Before Fresh Off the Boat and Crazy Rich Asians, Constance Wu was an actor in New York City trying to break into the theatre industry. In her 20s, Wu was auditioning for plays and musicals (including the national tour for Rent, which she did not land). “I was trying to be a classical theatre actress,” says Wu, who started acting in community theatre productions when she was 10 years old. If you doubt her theatrical bonafides, consider the following factoids: Wu has a pet bunny named Lida Rose—as in The Music Man, and her car is named Blanche DuBois.
That is why this movie star is currently doing eight shows a week at the Westside Theatre in the long-running Off-Broadway revival of Little Shop of Horrors, where she is making her overdue return to the New York stage in the role of Audrey. “It's the best,” Wu says gleefully. “To be in a dressing room with other actors who will unabashedly harmonize musical theatre [songs] together…It's like coming back home to my community.”
Wu said this over Zoom while walking around her rental apartment in Brooklyn, her newborn son strapped to her in a baby carrier. At a certain point, he scrunches his face and squirms, but doesn’t cry. Wu looks down at him, cooing, “I know, buddy. He's a little under the weather today.” The baby didn’t cry once during the call, mostly looking wide-eyed at the camera. Now a mother of two, Wu’s gotten used to operating in two modes at the same time, weaving effortlessly back-and-forth from star actor to mom.
During Little Shop, as Audrey she will cower onstage in fear of Orin Scrivello, in an intense moment of physical violence. Then soon after, at intermission, Wu will be backstage pumping breast milk. But Wu is taking all of this with a can-do attitude. “It's funny because the girls in the dressing room are like, ‘Yo, your breast pump got a beat!’” Wu says smiling, without a hint of self-consciousness. Wu shares a dressing room with the other female actors in the show. “My breast pump goes, and all the girls start dancing.”
It’s worth it because Wu is currently living her dream. She first saw Little Shop when she was 12 years old at her local community theatre in Richmond, Virginia. Since then, Wu has wanted to play Audrey—the love interest to the nerdy florist Seymour. He adores her so much, he feeds humans to a man-eating plant in order to win her love. “The music is just the best music ever,” Wu explains of why she loves the show. “I think that the book is really—it’s lean. Every single line is there for a reason, it’s born of character and circumstance and fits nicely into the whole story…I think it's really relevant: the idea of the American dream and greed, and what it does to you.”
Years ago, Wu even screen tested for a planned film remake from Warner Bros (Scarlett Johansson eventually got the part). That film has since been shelved. But now, Wu is able to play the role in the medium that made her want to be an actor in the first place.
In her book, Making a Scene, Wu writes about how much she loves the stage, talking about the various theatre roles she did in high school and college: “It's the only place where it felt acceptable—nay, commendable—to have big feelings.” She wrote that the stage is, “the one place where I feel safest, most alive, and in love with the world.”
After college, Wu spent a decade in New York City, working as a waitress and trying to break into the New York theatre industry. But all she encountered were closed doors, and so much rejection that she almost quit acting. Then after a bad breakup, she moved to Los Angeles and landed a little show called Fresh Off the Boat, which eventually became a big hit show. Despite her success in Hollywood, Wu missed being around theatre-kid energy.
“There’s a sect of actors who, if you start harmonizing and doing jazz hands, they'll roll their eyes at you, ‘like, ugh, she's harmonizing.’ Because theatre people are big. And some people like to judge them and say that they're obnoxious,” says Wu. “But I think song and dance is the greatest joy in life. Why would you roll your eyes at somebody who's enjoying music?”
And once the door to Fresh Off the Boat opened up, other doors did, as well—Crazy Rich Asians, Hustlers, her memoir. And now theatre. Though Wu, ever perceptive, is aware of how long it’s taken her to get to this point.
“I like to say that I wanted to be a theatre actress all along, but I had to become a film and TV star in order to book theatre work,” says Wu, serious, her eyes cast downcast. “It's ironic and a little sad in many ways…there's so many people out there who aren’t as fortunate as I am, who are just incredibly talented, who can't even get seen—I know because that's how I was back when I was a waitress in the city in my 20s.”
But that doesn’t mean Wu has been sitting back waiting for opportunities to come to her. While other Hollywood actors would reach out to their agent if they wanted to do a play, and wait for the right opportunity to come along, Wu went the extra mile. In between seasons of Fresh Off the Boat, she flew to New York to meet with casting directors, determined to prove herself.
“I just said, ‘Hey, I'm putting a little thing in your mind, just so you know that I want to do this. And I'm not just some Hollywood actress who's like, ‘Oh, I want to do theatre.’ I really want to commit.” For a while, it was tough to line up a stage gig with the demanding network television filming schedule. But when Fresh Off the Boat concluded in 2020, Wu actively pursued the stage. After the pandemic pause, she starred last year in 2:22: A Ghost Story at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles. And now she’s Audrey.
With the show’s director Michael Mayer, Wu has helped craft an Audrey who feels “rooted in reality”—someone who had been beaten down by the world (and by a sadistic dentist) but who is still able to hope for “somewhere that’s green.” “She's got a really pure heart,” says Wu. “She has very humble beginnings, like myself. And she's had to be scrappy to survive.”
And that scrappiness is even reflected in Audrey’s wig: red with black roots, which is rationalized as, “Oh, her last boyfriend paid for her dye job, but now she can't get it.”
Wu is acting opposite Corbin Bleu as Seymour—both actors of color playing roles traditionally cast with white actors. To Wu, who has followed the show for decades, this decision feels “spot on,” adding, “it's about people from lower marginalized communities, lower socio-economic brackets—which a lot of times people of color have historically been…People often think of Audrey as the blonde bombshell. A gorgeous blonde bombshell working in a florist shop versus a scrappy person of color trying to get by, I think [the latter] just makes more sense.”
When Wu spoke to Playbill, she was just a week into performances—she began her run on the same day as Bleu. And Wu was excited to play. At one performance that week, she tried singing “Suddenly Seymour” in a lower key. It didn’t work. They went back to the original key.
But at a Sunday matinee performance, Wu’s voice was strong, her “Somewhere That’s Green" was strong, with a slight belt, and sweet. This Audrey may dream of the suburbs, but she's also tough. Wu admits she's still training her voice to withstand the rigors of an eight-show-a-week schedule, but she isn’t self-conscious about messing up onstage. It’s reminding her of why she fell in love with theatre as a kid.
“The thing I love about theatre is the constant evolution,” she says. “Every night is different, based on the audience, based on what covers are going on. Theatre is alive, and it gets to keep growing. Whereas in film, and TV, you get to have that scene. And once you hit it, you hit it, and you never have to do it again.” She then adds, smiling, “I like a challenge. I like the pressure. I like things that evolve.”
Below, see exclusive photos of Constance Wu and Corbin Bleu on the set of Little Shop of Horrors.