The Bookish Life of Gemma Chan

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Annika Barranti Klein

Staff Writer

Annika Barranti Klein likes books, obviously.   Twitter: @noirbettie

Gemma Chan was born on November 29, 1980, and grew up in London. Her father emigrated from Hong Kong as did her mother’s parents; her mother was raised in Scotland. She attended Worcester College at the University of Oxford, where she studied law before she enrolled at the Drama Centre London and began acting.

Chan made her television debut in 2006, her stage debut in 2007 or 2008 (sources differ on the details), and in 2009 she had a guest spot on Doctor Who, playing geologist Mia Bennett in the episode “Waters of Mars.” This was sadly not one of the episodes that was novelized in the New Series Adventures, though several contemporaneous episodes were. A year later she appeared in the Sherlock episode “The Blind Banker,” which was loosely based on the Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure of the Dancing Men” by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Also in 2010, she appeared in Submarine, based on the novel Submarine by Joe Dunthorne.

In 2011, Chan appeared in six episodes of series 4 of Secret Diary of a Call Girl, based on the pseudonymous memoir The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl by Belle de Jour. Her character, Charlotte, was a rival of Billie Piper’s Belle. In 2013 she performed in two plays — Our Ajax by Timberlake Wertenbaker at Southwark Playhouse and Yellow Face by David Henry Hwang at the Park Theatre, London — and appeared in the movie The Double, based on the novella by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

Beginning in 2014, Chan’s bookish roles came fast and furious. (As an aside, she has never been in a Fast & Furious movie, and I think that’s a terrible oversight.) She appeared in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, based on the character Jack Ryan created by Tom Clancy in The Hunt for Red October, as one of the secondary female leads. She played an American witch in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. In animation, she voiced Snow White in Revolting Rhymes, based on Revolting Rhymes by Roald Dahl, and Dewdrop in Watership Down, based on the novel by Richard Adams. She had a lead role in Stratton, based on the novel the novels by Duncan Falconer. She also had a role in Transformers: the Last Knight, which is not based on a book but is part of a franchise that includes both novels and comic books.

a still of Gemma Chan as Astrid in Crazy Rich Asians, showing her dressed up sitting at an outdoor bar

But it was in 2018 that she played her biggest screen role to date: Astrid in Crazy Rich Asians, based on Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan. She is scheduled to reprise the role in two sequels. The same year, she played Bess of Hardwick in Mary Queen of Scots, based on Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart by John Guy. The character is based on a historical white woman, so naturally some people on the internet were suddenly experts on the time period and pitched fits. Chan responded: “In the past, [Asian roles] would be given to a white actor who would tape up their eyes and do the role in yellowface. John Wayne played Genghis Khan. If John Wayne can play Genghis Khan, I can play Bess of Hardwick.”

In 2019 Chan joined the MCU as Minn-Erva in Captain Marvel. Though not based on a specific run of the comics, you may wish to start with Higher, Further, Faster, More by Kelly Sue DeConnick and David Lopez. Two years later she played a different character, Sersi, in Marvel’s Eternals.

a still of Gemma Chan as Sersi

In her personal life, Chan is an activist who has worked with Save the Children and Moet to assist refugees, with Cook-19 to feed essential workers during early COVID-19, with UNICEF to raise awareness about domestic violence, with Soccer Aid and World Children’s Day, and with the People’s Vote March to call for a second BREXIT referendum. She also founded the #StopESEAHate campaign.

She dated comedian Jack Whitehall from 2011 to 2017. She began dating actor Dominic Cooper (who plays Howard Stark in the MCU, though it is not clear how they met) in 2018, and the two reside together in London.

In addition to the two Crazy Rich Asians sequels, we can look forward to seeing Chan star in The Actor, based on Memory by Donald E. Westlake, which does not yet have a release date.