Jessica Lu, better known by friends as jLu, is as full of life off-screen as she is on-screen. Her bright, outgoing personality started when she was a child and has seen her through to her blooming acting career today. With roles in MTV’s Awkward, FX drama American Horror Story, all the way to her most recent role on NBC’s Reverie, Lu is no stranger to the on-screen life. However, as an actress of both Chinese and Japanese descent, fame didn’t come easily into her life. Lu had to work to overcome stereotypes and her own mindset regarding Asians in Hollywood. We got the chance to sit down with jLu and talk to her about her life, her career, and her latest role!
Lu started acting long before she knew that acting was a career option. “My parents owned a Chinese restaurant and that’s where I spent my entire childhood. Like, my baby crib was in the kitchen next to all the bags of rice,” she shares. “Growing up with a new audience of customers every day, I’d give each table a performance. Sometimes it was a tap dance, or “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” on the violin, or a memorized performance of Beauty and the Beast, but everyone got their dinner (with a show!) whether they wanted it or not!”
And whether Lu wanted it or not, performing was in her blood. Luckily, it was exactly what she wanted. “I loved how it made me feel,” she said. “I loved that I could be creative, entertain people, and make them laugh or feel captivated. I never want to stop, it’s what I live for.”
Lu officially started her career when she was ten years old with the support of her mom. “I started modeling and doing commercial work,” she recounts. “My mom was super supportive from the get-go and encouraged me to go for it. She told me that I had the talent and the guts to do it, and didn’t sugar-coat the fact that there’d be letdowns along the way. Those letdowns would make me stronger, better, and more grateful, and she was right!” At ten years old, she continued to go on auditions and build up her resume of acting gigs while learning how to handle all of those promised letdowns.
“I don’t remember my very first audition, but I do remember my first disappointment,” Lu says. “I must have been about 11 years old. It was for a Payless shoes commercial, and they had all of us actors, all different ages and races, come in barefoot. We stood in a line as someone silently stared at our feet. Then they told us who could stay for the rest of the audition, and who was cut. I was cut. The whole thing took 10 seconds.”
However, that first disappointment taught her a lot about herself and about how things work in show business. “I remember being so embarrassed, thinking that I had done something wrong or that something was wrong with my feet,” Lu shares. “But after the fact, it made me realize that sometimes it’s not about your talent, sometimes they are literally just looking to see if they like what they see before you even get the opportunity. It became a harsh reality for the pressure to be ‘perfect’ after that.”
That pressure to be perfect is widespread and universal, especially as a young girl in Hollywood. As a young Asian actress, those pressures are even higher. “The biggest challenges were overcoming tokenism and stereotypes,” Lu explains. “It was difficult because I felt like I wasn’t ‘allowed’ to audition for the leading roles.” This feeling then became something of a rule for Lu as she started to progress in her career.
“In a strange turn of events, I actually brainwashed myself,” Lu admits. “I’d read a script and love the leading female role, and would instantly ‘know’ that character wasn’t for me. I started reading scripts looking for the friend role…the comic relief who would pop in with a funny bit and then take off. And while I loved playing each of those characters, there were only so many ways I could do it!”
It wasn’t until much more recently that “Asian” has become part of the breakdown of parts available in TV shows and movies. “When I first moved to Hollywood, there weren’t many roles written for Asians and so when one did come along, it felt like it was all of our ONE opportunity to work,” Lu said. “When I would go into these auditions, everyone in the waiting room looked like me, from the hair to the clothes to the shoes. It’s hard to be an individual when you’re twinning with 20 girls for a scripted three lines.”
Lu commented on the forward progression of the industry saying that “we’re moving in the right direction, and we’re definitely getting there, but it’s happening very slowly” and that “every project [today] is more diverse than ever!” However, seeing Asian representation at the forefront of any of these projects, especially as a series regular, still seems to be a rare occurrence.
This makes Lu’s most recent role as 24-year-old, high-powered CEO and software designer, Alexis Barrett, on NBC’s Reverie a huge advancement in the realm of Asians in Hollywood. Not only is Lu a main character and series regular, but she plays a woman in a position of extreme intelligence and power, something rarely represented on television. Lu gets the chance to play a highly dynamic role that is usually reserved for the typical “privileged white male.” Reverie, which premiered on NBC on May 30th, is about a former hostage-negotiator turned professor, Mara Kint, who is recruited to save those who have gotten lost in the virtual reality world of Reverie, the program created by Lu’s character, Alexis Barrett.
“Alexis is extremely smart, mostly keeps to herself,” Lu points out, “and while on the surface she seems harsh, anti-social and rude, she’s actually harboring a lot of pain and keeps her distance in order to avoid more pain from entering her life.” Much like in the real world, Alexis is faced with many of the pressures and struggles that Jessica has encountered throughout her life and career.
“I admire how hard she works and how deeply she cares for everyone around her, even if she doesn’t show it,” Lu responds when asked about what she loves about her character. “I admire how strong and confident she is because she has had to overcome so many adversities. There is constantly someone waiting for her to mess up so they can take her position away from her, and yet she doesn’t buckle under that pressure.”
Catch Jessica Lu on Reverie, which airs Wednesday nights at 10 PM EST.
STORY GINA DECICCO
PHOTOS LESLIE ALEJANDRO
MAKEUP ASHLEY DONOVAN
HAIR HAILEY ADICKES