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While Awkwafina is certainly no stranger to franchise movies, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings provided the New York-born multi-hyphenate with the rare opportunity to lead a chemistry read. And it wasn’t just any chemistry read as the proceeding would ultimately cast the star of Marvel Studios’ first Asian-led superhero movie. Director Destin Daniel Cretton and his collaborators knew early on that Shaun/Shang-Chi’s (Simu Liu) best friend, Katy, would serve as Shaun’s gateway into Asian American culture, and Awkwafina immediately came to mind for the role. As the first official cast member, Awkwafina eventually read with numerous actors who were vying for the life-changing and historic role.
“All I knew on that day was that I was a part of finding Shang-Chi. So I just wanted to do just that,” Awkwafina tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I wanted to come in, do my part, not be distracting and let these actors give probably one of the most important auditions of their lives at that point. So I just wanted to blend in and help them showcase what they could do. But I remember testing with Simu that day, and he was nervous. I was nervous, too. I was like, ‘I hope I don’t get fired in the process of chemistry reading,’ but it was apparent that he was Shang-Chi from the jump.”
At the start of the film, Katy and Shaun work as parking valets for a San Francisco hotel, where they opt to go on a joyride together in someone else’s car. Such behavior seems all too routine for the duo, as does their attendance at a karaoke bar. While Katy is highly educated, she seems to have difficulty committing to a path, at least until she joins Shaun on his globetrotting journey.
“Well, I think it’s a conundrum that a lot of Asian Americans find themselves going through,” Awkwafina explains. “It’s a mixture of, ‘What do I want to do? What am I supposed to be doing? What do my parents want me to be doing? What does the world want me to be doing?’ So I think her conflict is very relatable in that way, but it’s also a lot different than Shaun’s. And I think that she does learn a lot about herself through this journey that he then takes her on, specifically about the world being bigger and that you have to do things for yourself.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Awkwafina also looks back at working with Sir Ben Kingsley and marveling over Shang-Chi‘s impressive action sequences. Then she addresses the status of the Crazy Rich Asians sequel, as well as her upcoming voice role in Disney’s live-action The Little Mermaid.
So Katy is very much the audience surrogate in Shang-Chi as she reacts in the same way we would if we were part of this world. She also asks the questions that we’re wondering as we watch. So did you and Destin talk about Katy in these terms?
Yeah, I think we definitely did. Destin and I talked about Katy and pretty much everything about her: her wants, her flaws, the things she wants to change about her life. That’s what makes for a really strong character. The core of it, though, is really her relationship with Shaun and how she supports him. I think that says a lot about her.
Katy and Shaun are platonic friends of 10 years, and they both have a little bit of Peter Pan syndrome, as neither wants to grow up completely. While Shaun’s childhood more than explains why he’s living this way, why is Katy not making use of her Berkeley education?
Well, I think it’s a conundrum that a lot of Asian Americans find themselves going through. It’s a mixture of, “What do I want to do? What am I supposed to be doing? What do my parents want me to be doing? What does the world want me to be doing?” So I think her conflict is very relatable in that way, but it’s also a lot different than Shaun’s. And I think that she does learn a lot about herself through this journey that he then takes her on, specifically about the world being bigger and that you have to do things for yourself. So there are going to be things about yourself that you’re not going to like or want to change.
Certain members of Katy’s family don’t seem to believe the platonic nature of their friendship, and this reminded me of a scene in When Harry Met Sally… where they debate whether men and women can be friends or not. So where do you weigh in on platonic friendships like Katy and Shaun’s?
I didn’t even know that was a thing. Platonic friendships like theirs are totally doable. I didn’t even know it was a rule that they were impossible. I’ve had tons of friends that are guys, and some of my best friends in real life are guys. So in that way, it was really easy to approach. What might have been harder was approaching it with a love perspective, simply because he’s going through a lot and the last thing he needs is to take on this neurotic girlfriend who knows nothing about moving through this world. So I think it makes perfect sense where they’re at, and even if their relationship were to extend into a romantic one, it would still be rooted in the strength of their friendship.
The bus sequence is incredible for so many reasons, and I particularly loved how it harked back to one of my favorite action films ever made. So was Sandra Bullock’s role in Speed ever on your mind as you were turning that bus wheel?
I mean, yeah! But I don’t think I came close to how epic her performance was in that. Sometimes, I felt like I was really just driving along, but that bus sequence was insane to watch and be a part of. Obviously, I was doing my thing, but every so often while we were shooting, I would look in the mirror and see Florian [Munteanu], Simu or any number of guys doing the most insane things, suspended in the air on a giant gimbal. I’ve said that it was really good acting on my part in that any awe or fear was probably real, because we were really moving and I wasn’t anticipating any of that. So it was a really bonkers and really complicated sequence to shoot, and I have to give it up to them for getting through it.
