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Gemma Chan on the pressures of the biological clock and how being different makes us stronger

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Helen Bownass
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Actor Gemma Chan in photoshoot

Actor Gemma Chan talks to Stylist about her latest drama I Am Hannah and the importance of honest female-centric story lines

“Suddenly it switches. It goes from ‘Don’t get pregnant’ to ‘You better fucking get pregnant or you’ll have missed your chance’.”

It’s been a long time since a line on TV made me feel heard, or reflected a conversation I’d actually had with friends. But I Am Hannah, starring Gemma Chan, felt like it had delved into my WhatsApp history and expressed the frustration that many women feel over having to think about babies because of our age.

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The drama is one of a trilogy about women directed by Dominic Savage – the other two, I Am Kirsty and I Am Nicola, are fronted by Samantha Morton and Vicky McClure tackling dysfunctional relationships and life on the poverty line. Chan tells the story of Hannah, a single, successful woman in her 30s who doesn’t want to be tied down, but who is struggling with the constant reminder from society that she must heed her ‘biological clock’. 

Uniquely, the dramas had no script – instead, the actors improvised and worked in partnership with Savage to develop the stories. It’s a powerful and affecting turn from Chan, who, since her breakthrough role in AI drama Humans, has proved herself one of the most cool, compelling (and bankable) actors today, with a CV that includes Crazy Rich Asians, Captain Marvel and Mary Queen Of Scots in the past year alone.    

She’s also set up a production company and, with her ability to create authentic lines like this in I Am Hannah – “My biggest fear is that I’m getting it wrong. I’m going to wake up and it’s going to be too late. And I’ve fucked it up. I’m terrified of fucking it up” – a new way to show the female experience is afoot… 

I Am… isn’t a normal acting job. Can you tell us about the process of creating it?

I was so excited because it’s so rare that you get that chance to really centre a woman in the story. We wanted it to be about a moment of crisis in each of these women’s lives. Quite early on, I suggested something about the external and internal pressures on women around motherhood, infertility and the idea of settling down when you hit your 30s. It’s something I’ve noticed and discussed a lot with my female friends and my family. I Am Hannah isn’t autobiographical, but it’s definitely drawn from experiences and anecdotes from people in my life. 

Gemma Chan stars alongside Arizene Kene in I Am Hannah

When Hannah admits, “I don’t know exactly what it is that I want yet,” it felt both credible and rare. Women and our desires are so often painted as black and white.

Ambiguity is the most interesting thing. For most people, things aren’t black and white, there are always shades of grey. It’s not easy to make decisions. It’s not easy to know what you want. It felt refreshing.

Why is it important that we tell stories like these?

By sharing these women’s lives and presenting them in this completely non-judgmental way, hopefully we will encourage anyone watching to have empathy and not to judge others for their choices. There are lots of different ways to be happy. We can get defensive about things: if someone else has made a different choice than us and they seem to be happy, we can take that personally. If they’re happy, then how can we be happy? But it’s not a zero-sum game. It’s really interesting actually – about a month ago a scientist called Professor Paul Dolan published the research showing that single and childless women rank really highly in terms of happiness. I found the reactions to that quite extraordinary. People just couldn’t believe it – both people in couples and people who are single. 

You recently became a member of The Academy, which votes on Oscar winners, alongside Lady Gaga and Letitia Wright. What does that mean to you?

I found out about that at the same time [as everyone else]. I got some texts and I saw tweets. It’s lovely. It feels a little bit surreal. The Academy has that prestige attached to it and that air of it being part of the establishment, and for the longest time I’ve felt that I definitely don’t come from the establishment. It’s really great that they are making these strides towards making the membership more diverse.

Crazy Rich Asians broke box office records, yet romcoms are so often dismissed. Do you think that’s because they’re traditionally female-centric and appeal to women?

To me, a good film is a good film. And it’s hard to make a good film. A romcom isn’t superficial, it’s something that gets right to the heart of what it is to be human – it’s about family and relationships. These are not trivial things. This is the stuff of life. And I take your point, people have dismissed them in the past. It’s such a hard thing to do, to make people feel something, to make them laugh, but the next minute make them cry. 

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You’ve always been a big reader. What are you absorbed in at the moment?

I’ve just started reading Three Women [by Lisa Taddeo, about the desire of three real women in the US]. It’s so intimate. And actually, I’ve just realised, it’s a bit like this anthology series. You get a complete glimpse into their lives, you feel a bit of a voyeur in terms of their experience. I think it’s amazing for women’s experiences, their sexuality and their passion, to be centred and to be valued in that way. I also love Sally Rooney’s writing, which goes into that female psyche and desire. I love the fact that we are now starting to tap into that rich seam.

Last time we spoke, you wanted to get a dog. Have you got one?

I haven’t! I still desperately want one but it’s so difficult when I’m travelling so much. There’s something about dogs; they live completely in the present. I think it’s proven that petting a dog helps you live longer. It reduces your stress levels, it reduces the levels of cortisol in the bloodstream. 

Chan as Astrid Young Teo in Crazy Rich Asians

You once said: “Now I’ve got older, I’ve realised what makes you different is your strength.” What does that mean to you?

To me, it means embracing what makes you unique, the things you might have thought were weird about yourself – embracing those qualities is a good thing. We’re not all completely alike. There is a lot we have in common, but what is different about us is what is beautiful. I think it’s interesting because when you’re a teenage girl, it is so difficult and you just want to fit in. But confidence takes time; becoming comfortable in your own skin is definitely a good thing.

What other projects are taking up your time at the moment?

I’m shooting a movie next, which I’m not allowed to tell you about. I have various projects I’m developing: a film and a few TV projects. I’m looking for something that hasn’t been told before, or a story about someone who didn’t, for some reason, get their due.

Has your production company got a name?

No, and it’s really hard [to come up with one]. Everything starts to sounds like a really bad team name from The Apprentice 

I Am Hannah is on Tuesday 6 August, 10pm, Channel 4

Photography: Matt Holyoak/ Camera Press, Channel 4

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