now she’s about to star in a challenging BBC drama
Long before acting was her profession, Gemma Chan found a unique way to cope with tricky situations. When she’s up against it, she gets into character. At a post-Oxford interview for a job she didn’t want working as a lawyer, she “acted” keen young solicitor convincingly enough to be offered the position. During the modelling gigs she picked up to pay for drama school, when photographers treated her like a dumb clothes rail, she decided, “I’m just playing this part for today, and if that’s this person’s attitude, fine, I’ll just do my job and use the money to pay off my student loan.” For all I know, she’s acting the part of whip-smart, personable interviewee now – but if it is an act, then the kid is a natural.
Chan, 29, has appeared in several films, but telly fans will recognise her easily. She’s appeared in Dr Who and Sherlock, made pulses race in the second series of Secret Diary of a Call Girl, as Billie Piper’s arch rival, and proven herself an all-rounder by tackling comedy as the OTT drama student, Ruth, in three episodes of Fresh Meat, the “yoof” comedy starring Jack Whitehall that proved a surprise hit for Channel 4.
She’s about to appear in BBC1’s five-part series True Love, consisting of loosely linked stories exploring different aspects of modern romance. Writer/director Dominic Savage has assembled a stellar cast that includes David Tennant, Billie Piper, Jane Horrocks and Ashley Walters. Chan appears in episode five, as Kathy, whose love interest, Adrian, is played by David Morrissey. She admits she had a little “acting crush” on him before filming, and was excited to hear they’d be working together.
The job kept her on her toes, she says, because Savage relies entirely on improvisation. “No script. He writes scenarios, and plots out what’s got to happen but gives you free rein to flesh out your character. When it comes to filming, everything is improvised on the day. Often you’d have an idea in your head but each day you had to chuck that out because having too much of an idea of how it might go would impede the process. It was absolutely terrifying.”
The dramas were mainly shot with available light and there was a minimal amount of hair and make-up – one quick morning session for the entire day. “It was the exact opposite of Secret Diary of a Call Girl, which was very much heightened, different coloured wigs, prostitutes’ make up. That was the fun of it – it wasn’t meant to be realism. Dominic didn’t want anything interfering with the process. He wanted us to strip away, not put on physical tics or accents. He tries to make it feel like you’re not making a film. He’d often use long lenses. We’d be walking along a beach in Margate, and you couldn’t see the tiny crew, they’d be far away down the beach. There’d be no action or cut, just hour-long takes of us walking along the beach. You’d forget that they were there; you’d be completely absorbed in the moment.”
Savage decided Chan and Morrissey shouldn’t meet ahead of time, but he asked them to correspond in character and see what developed. “We sent each other emails in character during the weeks leading up to filming. So when I first met him on set, I had no relationship with him as David, only as our characters, but it really felt that by that point we had really poured out our hearts. We’d send each other links to music: ‘This made me think of you, have a listen’. I have never done anything like it, and it was a full-on commitment in real time. I’d get an email and I would react within the time frame of a woman who was falling for this guy – so you’d respond straight-away. Even if I was with my friends, I’d excuse myself to go and answer the email.”
Ultimately, however, it is Savage’s job to ensure the story is coherent. “We had to make sure that what we did was believable, and then it’s up to the director to turn it into the story he wants to tell.”
Chan’s own story – or rather, her family’s – would make an equally compelling film. Her grandparents fled China with their two young children and ended up in Greenock. Yes, you read that right.
“They managed to escape Communist China just before the Cultural Revolution, after the Great Leap Forward, which had been a disaster. They felt Communist China had no future. They’d seen terrible things – people starving to death – and thought, ‘This is not where we want to raise our children.’ They were a nurse and a teacher.
“They managed to get to Hong Kong. My mother said she remembers the night they left: they couldn’t tell anyone they were going, because everyone was encouraged to inform on their neighbours, their friends and colleagues, so it had to be such a secret. They had to leave the house exactly as it was, they couldn’t take anything with them, just the clothes on their backs. My grandmother, my mother and my mother’s younger sister, who was a baby, on the day they left they rode on a bicycle to the border and had to bribe someone to get to Hong Kong. My grandfather got caught the first time he tried to get out. Finally he managed to be reunited with them and once they were in Hong Kong, the British Government decided to put them in Greenock, of all places.
