“Will you excuse me while I just quickly pound a meatball?”
Awkwafina does what she wants — and what she wants right now is to make meatballs (definitely not a meatball sub, soggy bread – no thank you). It’s not surprising that the performer — actress, comedian, rapper — is confident and self-assured, having seen her star-making turns as best friend Goh Peik Lin in last summer’s “Crazy Rich Asians,” Constance in “Ocean’s Eight” or any of her early-career rap videos.
But her latest project, starring in her first dramatic role as the lead Billi in “The Farewell,” coupled with the sudden fame that has come with her breakout year in 2018, has her digging deeper for that confidence she’s always portrayed with ease. Now that Hollywood is listening, the questions are seeping in: Is she capable of doing drama? Is she funny enough to be a leading actress? And, if all signs point to yes, what does she want to do with her career now that it seems she can do almost anything?
“I was used to just having been Awkwafina, and things being flat-paced,” she says. “And then all of a sudden…”
The New York native, born Nora Lum, around the beginning of the year left behind her hometown for life in Los Angeles, where she sits now musing on her life’s rapid changes between breaks for meatballs and her Juul. The move is a necessity, yes, but also symbolic for her.
“I needed to show myself that…I think when I first started, I was really worried that I would never be able to support myself, and I really wanted to make sure that I wasn’t ignorant with what I spent,” she says. “And so, I think my apartment represented that way of thinking.”
Just over a year ago, her life looked very different from the outside. She had been on back-to-back-to-back sets shooting away, with none of the films yet to be released.
“When you’re in a constant flow of production, you don’t know what it’s like to release a movie. So there was a period where I had never experienced the release of something,” she explains.
Then it began. First was the Netflix film called “Dude,” then the theatrical release of “Ocean’s Eight” followed by “Crazy Rich Asians,” which set box-office records and became a cultural phenomenon last summer.
“I think it changed my life and it also really didn’t at the same time,” she says. “I still live the same. I think after ‘Crazy Rich Asians,’ it was more like a shared knowing that I was a part of a generation that is different. And that is gaining momentum. I feel like it was part of a larger movement. With ‘Ocean’s Eight’ and ‘Crazy Rich Asians,’ there was a moment where I was coming back from some press event and I was really thinking about it, and ‘Ocean’s Eight’ was an all-female cast and ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ an all-Asian cast. It’s not about me. It’s the fact that these two movies existed and I was able to be a part of them.”
It’s hard to imagine her life has stayed as normal as she claims, but her priorities remain very much in check: “Work is crazy, but I go home and it’s the same. I just want to come back and watch Netflix,” she says.
“From the day we met, we connected — we were always in it together,” says Constance Wu, her costar from “Crazy Rich Asians” and now a close friend. “Both of us grew up as creative kids (me in theater, her in music) but neither of us grew up with showbiz/modeling connections, so the sudden visibility from ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ was new to us both. We call each other and help each other through it. These days, so few people talk on the phone because they prefer to text. Nora and I actually talk to each other on the phone a lot. The other day, she called me when she was in New York for 24 hours. So I came over to her hotel to just drink from the minibar and order room service and watch dumb comedies on TV.”
With the rise in her popularity within the past year, Awkwafina has noticed she suddenly has more younger fans than she ever did with her rap career. It’s an added pressure of responsibility, but seems to be helping her focus on what kind of a career she now wants to have.
“In my case, I want to make sure that every Asian American girl has what she needs in terms of confidence and inspiration. Or any minority to pursue this career, by just being themselves,” she says. “That means a lot to me and now that I know my audience is younger, I feel more of a responsibility to not set an example, but to be who I would want myself to be in their eyes. It’s not my own journey anymore. It’s something that I have to do for other people, too.”
Being in the spotlight was never something she aspired to when she was a young girl; she says that growing up, she had trouble making the connection between childhood, teenage years and adulthood, and couldn’t picture the career she would want.
“But I always knew that I liked making people laugh,” she says. “It’s what brought me joy — but not a joy in like, ‘I like being an astronaut’ or, ‘I like being a lawyer.’ It brought me an inside joy.”
She began rapping in her early teens, and adapted the stage name Awkwafina when she was around 15. Now 31, she says the meaning behind the name — and sticking with it — has evolved into something deeper.
“The name represents a lot of different things,” she explains. “First of all, it’s this person that Nora can hide behind because Awkwafina will take the heat. And Nora is OK with it. That’s how I saw her in the beginning. And I think that as a tool for confidence, as a tool for putting yourself out there, it was very useful. But I think that I eventually realized that they are one and the same — and by realizing that, that was even better as a confidence boost for me.”
Now, as her name is printed on scripts and flashed in opening credits, she sees Awkwafina in a new light.
