“I really didn’t think much would happen with my life,” says actress/singer-songwriter Nora Lum — better known as Awkwafina — as we sit down at the offices of The Hollywood Reporter to record an episode of THR‘s Awards Chatter podcast. “So, given that, to know that I don’t have to live under my dad’s roof and live off of him, that’s really cool.”
Indeed, it has been a life-changing 18 months for the 30-year-old, who catapulted to international stardom with her hilarious contributions to two unconventional blockbusters released during the summer of 2018, Gary Ross‘ all-female Ocean’s 8 and Jon M. Chu‘s all-Asian Crazy Rich Asians, and who subsequently garnered outstanding notices for her first-ever dramatic turn in Lulu Wang‘s Sundance sensation turned art house breakout The Farewell, a July 2019 release which still possesses the year’s highest per-theater average gross.
For her performance in The Farewell, Awkwafina has already been nominated for a best actress Gotham Award. Could an Academy Award nomination be next?
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LISTEN: You can hear the entire interview below.
Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Lorne Michaels, Barbra Streisand, George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, Jennifer Lawrence, Eddie Murphy, Gal Gadot, Warren Beatty, Angelina Jolie, Snoop Dogg, Jessica Chastain, Stephen Colbert, Reese Witherspoon, Aaron Sorkin, Margot Robbie, Ryan Reynolds, Nicole Kidman, Denzel Washington, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Matthew McConaughey, Kate Winslet, Jimmy Kimmel, Natalie Portman, Chadwick Boseman, Jennifer Lopez, Ricky Gervais, Judi Dench, Quincy Jones, Jane Fonda, Tom Hanks, Amy Schumer, Justin Timberlake, Elisabeth Moss, RuPaul, Rachel Brosnahan, Jimmy Fallon, Kris Jenner, Michael Moore, Emilia Clarke, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Helen Mirren, Tyler Perry, Sally Field, Spike Lee, Lady Gaga, J.J. Abrams, Emma Stone, Ryan Murphy, Julia Roberts, Jerry Seinfeld, Dolly Parton, Will Smith, Taraji P. Henson, Sacha Baron Cohen, Carol Burnett and Norman Lear.
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Born in Long Island to a Chinese-born painter mother and IT specialist father, Awkwafina was only 4 when she lost the former to cancer. “Out of that, I think, came this kind of need for people to be happy, to feel joy,” she says. “I wanted to keep things light.” She subsequently moved in with her paternal grandmother, who raised her in Queens, where she dreamed of one day being on TV like her hero, the comedienne Margaret Cho. She notes, “People underestimate how strong pop culture is in how we’re raised in this country, especially children of immigrants, you know? We consume the music, we consume the TV, the films — it’s how we put together the American experience, it’s how we build one that mirrors our own.”
Awkwafina, a trumpet player, was accepted to the prestigious Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts (the one from Fame), but it was outside of the classroom that she discovered her real music-related passion: rap. “I loved producing beats,” she says, and began doing so under the pseudonym by which she now goes. It was later, while she was a 19-year-old student at the University at Albany, SUNY, that Awkwafina wrote the parody song “My Vag” — a play on the popular tune “My Dick” — that would change her life some five years later when, on her 24th birthday, she posted it to YouTube and it began to go viral. She was immediately fired from her job as a music industry publicist, which was upsetting — but she was also then able to focus more on making music. She asserts, “To this day, it was the biggest decision of my life, pressing the ‘publish’ button.”
Gradual changes followed. “I was working at this deli,” she recalls, “and there were a couple of weird occasions where someone would come in and be like, ‘Are you Awkwafina?’ And I would be like, ‘Yeah, yeah.’ And then they would leave. So it felt like something was happening.” Then, in 2014, she was offered and accepted a job hosting a web series, Tawk, and also as a correspondent on MTV’s Girl Code, a show about stand-up comedians. And then, in quick succession, Hollywood came calling. Seth Rogen and Nick Stoller had seen “My Vag,” loved it and cast her in a small part in Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, which was released in May 2016; and Olivia Milch, who had discovered the video while in college, cast her in the Netflix film Dude, which would not come out until April 2018.
