Introducing the incomparable Grace Wu, a woman who has risen through the ranks of the entertainment business to become the executive Vice President of Casting for the multinational media conglomerate, NBC Entertainment. I asked her a few questions about her journey, and steps she took to advance her career. Wu’s inspirational words can unequivocally help every young woman excel in any field.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, California, Wu’s decision to go into entertainment was influenced by a friend’s parent who worked in the industry. She was intrigued by the collaborative effort of creating a character and developing a story; and drawn to the idea of joining forces with other powerful individuals to create the best television show possible.
Naturally, Wu didn’t start out as one of television’s most sought after casting agents. Her humble beginnings start as an eager student at the University of California, Berkeley. She studied French Literature, and later switched majors once she found her true calling. Her advice to millennials, especially those who want to rise in the entertainment industry, is to “try different things, but give each effort [and] the utmost attention so that you can learn what really interests you … I think it’s important to try things, to know what you want to pursue and once you do, you have to have no ego about where you start.”
Wu’s start, like many others in the business, was as a production assistant on the Margaret Cho show All American Girl. In an industry that encourages starting at the bottom and working your way up, she too worked hard to earn her spot. Being a PA was less than glamorous, as Wu was left to diligently drive cars from lot to lot, assist the camera crew, and even clean up the set. Nevertheless, it was the grunt work she put in as a PA that enabled her to realize her true interest was in casting. “Watching auditions and having an opinion on who should play a role just felt really interesting to me,” said Wu.
The determination and experience she gained as a PA landed Wu a casting internship, and she later became a casting assistant in New York on the film In and Out. Shortly after, she hit the big time as the casting assistant on Seinfeld, and has worked on TV ever since.
For a lot of millennials, myself included, it feels like the climb to reach the top in your career is the hardest part. Luckily, Wu shared some insight on her own challenges and fears noting that life never just snaps into place. Life is an endless string of learning and discovery, and everyone has to adapt if they want to have the best of both worlds with their life and their career.
New Levels, New Challenges
Wu also graciously shared some of the biggest challenges and fears she faces today. One of which, understandably, is balancing the health of her family, time with friends, and of course… a successful career. “It can be challenging when we’re having a busy pilot season and the hours are longer, things are moving really quickly and I might have a sick kid at home or they might need me, so that’s where I feel like I need to be there for my kids while not compromising work, luckily I have a very helpful husband who is able to jump in.”
Even though Wu understands what is truly important, she shares that another challenge is trying to take in as much new content as possible. In the entertainment industry, one needs to be aware of what is going on in the fast and changing world of content. From new social media sites going up and shutting down, new show concepts getting pitched, and new comedians and actors on the rise; it is not easy to stay ahead or on top of the curve. “It’s just wanting to make sure that I am doing everything I can to find the best actors for our shows. I am kind of neurotic about just making sure I sample everything that airs.” Wu explains it’s not just what is airing on TV or streaming, but also in theaters, stand up, and showcases. “It’s just overwhelming, but it’s a great overwhelming.” Conflicts can occur with clients, be it creative or professional differences; so I personally have to compliment Wu on juggling all these tasks so well.
With each project, Wu successfully brings her own style and ideas to the table by suggesting up and coming actors that the writers or producers may have never even thought of. Putting a show together takes a plethora of ideas, and Wu graciously offers knowledge that has taken NBC’s content to the next level — over and over again. After all, working on a team to bring ideas together for a common vision is what fascinated Wu the most about casting.
Wu detailed how much she loves having the opportunity to experience quality content that moves her. “Even when I am sitting in a movie theatre or sitting at home watching something, even if I am not enjoying the experience, I still always feel incredibly fortunate and grateful that’s actually my job, to be able to sample entertainment.”
NBC Entertainment’s secret weapon further expressed how much she enjoys being an advocate for others — which is evident in Wu’s current show This is Us. “It’s quite a large cast … It was just so satisfying to be able to go through the process and really watch these actors bring these characters to life and embrace these roles … and it was great because you could absolutely see the pieces of the puzzle being put together … I wish every experience was like that.” Wu explained how everything was so civilized unlike the usual proceedings of shows in pilot season. Normally, it is a rush to put things together and to pick actors because there is always the risk that if one doesn’t go with their gut then they may lose the actor. In this show, there was time for each actor to read and each member of the team to see them — which isn’t common.
If you’re going to work in Hollywood casting, you need to have a strong gut instinct, especially since there’s a risk of losing an actor to a project if you can’t make a decision then and there.
Passing the torch
Wu reminds us to “keep your wits about you” when you forge forward into your passion. “It’s all about staying positive, staying focused, being determined, and not allowing yourself get discouraged if things seem like they aren’t happening the way that you want them to.” You’ll see your passion when you find it, and even more so when you plant your stakes in your field of choice.
We celebrate Grace Wu, and can all learn from her journey. It’s all right to not know your passion, but you must keep experimenting till you find what love. Through it all, there will be challenges, you will have to prioritize, and decide what is important to you. It will be difficult, but as Wu can attest — not impossible. When in doubt, “create the work that excites you.”