Awkwafina has built a reputation as one of the funniest women in Hollywood. As the breakout performer in Ocean’s 8 and Crazy Rich Asians, her trademark raspy-voiced deadpans and fast-paced quips have made her a household name. But oddly enough, Awkwafina’s — whose real name is Nora Lum — most star-making role might just be that of Chinese-born, U.S.-raised Billi in Lulu Wang’s indie family drama The Farewell.
Based on the true story of Wang’s own family, which the director first shared during a now-famous episode of This American Life, The Farewell follows Billi’s journey to come to terms with her family’s decision to conceal a terminal cancer diagnosis from her grandmother. Under the guise of a nephew’s wedding, the entire clan comes together in Nai Nai’s (Shuzhen Zhou)’s hometown of Changchun, China in order to see her one last time, and say goodbye.
It’s a plot that hit home for the Queens-born actress and comedian, whose own grandmother played a large part in her upbringing in the aftermath of her mother’s death when she was only 4 years old. But there were barriers: the role is a dramatic one, and she’d never cried on camera before. She also was extremely self-conscious of acting in Mandarin, a language she wasn’t fluent in, and returning to China, a country she hadn’t visited since she was 19.
When I profiled Lum for Refinery29 last August, she had just returned from filming and was anxious about how her first foray into drama might be perceived. She shouldn’t have worried. The Farewell has won rave reviews since it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, with special attention given to her understated, quietly devastating performance.
Ahead, she tells Refinery29 about why she relates so intensely to this role, and what her own grandmother said when she first saw the film.
Refinery29: When we spoke last year, you said being in this film was a really personal experience for you. How so?
Awkwafina: It really all comes from my relationship with my grandma. I was raised by her from the time my mum passed away. When I saw the script, I cried. I never thought I'd see a movie like it, one that was very personal to me. I didn't know how many people would even see it. It got to another level in China. Then there's a whole other personal journey that's like, Am I Asian enough? Am I American enough? That was a very important emotion to carry though the movie. I got really close with Lulu [Wang]’s family. I love her grandma. I was very concerned with shallow things like crying, my Chinese, my drama acting. But all that stuff goes out the window when you're there and you're feeling it.
Have you been surprised by the visceral reaction the film has been getting?
With Crazy Rich Asians, people come out, and it's a celebratory movie. It's filled with joy. People are still tearing up. It's a bittersweet emotion. With this one, I've had people come to me and they're trembling, holding back tears, sobbing. They just buried their grandma last year, this summer. Then you have people that are a little bit older, and they're crying because they did that and they have no one to talk to about it. I think it's very much also people [who] live far away from your grandma.
Oh, I have such anxiety about that.
The core of it is everyone has a grandma. Everyone has maybe a distant cousin, and everyone remembers something from their childhood that they feel was stolen from them, that now as an adult doesn't exist anymore. A nostalgia for place and time. I think this is what that movie evokes. It's very powerful.
I had this thought during the movie that the death of your grandparents is very much like the death of your childhood, because they're so linked in your memory. Or at least for me.
Oh my god, that's true as hell. But because it does punctuate a part of your adult age. You lose your grandparents, and then you lose your parents, and then you die.
It's interesting you bring up Crazy Rich Asians, because in some ways, The Farewell is a different way of telling a similar story about searching for one’s identity.
There are always themes that you're going to see in anything you do. That's not just a stereotype because this is a part of our experience. We're always going to feel like outsiders, because we're Asian-American. And we're always going to feel distant from our families, but we're always going to feel very connected to them, even though they're far away. So, all of that will always exist.
You’ve said that you were nervous about acting in Mandarin. There’s a running theme in the movie that your character’s Mandarin isn’t that good, and that’s part of her own identity struggle. Was that something you related to from the beginning?
Billi wasn't originally supposed to be bad at Chinese. She was supposed to be great, because Lulu's really good at it. Her accent is impeccable. I had to change that. But I think it was a change for the better, because a lot of Asian-Americans, they only learned Chinese from being yelled at throughout their childhood. They can't express it as much.
I was super nervous. I didn't grow up speaking it either, so that was another thing about my identity. I felt guilty that I didn't grow up speaking it. I wanted my grandma to understand me in another language when she saw it. Yeah. I wanted to show her like, See grandma? I can do it.
Was she proud?