Long before Dude was released, Milch was hired to co-write Ocean’s 8 with Gary Ross, to whom she showed a cut of it. He immediately responded to Awkwafina and invited her to join the otherwise all-star cast he had assembled for Ocean’s 8 — Oscar winners Cate Blanchett, Sandra Bullock and Anne Hathaway; Oscar nominee Helena Bonham Carter; Emmy winner Sarah Paulson; Emmy nominee Mindy Kaling; and Grammy winner Rihanna — prompting, Awkwafina recalls, “a lot of Reddits” asking, “Who the hell is Awkwafina?” But she more than held her own during the making of the film, which included one day that was particularly memorable for her: “I realized that we were shooting outside of my old office that I got fired from. I’ll never forget that night. … I don’t think I ever got closure from losing that job. I felt like a real failure.”
Before Ocean’s 8 was even in production, but after Awkwafina had been announced as one of its stars, Crazy Rich Asians was being put together by director Jon M. Chu, who was committed to making it the first contemporary-set Hollywood studio film in 25 years with an all-Asian principal cast, and he asked her to audition for the key supporting role of Goh Peik Lin. Awkwafina was cast and, when she got to set, donned a wig and pajamas and began improvising with Ken Jeong, provided the film with its biggest laughs. The cultural significance of the project, though, was no joke to her. “I was moved to tears,” she says of the first time she was shown footage of it. “It was so powerful, just the images of us, and also what that meant.”
Awkwafina had just finished shooting Ocean’s 8, but hadn’t yet started to shoot Crazy Rich Asians, when she was sent Wang’s script for The Farewell, an autobiographical film about a family withholding key information from its Chinese matriarch. “It was very powerful stuff,” she says. It was a script that I was absolutely glued to, and I cried.” Then she listened to Wang tell the story in her own words on NPR’s This American Life, and realized how much she and Wang shared in common — both are Americans of Chinese descent (Wang was born in Beijing but moved to the U.S. at a young age), both had unusually close relationships as kids with their grandmothers and both came to feel caught between two worlds, never entirely accepted as American in America or as Chinese in China. “I related to this character on a really deep level,” the actress continues. “I was sure of that. I could see where her pain was, because I felt it, and I could see how she feels she’s stuck, because it’s something I’ve felt so many times in my life, you know?”
Awkwafina recognized that there would be a number of “hurdles” between her and the part, not least that it called for dramatic acting, which she had no experience doing, and speaking Mandarin, which she did not know. But she auditioned for the part, fought for it, got it and gave her most impressive performance to date in it.
Work, including The Farewell, had kept Awkwafina away from the U.S. in 2018 when her films began hitting in quick succession — Dude in April, Ocean’s 8 in June and Crazy Rich Asians in August — so she didn’t have an “a-ha” moment when she realized she was now famous. And, she cracks, “What is different? I still hate myself every day. I get up and I’m just like, ‘What are you?!'” More seriously, Awkwafina adds, “It wasn’t until non-Asian people” started recognizing her that she began to realize that some things had changed, if not all: “I’m still like the same bummy person that just kind of, like, slouches around.”
Awkwafina was at the opening night of the Sundance Film Festival in January when The Farewell premiered to massive acclaim, and being there meant a lot to her because, back during in high school, she had worked in a video store and knew exactly what it meant for a movie to be accepted to Sundance. She has since been busy working on a “relatively autobiographical” Comedy Central show (“There’s an episode about queefs,” she volunteers) and thinking about the highly anticipated Crazy Rich Asians sequel (“Goh Peik Lin needs a man — I’m open to anyone”). But she is touched by the response to her work in The Farewell. Asked how she would like her name to appear on an Oscar ballot — as Nora Lum or Awkwafina — should the buzz pan out, she muses, “Probably Awkwafina.”