It’s an unlikely word that crops up regularly while interviewing Crystal Yu, an effusive bundle of energy and warmth starring as a female lead in the Traverse Theatre Company’s forthcoming production, Pandas. It’s not impoliteness, she is at great pains to explain. It’s just how she and those whom she loves most in the world communicate with each other. “Occasionally, when I’m being very Chinese, I get quite blunt with my way of saying anything. It’s just the way we are,” says the actress and model, the only child of a traditional Chinese family born and raised in Hong Kong. “When I go home, when I land in the airport, my mum will go: ‘Oh, you’ve put on weight,’ instead of saying: ‘I missed you daughter and love you very much.’ We’re just very blunt like that. It’s our sense of concern for the other person.”

It’s this dispensation of any platitudes that she believes Scots playwright Rona Munro has captured in her depiction of Yu’s character, Lin Han, a brutally honest and direct 19-year-old daughter of a rug merchant who has fallen head over heels in love with the rep from a Scottish distribution company. So far their only contact has been 536 emails and 72 jpegs. But it’s the smiley faces and the odd “x” sign-off adorning his emails that prompt her to fly to Edinburgh to finalise a business deal and check out if he’s husband material. “My character is very businesslike. I’m like: ‘I think I can do this with you. I can love you, I can fall in love with you and I think we’re going to have a great relationship.’ The poor guy is like: ‘What are you talking about? First date.’”

That pressure to settle down, to achieve the practicality of security and follow her family’s values is something that Yu, like her character, feels almost 6000 miles away from her birthplace. Despite being chosen as the style protégé of Madonna for the Material Girl’s diffusion line for Swedish high street giant H&M, in an advert watched by millions around the globe, in addition to a lengthy European tour of Miss Saigon and starring alongside John Cusack and her mum’s idol Chow Yun-Fat in the 1940s-set movie Shanghai, her successful career doesn’t mean the questions surrounding her relationship status will ever abate. “I still have my granny and my mum on my back occasionally saying, you’re 27 now, when are you going to get married? I don’t know. If it happens, it happens,” she shrugs. She often feels torn between two cultures: too westernised for Hong Kong, but harbouring a longing to live closer to her gran and mother. She admits to being simultaneously starstruck and awed by the humility of Chow Yun-Fat, while her two 18-hour days of filming in London’s 3 Mills Studios with Madonna made her realise that the queen of pop “didn’t get to where she is today without knowing exactly what works for her and exactly what she wants”.

It’s ironic that the form of discipline chosen to calm down a naughty and boisterous pre-schooler is now the reason she’s viewed as the “wild child” in the eyes of her extended family. She was sent to ballet lessons at age four, winning a place at age 11 to study classical ballet at Elmhurst School of Dance and Performing Arts in Surrey, now the official feeder school of Birmingham Royal Ballet. “My father was very ill when I was younger. I was very much a child carer,” said Yu, whose father had early-onset Parkinson’s. “I think part of the reason why my mum wanted to send me away to do what I loved was that she didn’t want me to grow up just being a child carer. She really wanted me to be able to explore my dreams. For her to allow me that opportunity, I’m always grateful, always thankful to her.”

Her father passed away when she was 19 while she was studying for her A-levels, before she began picking up a clutch of small-screen roles in Sky One’s football serial Dream Team, in David Jason comedy vehicle Diamond Geezer for ITV and on BBC’s long-running hospital drama Casualty, where she met Rebecca Gatward, director of Pandas. Four weeks of rehearsals followed by three weeks of production make this London-based Yu’s second stint in Edinburgh, after Cameron Mackintosh’s blockbuster production of Miss Saigon made a prolonged stop at the Playhouse in 2005, a role for which she dropped out of her degree in English and creative writing at Brunel University. A distance learning degree in linguistics occupies her mind nowadays during quiet periods between work.

Sitting in the threadbare office of rehearsal rooms in a Leith industrial estate, the five-inch heels and skimpy bikini that made her want to cry during her Miss Saigon days couldn’t be further from her mind. Pandas reflects her ethnicity, but not in a cliched way. “Sometimes, as someone of an ethnic background, what I occasionally find is that we get typecast into certain roles. For example, the martial arts, which I’ve done. Or you have to pretend that you speak rubbish English and have a very strong accent. Another storyline is that you have a visa problem and you have to marry someone locally. For me, I’ve done those and I’ve learned a lot from those. I’m always craving for that role that I can just get my teeth into; a character that is three-dimensional.”

She clasps her hands at her mouth, in deep thought, before adding: “I might be saying the wrong thing. It’s changed now. We don’t just come over here for visas.”

Picture: Stewart Attwood