On the day I speak to Awkwafina, she’s on the cusp of a movie star moment.
We are approximately T-minus five hours and forty minutes until the Crazy Rich Asians Los Angeles premiere, which marks the performer’s first Hollywood red carpet. It’s a rite of passage for any young starlet about to make a splash, and Awkwafina has been wrapping up the film’s press tour in order to prep — a process that she would document on Twitter, including squeezing into a pair of Spanx underneath her pink silk ball gown worthy of a Disney princess.
The evening is the biggest night for Asian Americans in Hollywood in nearly 25 years, and all day director Jon Chu has been sending pictures of crews shutting down Hollywood Boulevard in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater. At the moment Awkwafina is eating lunch, enjoying a rare break between back-to-back interviews. Even through the munches (which she very politely apologizes for, but hey, a girl’s gotta eat) you can tell—she is psyched. “It’s such a proud moment,” the 29-year-old tells Refinery29. “Everyone knew on the cast while we were filming it, and even before, that this was going to be big, bigger than us, bigger than we could ever imagine. And it’s really culminating right now.”
It’s also culminating for her. Five years ago, the rapper and comedian known for her audacious viral YouTube videos was working at a vegan bodega making $9 an hour. Now, she’s the breakout star of two of summer’s biggest blockbusters. In an earlier pinch-me moment in June, she stood alongside Rihanna, Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett at the New York City premiere of Ocean’s 8. She’s a scene-stealer in Crazy Rich Asians, in which she co-stars with an all-star cast that includes Fresh Off The Boat’s Constance Wu, stand-up comedian Ken Jeong, and martial arts movie legend Michelle Yeoh. And with three more films on the horizon in 2019, it’s safe to say hers is a name to remember.
“I don’t know how I ended up here,” she told me. “Imagine if you were just regular, walking around, and then all of a sudden you step into a black hole and it’s like this fantasy alternate universe. There’s that initial shock of ‘Okay, I’ve crossed planes into another dimension,’ and ‘This is so weird.’Then you see a unicorn taking a shit, and everything else that happens in that world is easier to understand.” (She has a habit of laughing at her own jokes, an endearing gesture that also radiates confidence. She knows she’s funny.)
As the first Hollywood movie to feature an Asian-American lead in 24 years, as well as an all-Asian ensemble cast, Crazy Rich Asians has a lot riding on it. According to a recent study by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, only 4.8% of speaking characters featured in the 100 top grossing movies from 2007 to 2017 were Asian or Asian-American. That’s a heavy burden for a sumptuous romantic comedy to bear, but luckily, the film is up to the challenge. The review embargo would lift the next day, propelling Crazy Rich Asians into the rarified stratosphere of films holding a critical rating of 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. [It has since gone down to 98%.]
When co-star Henry Golding was told Awkafina had been cast as Peik Lin, he was overjoyed. “I had seen her videos on YouTube,” he told Refinery29. “I was like ‘Oh my God, I can’t wait to meet her!’”
But when he came to introduce himself at the start of shooting, she was confused. “In my experience, the lead would never come to your hotel room and say ‘Hi,’ so I thought he was the [assistant director],” she jokes. The two may not have much of a relationship onscreen, where Henry plays Nick Young, love interest to Constance Wu's Rachel Chu, but as they interact in a group interview at the Refinery29 office, one can see the qualities that made Awkwafina an obvious choice for the role. Awkwafina speaks the truth, even when it’s hard to hear — but she’s always down for a laugh.
Her character, native Singaporean Peik Lin, acts as a friendly face helping her former Stanford roommate Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) navigate the world of insane wealth in which she suddenly finds herself. With her short blonde pixie cut, and closet full of patterned silk couture pajamas, she’s the comic relief, a woman who both comfortably inhabits this universe (she carries spare cocktail attire in the trunk of her matte pink Audi sports car) , but also recognizes how absurd it can all appear. Her performance is spot-on, striking the right balance between sincerity in her friendship with Rachel, and madcap bourgeois parody.
In many ways, Peik Lin’s position in the Crazy Rich Asians milieu mirrors Awkwafina’s own (“I’m not an Astrid [Gemma Chan’s statuesque and chic character], I’ll tell you that. I couldn’t conform to that body type, couldn’t fit into the wardrobe. I tested.”) As a former YouTube star with one foot in the real world, and the other inching towards the center of the Hollywood bubble, Awkwafina (nee Nora Lum) is on the brink of mainstream fame — and yet, she’s also enough of an outsider to have some perspective.
The summer of Awkwafina started off way before the humidity set in, in the spring — 4/20, to be exact— when a low-key film about teen female stoners slid into our Netflix queues without much fanfare. Directed by Olivia Milch, Dude cast her alongside Pretty Little Liars star Lucy Hale, X-Men’s Alexandra Shipp, and Skins’ Kathryn Prescott. Awkwafina steals every scene she’s in.
That’s since become a given. Dude director Milch went on to co-write the script for Ocean’s 8 with veteran director Garry Ross, who saw Awkwafina in Dude and cast her on the spot, no audition needed. Her role as a pickpocket who joins Debbie Ocean’s (Sandra Bullock’s) all-woman heist crew gained her national attention, surrounded by a staggering array of A-list women. But it’s her role in Crazy Rich Asians that has really thrown her into the spotlight.
Fame wasn’t something Lum ever really aspired to. Born in Queens, NY (where she still lives) she was raised by her first-generation Chinese-American father and her paternal grandmother. (Lum’s mother, a South Korean immigrant, died when she was 4.)
She started playing the trumpet at the age of 11, her first introduction to music, which would lead her to attend Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School, the New York City performing arts school that boasts Timothée Chalamet, Ansel Elgort, Nicki Minaj, and Azealia Banks among its former students. It was there, at the age of 15, that Lum created the brash, raspy-voiced Awkwafina persona, as a way of coping with her natural shyness. (On a recent edition of Jimmy Kimmel’s “Mean Tweets,” someone described her cadence as “the voice of a 58-year-old divorce attorney,” to which she responded: “Bitch, I know!”)
Still, performance — musically or otherwise — didn’t seem like a viable pursuit until college. In a 2014 interview, she described her father’s dogged encouragement to go after stable jobs like sonogram technician, meat inspector, or air traffic controller: “My dad was like, ‘You gotta do this, man. These are the hot jobs of the millennium.’”
But at the University of Albany, Lum majored in women’s studies and journalism, a pursuit that helps her navigate the press more easily today. It was there that she started to think of music as a hobby and a passion, rather than an educational obligation.
And then in 2012, Awkwafina had her first hit, 2012’s viral YouTube anthem, “My Vag,” which launched her into this trajectory. “She’s the person that didn’t grow up,” Lum said of her alter-ego. “She’s the person in high school, when you have a sleepover with your best friends, and crazily running around, jumping off beds. And Nora is the person who outgrew that a long time ago, and had to deal with all the neuroses of adulthood, and the social cues, and being paranoid and nervous and financially responsible, and scared about being crazy, scared about the aftermath of saying stuff. So, in many ways, Awkwafina induces the panic attacks, and Nora kind of takes them.”
Case in point: The success of “My Vag,” which she produced in response to Mickey Avalon’s song “My Dick,” got her fired from her corporate publicity office job, after her boss made the connection between her assistant and the raunchy female rapper.
This was a turning point for Lum, and for Awkwafina. “I had to go everywhere. I went to all the Rite Aids in Greenpoint. Duane Reades. I went everywhere [to find a job],” Awkwafina told Buzzfeed about the incident. “Because if I couldn’t find a job, guess what? I’d have to go back home.”
She found a job at a vegan bodega, a time in her life elegized in her YouTube follow-up, “NYC Bitche$.” After a failed meeting with an A&R record executive, she almost gave up. But Awkwafina’s a hustler, and so is Lum.
“Awkwafina wasn’t supposed to exist, but somehow she does,” she recently wrote in a heartfelt note on Twitter. “And I think about it every day, that she was born for one reason only — to show every person out there, that it is possible.”
Since then, she’s collaborated with her childhood idol Margaret Cho, released two albums — 2014’s Yellow Ranger and In Fina We Trust, which came out this past June — and embarked on a film career. Her feature debut was as sorority sister Christine in Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising in 2016. She hosted her own talk show, TAWK, on Verizon Go90, and hosted a series called Ballin’ On A Budget for Refinery29. On the heels of Ocean’s 8 and Crazy Rich Asians, she’s got a role in sci-fi thriller Paradise Hills, opposite Emma Roberts and Milla Jovovich, and will voice a character in the 2019 Angry Birds sequel.
She’s also making the leap into more dramatic fare. She just got back from Changchun, China where she was shooting What You Don’t Know, written and directed by Lulu Wang, based on the director’s own This American Life episode about her family concealing her grandmother’s stage IV lung cancer diagnosis from her.
It’s Lum’s first lead role, and one that hits close to home. “The universe kind of rained it on down,” she said, momentarily trading her comedic timing for quiet sincerity. “I went to China — I hadn’t been there since I was 19 — and I just remember thinking: ‘I want my grandma to see this movie,’ and it’s the same thought I had with Crazy Rich Asians. I’ve done mostly comedy — I had never cried as an actress. I literally didn’t think I was capable of crying.”
For the record, she can. She even has a helpful tip for those who’d like to try: “I kind of compare crying in scenes to keeping up a boner — sorry to bring it there. You have a boner, you cry, but you can’t force it back. There comes a window, where ‘No, it’s gone, I can’t do it anymore.’” For Lum, sadness and comedy go hand in hand.
With all that going on, could she ever see herself outgrowing the persona that made her famous in the first place? “I need Awkwafina, as an imaginary construct,” she said. “I need her when I perform, I need her when I start a scene. She comes in, and in many ways, she represents that universal aspect of confidence — that voice you kind of reach into when you need to pick yourself up.”
Just as important is her New York upbringing. “I’ve been living in the same apartment that I’ve always lived in, since when I was working at a vegan bodega,” she said. “And it’s a horrible apartment, with silver fish that I’m sure crawled into my mouth at some point.”
Part of that frugality comes from her childhood, she explained. (“I think that my grandma always pounded that Asian grandma mentality into me.”) But it’s also a response to realizing that she’s been lucky — and a fear that if she’s not vigilant, that luck might someday run out.
Still, her recent success has come with a previously unthinkable level of financial security, and Lum has reluctantly taken the plunge and bought a place in Los Angeles, where she can more easily pursue her chosen career. It’s a decision she’s still struggling with. “It’s really scary, but it’s something I need to prove to myself that if you’re out there doing all that, you deserve to come home to something that you’re proud of and you’re happy for,” she said.
“My career right now is a complete privilege,” she said. It’s something she’s talked a lot about with Crazy Rich Asians co-star Constance Wu, who became a household name after being cast in ABC’s Fresh Off The Boat.
“I don’t expect anything to be handed to me. I don’t ever expect people to kiss my ass. I don’t expect to treat people disrespectfully, because I know how that feels, and how that works. I think it kind of surprises people how low of a standard I have for everything from style to makeup. It’s just like ‘Put it on me and I’m good.’” Her stylist (another new addition to the Nora lifestyle) loves her, she jokes. “It’s literally taking a homeless person from the street, and giving them a massive makeover. That’s what I am, and I like it that way.”
Her family has been supportive — maybe even too much so. “I told my grandma recently that I was moving to L.A. and I expected her to be like sad or angry, and she was really happy for me,” she said. “And I was like ‘Okay, bitch. Be a little more sad, dude!’”
But amid the frenzy, she’s also had to learn carve out a space for herself to be Nora, sans Awkwafina. “You become more wary about fake people that you surround yourself with,” she said. “It’s an imperative need for me to completely be Nora, and that’s it. My family does that for me, but I need my friend group, and my significant other, to understand that part of my life, and I need to be able to come home and turn it off.”
To unwind, she very relatably binge-watches shows, and has been getting into Dark,The Staircase and Orange Is The New Black. But Forensic Files is her one true love. “I loooooooove Forensic Files. I can recall every detail: ‘It was a Newport cigarette that was left at the scene in the woods! It has the DNA in it!’”
That keen sense of justice translates into the kind of roles she wants as an actress. Before she reads a script, she’ll reportedly do a search for how many lines her character has. Less than 15, and she’ll pass.
It’s a huge progression from someone like Sandra Oh, who became the first woman of Asian descent to be nominated for an Emmy in the Best Actress category, for her work on Killing Eve. In an interview with Vulture’s E. Alex Jung earlier this year, the actress described being confused about which part she was being offered when she first read the script, because she had been so conditioned to look for stereotyped Asian parts in the background.
“Oh my god! Oh my god,” Lum exclaims when I tell her this. “That makes me want to cry right now. That just gave me the chills. Holy shit.”
Still, she’s not naive. She knows there’s a long way to go. But she is optimistic. She’s noticed that she’s getting fewer auditions in which she’s asked to do accents, or to portray flat, often offensive, Asian stereotypes.
“Why can’t we have a culture where I have the right to say, ‘This is a stupid Asian stereotype, it’s not written by an Asian person, and it sounds dumb. Why would you do this?’” she says. “People should be scared to do things like that. Actors should be scared to take whitewashed roles.That’s how it should have always been.”
Ultimately, Lum wants her story to matter. She feels a responsibility to use her newfound position to help better the lives of the Asian-American performers that come after her, just as she has learned from Cho, Oh, and the entire Crazy Rich Asians cast, whom she refers to as “family.”
“Which in itself is such an Asian-American story,” she points out. “That’s literally why we all become doctors. Our parents wanted it to be different for us. And so, we owe them. I want to make sure that I uphold that responsibility, to my dying breath.”