Awkwafina: ‘Growing up, I latched on to strong Asian-American idols’

Nora Lum is the comic-turned-star of The Farewell. She talks China, family and diversity in the film industry

Nora Lums voice is deep and distinctive a husky New York drawl that rings with both world-weariness and barely constrained mirth. That voice, which Lum who goes by the name of her outlandish rap alter ego Awkwafina, a moniker inspired by her general awkwardness has said makes her sound like a 58-year-old divorce attorney or Satan, is now her calling card.


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It is the connective tissue that runs through her decidedly scattershot career. You can hear it on the 30-year-olds comedy-rap records, in her stint as a talkshow host, during her winningly bonkers turn in Crazy Rich Asians and her poignant performance in this summers US box-office hit The Farewell. Soon, it will be reaching millions more ears thanks to her lead roles in blockbuster Disney property (Raya and the Last Dragon and the live-action The Little Mermaid, if you believe the rumours), the new SpongeBob SquarePants movie, and her autobiographical, eponymous Comedy Central sitcom.

In a nutshell, Lum is just your average Asian trumpet player-turned-rapper-turned-actress as she drolly put it during her Saturday Night Live opening monologue last year. And thats her underplaying the complexity of her trajectory. After an adolescent infatuation with the brass instrument, in 2012 she became a comedy-rap star, winning YouTube fame with her genitalia-based trash-talk track My Vag. She parlayed that profile boost into regular appearances on MTVs comedy commentary show Girl Code and then suddenly a series of scene-stealing roles in Hollywood movies including Oceans Eight and Crazy Rich Asians. Now, she has recast herself once again with an understated and subtly devastating starring role in The Farewell, in which she plays Billi, a disaffected millennial grappling with cultural identity and familial bonds while visiting her dying grandmother in China.

Down the line from LA, where she has been fulfilling contractual obligations at Disney fan expo D23, Lum denies this latest left-turn into drama was deliberate. Rather, the plot of the film resonated strongly with her. The Farewell centres on Billis touching relationship with her grandma; in real life Lums is even closer. When she was four her mother died, and so she was raised by her Chinese paternal grandmother. But she wasnt just a guardian: she was an inspiration, a matriarch and the support system for so many of us. She worked three jobs and taught me that sex has no part in what your worth is.

Yet The Farewell isnt only concerned with intergenerational ties; it is also a fish-out-of-water drama that sees Billi reckoning with her Chinese heritage. Like Crazy Rich Asians, it features a visit to China by an Asian-American protagonist who finds the world they are faced with at once familiar and deeply strange. In her 20s, Lum went on a similar journey. Having spent a good part of my childhood not having a strong identity in terms of that world, she decided to move to China to study the language. But rather than finding herself, the experience left her even more lost.

Honour among thieves… (l-r) Sandra Bullock, Sarah Paulson, Rihanna, Cate Blanchett and Awkwafina in Oceans Eight. Photograph: Allstar/Warner Bros

I was growing up my whole life with people telling me to go back to this place, on the street or whatever, she says. And you go back and you genuinely feel like you dont belong there you dont speak the language and you were never taught it, you feel like a failure in that way. Its ironic.

It wasnt just a self-identified sense of disconnection she felt either; there was tangible hostility. I went with a friend who wasnt Asian but she spoke really good Mandarin, so she would communicate for the both of us and they would get really offended like: Why isnt she talking to us? Even there, she faced race-related prejudice. I remember I went for this job for native English speakers and because I was Asian they didnt let me do it because they wanted a non-Asian person.


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In recent years, pop culture has started to translate the profoundly disorientating experience of second- and third-generation immigrants into comedy and drama with increasing sensitivity and warmth. Yet during her childhood Lum says the depiction of people of Asian descent in film and TV mostly worked to embolden racists. The way that media portrays people is the way that they are then treated in real life, she explains. Anything I grew up being taunted with the accent, the ching-chongs those are generated from characters or the way we are spoken about in standup comedy. Lum, however, saw glimmers of hope. I latched on to strong Asian-American idols Margaret Cho, Lucy Liu that represented us as truly authentic beings. She pauses. Maybe not authentic, but just ourselves.

Money trouble… Awkwafina in Crazy Rich Asians. Photograph: Sanja Bucko/Warner Bros

As perhaps the most visible Asian-American woman in Hollywood in the 2000s, Liu rivalled Lums grandmother in the role-model stakes. Lum is only the second Asian-American woman to host Saturday Night Live Liu was the first and in her monologue she recalled how as a child she waited outside the shows studios in the hope of glimpsing her. After SNL, my dad was laughing about when I literally dragged him with me, because he took me on the subway to go, Lum scoffs. He was like: Yeah, you were very annoying back then. I was obsessed with Lucy Liu, especially after Charlies Angels; that movie changed my life.

Fangirling was an activity that took up much of Lums adolescence. Beyond Liu, she was obsessed with Rent and Thoroughly Modern Millie and random shows on Broadway, and would wait outside theatres for the cast to emerge. She was also a hip-hop fan, particularly De La Soul and People Under the Stairs. Having won a place at renowned performing arts school LaGuardia (alumni include Kelis and Nicki Minaj) off the back of her self-taught trumpet-playing, she began producing beats, adding raps that echoed her comic sensibility something she connects to the early loss of her mother. It was a visceral response to not wanting to be the reason that made people cry; I would rather make them laugh, she says, also citing an ability to look around my world and realise the darkness but also the light.

Since the success of My Vag, Lum has made a series of comedy-rap records, but her segue into acting now her main job seems genuinely accidental. Her first time even thinking about [acting] was when Seth Rogen asked her to audition for Bad Neighbours 2 after seeing her on YouTube. Soon after, she was cast in a film called Dude, written and directed by Olivia Milch, who then went on to write all-female crime caper Oceans Eight. That movie was to be Lums third ever film role. So did she learn to act on set in front of luminaries such as Cate Blanchett, Sandra Bullock and Anne Hathaway? Not exactly, says Lum, who vaguely contests the idea that she was actually acting in those projects. Milch, she says, wrote close to my voice, so I think there was something to be said for almost playing yourself. Even more high-profile roles saw her continue to riff on her own personality. My grandma watched Crazy Rich Asians and was like: So what? Youre not even doing anything! she laughs.

There is certainly an effortlessness to Lums performance in The Farewell, but you couldnt claim shes still muddling through under the guise of her own comic persona. Awkwafinas rise may have been defined by a scattershot, amusingly hustle-based success but, between the breathless plaudits for her most recent role and the ballooning number of big-money movies shes landing, its clear that the career of Nora Lum is about to get serious, in more ways than one.

The Farewell is in cinemas on 20 September

Original Article : HERE ;

This post was curated & Posted using : RealSpecific

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