Growing up in the U.K., Gemma Chan didn’t see many faces that looked like hers on television, so even though she was drawn to acting, she didn’t think it was a viable career. She went on to immerse herself in academia, excelled as a swimmer and a violinist, and eventually attended Oxford University to study law. Chan was considering a job offer from a major firm when she decided to apply to the esteemed Drama Centre London at Central Saint Martins (in secret so as not to upset her parents). “I knew I’d probably be a miserable lawyer,” she says. “It is a privilege to be able to take a chance, but if you can, it is better to try and fail. Disappointment is temporary, but regret lasts forever.”
Fortune favors the bold, and while the 36-year-old actress’s decade-long path to present-day stardom was punctuated with discouraging moments — like when she was told she would never be cast in a period drama as an “actor of color” — she can now relax a bit. Not only did Chan light up the screen as the supremely chic Astrid Leong in last summer’s Crazy Rich Asians (which raked in more than $240 million worldwide), but the all-Asian cast also exposed a cultural blind spot that is now impossible to ignore.
“We definitely felt that responsibility,” she says of the group’s collective mission. “We didn’t want it to be a thing that people could say, ‘Oh, that film hasn’t performed’ and then other films may not be green-lighted. It is a slightly unrealistic expectation that whenever you have a woman or a person of color directing or starring in a film, it’s treated as a referendum on whether or not that group should be able to make movies.”
And guess what? The end of last year saw her break into period dramas after all as Bess of Hardwick, confidante to Queen Elizabeth I, in Mary Queen of Scots, in which director Josie Rourke took a color-blind approach to casting. This month Chan stars alongside Brie Larson in Captain Marvel as a blue-skinned sniper named Minn-Erva. She’s dipped into the production world too and has plans to develop a few of her own projects. Fashion houses are also eager to dress her, giving her instant cover-star cachet. “I want to keep challenging people’s perceptions,” she says of her newfound fame. “I hope that the message has been received by now that diversity does pay off. People want to see these stories.”
Photographed by: Matt Easton. Styling: Nina Sterghiou. Hair: Owen Gould. Makeup: Daniel Martin. Manicure: Yuko Wada. Set design: Cooper Vasquez. Production: Sister Productions.
For more stories like this, pick up the March issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download Feb. 15.