She was like, "Your Chinese isn't that bad." And I was like, That's the best compliment you've ever given me in my entire life.
When we last spoke to you, you had just gotten back from shooting. You hadn't been back to China since you were a teenager. What was it like to go back?
It was crazy. I always thought that maybe I would spend some more time there but I never got the chance. And so to go back to film a movie is really cool. But there's always a very personal journey when you go back. It's where you're from. So it's experiencing that, dealing with the loss of a family, and then feeling like it's just a different place.
Do you feel like you understand your own family better after having worked on this movie?
I think I understand the older generations a little bit more. I was watching it with my aunt who's from El Salvador and my grandma. I was in between them. And my aunt was like, ‘They don't do this, that's crazy. They really do this?’ My grandma was like, ‘Duh, like where have you been? Of course they do this.’ My grandma was very used to that [kind of thinking]. And I never understood it until I shot that scene with Billi’s uncle and dad, where he's breaking it down. It wasn't really until my uncle was breaking down in that scene that I was like, Oh, okay. I get it why you all are doing this.
In the beginning of the movie, Billi is horrified by what her family’s planning. Did you share her ambivalence?
One hundred percent. I think that I'm still ... I don't really know which camp I'm in now. I can say now I understand each perspective. I understand the events of each culture that lead to that perspective. But I don't know what I would do. And even when I was saying to my grandma, Oh grandma, you act like you know this so much, and do you want us to do that to you too?, she was like, ‘You better not!’ Like, they don't want to do it to themselves, but they practice it.
Everybody knows you as a funny person — and in many ways, this movie is a really dark comedy — but this is a very different kind of role for you. Do you see yourself taking on more dramatic roles in the future?
If the role is right, then of course. It could be any genre. You don't announce that you want to do drama, and then a script offer shows up that's drama. No. It's what's right. The fact that The Farewell was drama, it added a layer of more of a challenge. I had to prove it to myself.
Do you think the Awkwafina persona helped you, or did you have kind of shed her to do this?
I had to use Awkwafina as a persona when I was coming up as kind of a shield of confidence, someone that was able to kind of exude this person that maybe Nora grew out of, or maybe Nora just wasn't anymore. But they're both intrinsically connected. So you can't have Nora without Awkwafina. You can't have the anxiety. So for this, maybe in a way, yes. I did have to shed that. But Awkwafina is very important to what Nora is, and also what she feels like when she goes to China. I had to learn to use that muscle. If I was nervous to slow down to deliver something, I would use that, and it would turn into funny. So, Lulu would say just slow down, don't use that.
And Billi kind of needs a shield of her own, right?
Yeah, she does. The point of Billi was not to be someone that shows up in tears, like I'm so sad. But what I was surprised that I really did relate to as Nora — not just as an actress playing Billi — was the numbness. You don't know what she's thinking. I don't know what the fuck I was thinking, but it goes well with that. It's that numbness that I think that you have to put on when you're dealing with crazy things with your family. You can't be over-excited. You have to be calm to a degree. But there also is a very lingering sadness that is always affecting you in everything that you do.
The moment when Billi says goodbye to her grandma, when she’s about to go back to the U.S., is so brutal. I think it’s a feeling that anyone who lives far from their grandparents can relate to — there’s such anxiety, and guilt about not being there to take care of them.
That shit wrecked me both in the scene and when I watched it. Because there's a part of you that's like, Can I just go back? Can I turn around and just stay with them for a couple more days? What are they going to do? What is the first thing they're going to do when I'm at the airport? Are they going to go back in the kitchen, make some food, put some food out? It's so sad. But also, I'm lucky because so many people didn't grow up with their grandparents.
Your next project is a Comedy Central show that’s loosely based on your own life. Did Lulu Wang give you advice on adapting your experiences for the screen?
The pilot was written before The Farewell, but what I did learn is that the older generations, older Asian people, they don't like talking about their feelings. It makes them uncomfortable. Westerners are used to purging, and that's how we get our emotions out. We confront them; we get closure; we talk about them. But that's not the way that they dealt with that. So, we have to be sensitive to that. There are certain things that I think [about] the way my dad dealt with my mum's death. These were things that I was never thinking about writing about. But I think that they should be in there. It's a little crazy. It's on Comedy Central, so it's not going to be like word for word [my life]. But there is always humour that comes out of sadness and realness.