Selena Tan is a Singaporean award-winning actress that has been involved in theater and entertainment from an early age. She is proudly part of a trio, Dim Sum Dollies, which she has expressed great love and pride for. Audiences may better know her as Nick Young’s aunt, Alexandra “Alix” Cheng, in the recent Warner Bros. summer release of Crazy Rich Asians. The film has just passed its one month of release, breaking the $150M mark in the US box office. The romantic-comedy is the first feature film with an all Asian cast since the 1993 release of The Joy Luck Club. Crazy Rich Asians is an iconic film in itself.
We were able to talk to Selena Tan about her role in the film, as well as her career and interests outside of it. She definitely found Alix Young a character that she could relate too, growing up surrounding by her aunts and family member herself.
“I just had to channel all the aunties I’ve ever met.”
Tan was very excited to share her experiences with the film and her journey as an actress in Singapore. Check out our chat below!
Have you read the novel, Crazy Rich Asians, by Kevin Kwan from which the film was adapted beforehand? Or do you plan to?
Yeah, I’ve read the book now. I had not read the book at the time of the audition, but I did start reading it after. And it’s an intriguing book! I mean – it’s so wonderful to see a book written about Singapore, a book where the plot was set in Singapore. There is so much local flavor to it. And it is such a joy reading it, so easy and such a page turner.
I know you learned to channel your own aunties, but did the book itself help you create and envision “Alix” in your own mind?
Yes, of course! There’s not much in the movie for me to create Alix Young because there’s so few scenes and so few moments but the book itself is so rich. It paints such a detailed picture of who Alix Young and her family really are. I could take from that and move into the movie with a fully formed character.
Have you ever had to play the role of the shadowing, strict “crazy rich” mother-in-law or the aunt in real life?
Oh, I’m an auntie in real life. Lots of nieces and nephews who will attest to that.I’m sort of an “in-your-face” auntie, showering you with attention even if you don’t want it.
Did you have any fun, crazy moments on set that really stuck out to you?
The whole ride! The whole filming has been a crazy ride for me. I haven’t done filming in a long long time so coming back to it, you know, felt like it was such a breath of fresh air. And being with people I knew, actors i knew from Singapore, and meeting an international Asian cast… that was really amazing thing, being able to connect to people, talking to them and finding out their life stories. All of that was a really big bonus to this entire ride. We had great fun, every time I got on set [it felt] like a masterclass of acting, you know? I watched the great Michelle Yeoh. Everytime it goes “Action!,” I just watch her and see how she goes. It’s just amazing how they perform. And as newbies, Henry, myself, and some of the others, we [say] “let’s just give it a good go” and just give it our best. What was wonderful was that everybody was very supportive.
I know you’ve said you began acting way before Crazy Rich, and I’m curious about your own entertainment company, Dream Academy. What inspired you to start it?
I actually started from a young age in amateur theater, and then later on professionally. When I started professionally, I just chanced upon stand up comedy. When I started doing my own one-woman show, I incorporated my own company, Dream Academy, to do comedy and musical works, basically on a commercial basis in Singapore. We’ve been working for about 18 years now, and we’re behind some big names such as Dim Sum Dollies, Broadway Beng!, and Crazy Christmas. We have some very local content in Singapore, but we stay relevant to what our audience wants to see, as well as entertaining and using comedy and music a lot.
Aside from theater, you’re also an ambassador for the LGTBQ+ movement Pink Dot. If you are willing to share, I’m interested in hearing about your experiences. I understand that Singapore has many restrictions on the LGTBQ+ communities and strict laws on same sex marriage. How does it feel to be someone to stand up against the rules and advocate for progressive change?
When the [government] made homosexuality illegal… When it came up it, I knew it was something I had to take a stand on because it [just wasn’t] right… I know so many gay men in my family, amongst my friends. I can’t imagine why they would be criminalized like that. So when the opportunity came up for me to stand with them, I took it. I continue to take it, and I hope that one day, Singapore will repeal Section 377a. We have an annual Pink Dot campaign that goes on once a year. Great group of volunteers, so activities go on constantly. I’m hoping that with a change of mindset, Singapore will become more inclusive in their thinking and not just have a silly law out there that was left to us by our colonial masters. [Discrimination] has no place in modern society.
You obviously have a heart for Singapore. You’re from Singapore yourself, and I’m curious to know if you were happy with how the film portrayed Singapore? Would you say Crazy Rich Asians did Singapore justice?
I was very happy with how Singapore came across [as] a very modern city. But clearly, when you watch the movie, I don’t think anybody is foolish enough to think that all Singaporeans live like that. Obviously, we don’t. We are talking about one crazy rich family, their surroundings, and their surrounding stories as well. I hope that other Singaporean stories will be told, on a bigger stage and on a world stage.
Do you have anything to say to the Asian Americans viewers of the film who did not necessarily resonate with the film, but enjoyed it? Such as if they were to identify as a different ethnicity. Do you have a message for them?
I hope that Crazy Rich Asians gives off the feeling that we are empowered to tell our own stories – whatever our stories are, from where ever we are in the world, or whatever ethnic background we are. I hope that people come out and tell stories, and that makers in Hollywood and any other industries around the world do take note and realize that minority stories can be told anywhere and that it can be accepted in the universal truth.
That marks the end of our interview, do you have any other messages for your fans and our readers?
Come to Singapore! Come experience it for yourself, and you may not be able to get the Crazy Rich experience completely, but we are a wonderful melting pot of East and West. And yeah, we are fun once you get under the skin of Singapore.
And with that our interview ended, but not before she encouraged me to visit Singapore. As an Asian American myself, born and raised in the county of Los Angeles, I have never visited Asia despite my Vietnamese roots. Tan only had amazing things to say about Singapore – and the city of Hanoi once I shared that I am Vietnamese – that it was very clear she has a heart for her home and that they could not have found a better actress to play Alix Cheng.
We are excited to see where Selena Tan goes next in theater, in politics, and in film!