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Awkwafina’s unusual journey to the big screen took her from trumpet-playing teen to viral rap sensation and finally to comedy breakout in Ocean’s Eight and Crazy Rich Asians. She sat down with The Hollywood Reporter to talk about her path to stardom for THR‘s Next Gen cover, but not all of the colorful stories from the 29-year-old’s journey made it onto the page.
Here are five other stories from the born-and-raised New Yorker:
1. Her love for Lucy Liu runs deep.
Awkwafina mentioned in her Saturday Night Live monologue that she had, 18 years earlier, stood outside of the building when Lucy Liu hosted the show. “To see an Asian American on there, even back in 2000 was so moving,” says Awkwafina, who is of Chinese and Korean descent and was raised in New York. Awkwafina, who is only the second Asian-American woman to ever host the show (following Liu), says that when Liu hosted it was “the most exciting thing for me ever. I was obsessed with Charlie’s Angels. It was like the best movie of my life. I love Lucy Liu.”
Liu went to Stuyvesant High School in New York, and was from an area very close to where Akwafina grew up. “I was obsessed,” adds Awkwafina, who has not yet met Liu in person. “So it wasn’t until I found out she was hosting that, I was so happy — it was pure joy.”
2. She found the trumpet on her own.
Awkwafina (who was born Nora Lum) decided to join band class in junior high. She was hoping to play the drums, but it turned out all the spots for drums were taken. “My relationship with the trumpet was really the start of things, a way that, like, I could command my own destiny,” she says, adding that her dad (her mom died when Awkwafina was 4 years old) never tried to push her into an instrument. “The trumpet was extremely a self-guided journey for me and one that tested my creative abilities, that tested my discipline.”
She auditioned for famed arts magnet school LaGuardia High. “All these trumpet players were going in before me and they were playing classical ballads. I went in and played a Beatles song, ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand,’ and I remember thinking, ‘There is no way I’m going to make it in this school by playing a Beatles song.'” She did get in (she has a tattoo of a trumpet on her arm), and discovered her interest in producing music while she was attending school.
3. Her college education came in handy later.
Awkwafina studied journalism and women’s studies at SUNY Albany, although she knew journalism would probably not be a fit for her future career. “I knew I didn’t have the correct passion for it, but I loved writing and I loved like learning about new stuff,” she says. But she believes her college education helps in her career even today. “It really did come in handy later, especially learning about women’s studies,” she says. “It was kind of an intersectional study of different things that I would later really need to know when it came to representing your Asian community and being an Asian-American woman in this industry. It was a gift.”
4. She first found her humor through tragedy.
Awkwafina, who was raised by her father and paternal grandmother after her mother died, says that event shaped her in many ways. “I’m convinced that when my mom died, that really taught me [to use] embarrassment and humor as a way to fend off crying — other people, adults crying,” she says. Being an only child meant she often felt “super lonely growing up,” she adds. “But I used to bring people into my house and say that there was a hole in my closet that would lead to, like, another world. It just made stupid things like that seem a lot more viable. I think it really did allow you to become crazily creative in your own room, like, freaking out your friends.”
5. Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean’s 8 changed her outlook.
The back-to-back studio films brought about one major change for Awkwafina: her confidence. “With a lot of my earlier stuff, and even when I was doing music, I had a sense of imposter syndrome, just that, ‘I don’t know how I got here, I hope that I can back it up,'” says the actress, who previously starred in the indie Dude and hosts the internet talk show The Tawk.
“What I learned now, I’ve talked to people big and small in their careers that say, ‘I to this day feel that, and I think that it’s better to feel out of place and to question and to feel just a little bit insecure than feel oversecure on a set, especially when you are new. You want to feel a little insecure,” she says. “In the beginning that definitely happened to me and it took me a long time to really tell myself, ‘You’re here but you deserve to be here. You’re here for a reason.'”
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