“They were the first Chinese family there. My mother said that when she went to school she and her sister – she was about six or so – were surrounded in the playground because none of the children had ever seen a non-white person before. Greenock is a funny old place. I grew up in Kent but we used to spend every Christmas there, until I was about ten, when my grandparents passed away – sadly they didn’t live that long after getting to Scotland, but died of lung and breast cancer. I never used to think anything of it, but looking back, it must’ve been really tough for them.”
Despite being born in China, Chan’s mum thinks of herself as Scottish. “Even though she’s been down south since before I was born,” says Chan, “she considers herself fiercely Scottish, which I think is always the way if you’ve grown up there. She will still support Scotland if they’re playing England, and go back into her Glaswegian accent as soon as she sees any one Scottish.”
Her mum trained as a pharmacist, and worked at Guy’s Hospital, where Chan was born. When I ask what her dad does she giggles and with a note of embarrassment in her voice, admits that she’s never been entirely sure. “He’s an engineer and a specialist in offshore piping systems,” she finally explains.
Like many immigrants, they encouraged Chan and her younger sister to enrol in lots of extra-curricular activities – she still plays violin and piano, took dancing lessons and participated in local amateur dramatics – but they were adamant that she must attend a good university in order to prepare her for a suitable career. So Chan attended Oxford and earned a law degree.
Her heart wasn’t in it. A lifetime of family trips to the West End to see musicals, and a love affair with movies, meant that performing always appealed. “I ended up doing a local AmDram musical when I was nine or so. We had to sing and dance and act. It was probably terrible, but I loved it.
“My parents are wonderful, practical, sensible people and the expectation was that I would study something academic. I felt that I needed to do a proper job, as it were. I knew what I really wanted to do, but I didn’t have the courage to pursue it. I went to university, but then I made plans to save money and go to drama school. I just played the part of a lawyer. It was never really something I could seriously see myself doing.”
She only told her parents that she was abandoning law after securing her place at Drama Centre, in London. Did they hit the roof? “That’s putting it mildly,” she laughs. “I love my parents very much, and they want the best for me, but they took it very badly and there were quite a lot of disagreements. It was a difficult time. Looking back I can’t see that it could have happened any other way, but it was tricky. I wanted to have everything in place before I came to them and said, ‘This is what I’m doing.’”
Why Drama Centre? It is prestigious, but the other adjective commonly employed about the place is “tough”. Chan tells me that long before her years there, they had a habit of chucking out great swathes of the student population without warning, and many were traumatised by the experience. They no longer do that, but it’s still no place for people who need coddling. I wonder, did she choose Drama Centre because of that reputation, feeling it would show her parents just how serious she was, thereby sweetening the pill she was asking them to swallow? She never really answers, but says, “I chose it after reading about Simon Callow’s experiences there, in his autobiography. He said that Rada seemed like summer camp and Drama Centre seemed like the exact opposite. It’s a very intense place, with great training.”
Chan’s been at pains to avoid the model-turned-actress label. “I knew I wasn’t going to be doing it for the rest of my life. You’re treated very impersonally, told where to stand and how to pose. If you’ve got a nice photographer and there’s a cool concept, you can, to an extent, act it, but more often than not you’re expected to be a blank sheet.
“Sometimes I’d be treated as if I was stupid, and instead of getting upset I decided, I’m just playing this part. Having then gone on to study and having worked in front of the cameras as an actress, it really is such a different thing. It’s much more of an investment. Making a pretty picture, an image, is a completely different thing from acting to camera. As a means to an end, modelling was good, but I had to distance myself from it when I started working as an actress, because even though I wasn’t high-profile, I found in my first write-ups that I’d be referred to as ‘model Gemma Chan’. That upset me. It took a while, but I’m now referred to as an actress. So while it was great that I had the money to go to drama school, there were negatives, as well.”
Does she find that people have trouble seeing past her good looks and recognising that she’s sharp as a tack, too? She demurs, and reminds me that actors will always be judged by their looks. “It’s something you have to come to terms with, as much as you may hate that. There were definitely people who were surprised to know I’d gone to Oxford and studied law. Also, remember that what you’ve seen is the way I look when I’ve had two hours in the make-up chair. That’s not how I look when I get up in the morning and slip out unnoticed to buy milk. But to answer your question, I don’t feel that I’ve been treated differently. In terms of my acting, it’s something I continually want to work against. It’s hard to be cast outside of your natural look, but I do want to play parts that are not glamorous, but are challenging and interesting.”
True Love is on BBC1 next month