That scene is a proof of concept for another Speed movie, so hopefully Disney is listening.
(Laughs.) Yes, I’ll just show them that clip.
During casting, all of the chemistry reads revolved around you, which is really cool. What was that experience like for you?
All I knew on that day was that I was a part of finding Shang-Chi. So I just wanted to do just that. I wanted to come in, do my part, not be distracting and let these actors give probably one of the most important auditions of their lives at that point. So I just wanted to blend in and help them showcase what they could do. But I remember testing with Simu that day, and he was nervous. I was nervous, too. I was like, “I hope I don’t get fired in the process of chemistry reading,” but it was apparent that he was Shang-Chi from the jump.
What were your audition scenes?
Oh man, I don’t think I can go into strict detail.
I’ve heard you say that Destin really cares about performance, and I bring this up because actors often tell me that it’s rare for them to get performance direction. Is Destin one of the exceptions in your experience, too?
I think it’s all about context. When you come on to an action movie, especially one at this scale, you don’t often expect to do as much character work as Destin is willing to do at any time. And this is not Destin being like, “OK, we’re going to do character work for 8 hours now.” This is like us having questions, and Destin being like, “You know what? I don’t mind working with you on this right now. We’re going to figure it out and that’s what we’re going to do.” I’ve worked with amazing directors that have done performance directing, sure, but Destin’s whole approach to it, for the context, was very different. He really puts a lot of trust in his actors, but he can also read his actors well. So if we’re in conflict about where we’re going to go or if we don’t feel comfortable to take a chance, he was always really good at reading that in us. He would come up to us and say, “Just do it. If that’s what you want to do, just do it.” So it was special.
While there’s certainly nothing wrong with Katy being a valet, what was your version of that job before things took off for you?
I mean, it depends on your definition. (Laughs.) I worked at an air conditioning company. I worked at a vegan bodega. I worked at a real estate company of a family friend for a day. So I pretty much did everything under the sun. I was a waitress once, and I spilled hot sake on a woman. She was being nice because she was on a date, but as I walked away, she was like, “God, I’ve had such horrible waitresses in New York City.” And I’m still mentally recovering from that.
I’m sorry for unearthing past trauma.
Oh, that’s okay! (Laughs.)
Since karaoke is a thread in this movie, is Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” still your go-to track?
Yeah, but just because I’ve sang it so many times. It’s effortless. I could probably sing it with strep throat at this point, but no one wants to hear that — again. (Laughs.) But I could just sing it at any point, and that’s really the secret to karaoke. If you really want to wow people at karaoke, what you have to do is pick three songs and just practice them until you know them insanely well. And when you go to a birthday party or a karaoke bar, just whip one out like someone randomly asked you to do it and you don’t even know the song. So that’s the trick to karaoke.
So do you already know when you’re playing Katy again?
(Laughs.) Uh, no! I have no idea, but obviously, I think we’d all agree that we’d love to reunite again.
I know you probably get used to this lifestyle after a while, but sitting next to Sir Ben Kingsley on set has got to be surreal.
(Laughs.) Yes, it’s weird in a good but nerve-wracking way. When you’re in a scene with Sir Ben, you’re witnessing true power as an actor. He’s definitely one of my favorite actors, and just to see his comedic timing as Trevor was so amazing to watch. Every time he did his opening bit, I was blown away. So you don’t ever really get used to sitting in a car with Ben Kingsley.
Did the scaffolding sequence involve lots of dangling?
Yes, lots of dangling! (Laughs.) I thought, “When we shoot this, it’ll be on the floor and it’ll just be a couple pieces.” But it was full scaffolding! We were pretty high up, and I did some stunts in that sequence. I fell and did a lot of pole work. I would come in and be like, “Hey guys, I’m going to do some pole work today,” and people stopped finding that funny immediately. But I would literally look up and see the rest of the actors in the scene just killing it up there and going crazy. It’s really insane to know how much was really practical and how much was being done in front of you.
So why have things been so quiet on the Crazy Rich front?
I don’t know! I can only assume that they want to get it right, and that they’re trying everything they can. But we’re all in contact; we just don’t know any specifics.
Have you tracked Scuttle for The Little Mermaid yet?
No, I haven’t. I know that they wrapped recently, which is awesome for them. So I haven’t heard much, but I know that that’s coming, too. So I’m excited to see what they ended up doing.
Do you and Lulu Wang ever trade ideas regarding another project?
We don’t really trade ideas, but I’d love the chance to work with her again. I know that she’s very busy; she’s working on a project right now. But I’m always open to that.
You recently talked about your family group text and how active it is. Do you have a group text with a former cast that you’d rank second?
Yeah, the Ocean’s Eight group text kicks once in a while, but that was once a pretty epic cast group chat.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings premieres exclusively in theaters on Sept. 3rd.
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