“I look at Awkwafina in a more sentimental way now. I made this person up in my head when I was 15 or 16 years old in high school: to see it on a chair back or to see it on a news article, it’s mind-blowing, you know?” she says. “So when I view myself as Awkwafina, in movies and whatnot, I see that as my tribute to her — even though it’s very, very ridiculous.”
The name also functions as a bridge between her two careers — music and film. In the first, she is more confident about her abilities; in the other, she still sees herself as a newbie.
“I think the only common denominator in some of my bodies of works in both music and movies is that their title, would be comedy,” she says. “Comedy exists in both of them.” Her role in “Neighbors 2,” which was her first film part, was essentially her first audition as well, and she admits to feeling entirely out of her element.
“I didn’t know what I was doing. I was really scared and I was just really unsure of myself. Acting is something that I have to learn, not in terms of the skills, which you also have to learn, but also getting in touch with myself,” she says. Music is a more natural process. “Music has always existed for me as like therapy, a hobby. A love.”
While she’s done several comedic roles, there’s little comedy in “The Farewell.” The film premiered at Sundance to rave reviews and generated a bidding war, which A24 won; it arrives theatrically on July 12. The movie opens with Billi walking through New York City on the phone with her Nai Nai in China: a routine catch-up call for the pair. Billi soon learns from her parents that her grandmother is in fact terminally ill, but the family has decided it best not to tell her — so a rushed family wedding of a cousin is staged as a guise to allow the relatives to say goodbye to a grandmother who doesn’t know she is dying.
The story is inspired by the real-life experience of director Lulu Wang, who turned her own family story into a script for her second feature, one that was initially doubted as “too Chinese” for American audiences but too common a practice in China for Chinese audiences to understand why a movie was being made about it (luckily, Wang’s story found its way to the right producers).
When Awkwafina was four, her mother died, and she was raised primarily by her grandmother in Queens. She says it was initially the relationship in the film between granddaughter and grandmother that spoke to her.
“She’s literally my best friend. She’s the person that I call for advice, boys, all that stuff. Everything,” she says of her grandma.
Her manager, who knew her family history, sent her an e-mail offering no specifics about the project but just the encouragement to read the script.
“I opened it, the title page was ‘Nai Nai,’ which is the Chinese word for ‘grandma,’ and I was like, ‘If this is what I think it is, this is crazy,’” she says. “I’m at an age right now where my grandma is getting older. And I’ve always worried about losing her and what I would do.”
She then looked up Wang, learned that the project would be directed and written by an Asian American woman, and realized how very badly she wanted to do it. Cue the self-doubt.
“I went into this experience really about ‘Oh, my Chinese isn’t going to be good, I’m not going to be able to cry on command, I’m going to be bad at drama,’” she says. “And it wasn’t until I really got there, in the room with the other actors who were realizing the heaviness of the subject material, that [I realized] all of that is bulls–t. It didn’t matter that I was being neurotic about that. It’s really being in the moment. And also, there was a kind of a really vulnerable rawness that was pulled out of me because of my relatability to this subject matter.”
It is, notedly, a very big departure for the performer who is known for her comedic prowess.
“I definitely was not looking for drama,” Awkwafina admits. “I wasn’t like, ‘You know what, I’m feeling drama today.’ This story is real to me and I think that I have always wanted a situation where I could take stuff that I could really relate to onto like another thing. And I felt like this was a story that I needed to tell. It just was that.”
“The Farewell” is just one of a string of projects for her, though. She was at Sundance this year with “Paradise Hills,” with Emma Roberts and Danielle Macdonald. She’s in the upcoming “Jumanji” sequel, out in December; is filming Tate Taylor’s “Breaking News in Yuba County” alongside Allison Janney, Mila Kunis, Regina Hall and Ellen Barkin; has been cast in the screen version of Broadway’s “The Prom,” with Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman, and was just revealed as having signed on for the live action “The Little Mermaid” film, as Scuttle.
If it all sounds like the result of some grand career scheme, that couldn’t be farther from the truth.
“Honestly, the thing with this industry is that the only planning you can do really is kind of moral planning, you know? Moral planning to set yourself up for either failure or success, and how to deal with that,” she says. “I think that as my career progresses, I do have a say in what I do with my platform. And so in my future I hope that I can help people. I hope that Awkwafina can continue to do what she does. And if not, I’d be very grateful for the time I had.”
For Awkwafina, being an A-list actress means writing the rules on her own terms. It means taking a swig of tequila on the Oscars red carpet (YouTube it), getting invited to the Met Ball a year after starring in a Met Ball heist film, and, certainly, it means carving out a path for Asian American women to do comedy, do drama, host SNL, rap.
And it also means pounding a meatball in the midst of an interview if she damn well pleases.
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