Warning: Mild spoilers for The Farewell are ahead.
After the praise and success of Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean’s 8 last year, Awkwafina quickly became a rising star in Hollywood. Her stardom continues to blossom with her new film, which that finds the actress to trying on a much more dramatic role: The Farewell, written and directed by Lulu Wang (her sophomore feature!), tells the story of a Chinese family who decides not to tell their grandmother that she has Stage 4 lung cancer.
The plot is, drawn from Wang’s personal experiences, follows Awkwafina's Billi as she struggles to understand with the differences between American and Chinese cultures. And while Awkwafina is certainly the biggest star in this film, audiences will surely leave the theater discussing Wang’s emotional storytelling and, of course, what happens to the real grandmother The Farewell, Nai Nai.
Wang has spoken about the life of her real grandmother, also named Nai Nai, first sharing her experience of her family not telling Nai Nai she was diagnosed with cancer in an episode of Ira Glass' This American Life podcast in 2016. The family originally learned of the diagnosis in 2013 and decided not to tell Nai Nai, then 80 years old, because they thought it would not help the situation. In an interview with the New York Times, