Red alert

Red alert

By James Rampton
April 18, 2024


Red Eye star Jing Lusi and writer Peter A Dowling reflect on the “groundbreaking” approach to casting the ITV thriller, in which a British-Chinese police officer finds herself stuck in the middle of a deadly conspiracy on a flight from London to Beijing.

Red Eye is one in the eye for monochrome casting. Indeed, its lead actor regards ITV’s new drama as a game-changer.

Jing Lusi, who takes the main role in the claustrophobic six-part thriller, tells DQ: “This is the first British show in God knows how long that has an Asian lead. I think the last one probably was The Chinese Detective in 1981 – and that title wouldn’t hold up these days.

“So it was an absolute honour to be part of this and to see this happening in the UK because there have obviously been a lot of Asian-led projects in the US recently.” One thinks of Beef, Avatar: The Last Airbender and Quantum Leap.

In Red Eye, which is written by Peter A Dowling (Flightplan), directed by Kieron Hawkes (Fortitude) and produced for ITV and ITVX by Bad Wolf (Doctor Who, His Dark Materials), Lusi stars as a DC Hana Li.

The British-Chinese actor, who was born in Shanghai but moved to Southampton aged five, plays a brusque London police officer who is ordered to escort a murder suspect, Dr Matthew Nolan (Spooks’ Richard Armitage), on an overnight flight back to Beijing.

Jing Lusi as DC Hana Li in Red Eye

The doctor has been arrested at Heathrow Airport shortly after arriving from Beijing and immediately put on a plane back to China, where he is accused of killing a woman who was in a car he crashed.

But when several deaths occur in flight, DC Li finds herself in the middle of an escalating conspiracy.

Lusi, who was in the most recent DQ100,  expands on the import of her casting: “The significance to me in this representation is that, even when you have a lot of diversity, you’re seeing the story through the perspective of the white lead character, and the diverse minority characters are usually viewed as the other.

Peter A Dowling

“As you find out about Nolan’s innocence or guilt in Red Eye, you’re seeing the story unfold through Hana’s eyes. She’s not the other. That’s a huge shift in itself. It’s really groundbreaking.”

Lusi, who has also had major roles in Stan Lee’s Lucky Man (2016), Crazy Rich Asians (2018), and the Bafta-nominated series Gangs of London (2020), was struck by Red Eye’s importance the moment she started reading the screenplay.

“When we filmed Crazy Rich Asians, the whole cast felt that was a needle-turning moment. I had exactly the same feeling when I read the scripts for Red Eye,” she says.

“So frequently the Asian character is tokenistic, or fits certain stereotypes, like the comic relief or the serious scientist. It was very moving to see this array of amazing Asian talent, all there for a reason that wasn’t box-ticking. I truly feel Red Eye is a turning point.”

Her positive sentiments were backed up during the shoot. “When we were filming,” the actor says, “it was as simple as seeing so many Asian faces around me, doing their jobs, getting on with it. It sounds mundane and ordinary, but actually it is extraordinary because you never get to see that.”

For Dowling, the drama really took flight when he hit upon the idea of making the lead British-Chinese. “Settling on an Agatha Christie-type murder mystery on a plane, I decided the heart of the story would be a police officer escorting a prisoner somewhere for a crime he claims he didn’t commit,” he says.

DC Li is tasked with escorting murder suspect Dr Matthew Nolan (Richard Armitage) on a flight to Beijing

However, “the project only fully sparked to life when the idea of a red-eye flight to Beijing was decided upon,” Dowling continues. “That would dictate that the police officer escorting our prisoner back to China, to avoid cultural misunderstandings, would probably be Asian, as would the flight staff and many of the passengers.”

Suddenly, the writer recalls, “the show had a vitality and contemporary feel that reflected the multicultural world we live in. It was something I knew I had to write. As far as I knew, there had never been a British-Chinese policewoman leading an English show and, at that moment, DC Hana Li was born.

“She is a wonderfully complex woman who struggles inside with her own cultural identity, but has no hesitancy on the job or in her abilities as a detective.”

Lusi was certainly blown away when she prepared for the audition. “I thought Hana was amazing as a character, full stop,” she says. “And then I was like, ‘Oh, wow, she’s a woman. This is extraordinary. And oh, my goodness, she’s an Asian woman! That is just unheard of.’

“She’s a complete breath of fresh air. I had never seen an Asian character portrayed so realistically and genuinely in a British show before. I was delighted at the prospect of playing Hana. I was just thinking, ‘I hope they haven’t cast her already.’”

The actor was also drawn to Hana’s troubled relationship with her half-sister, an aspiring journalist called Jess (Jemma Moore).

The ITV1 and ITVX thriller debuts this Sunday

“Hana feels used by Jess because Jess keeps trying to sell stories about her without her permission,” Lusi explains. “But there is a more complex dynamic going on, too. Jess is mixed race – she is Hana’s half-sister and her mother is white. Hana has a real complex about that.

“Being a full Asian immigrant and seeing her sister enjoy half of this white privilege she thinks all white people have is the source of lot of pain for Hana and shapes their sibling dynamic.”

Lusi spent a month-and-a-half in the interior of an aeroplane during filming. But rather than make go her stir-crazy, it had quite the opposite effect. “I loved the plane,” she says. “As much as I love filming on location, it’s nice to get homely in a studio and really settle in.

“We were there for six weeks, and it became a bit of a running joke because I loved that plane so much, I practically moved in. The little nook under the seat in front of me was like my second bedroom, full of my belongings: slippers, hoodies, snacks, umbrellas. They even got caught in a shot one time, and the crew had to cut and clear all my stuff out.”

The actor now hopes Red Eye, which debuts on ITV1 and ITVX this Sunday, will have a lasting effect on British drama. “For me, the most exciting part is that this is going to be a real watershed moment in British-Asian representation.

“I believe this is the beginning of something really amazing and important. I hope the audience will embrace and enjoy this show as much as we loved making it, and that Red Eye will open the door for more Asians to have a voice and tell their stories.”

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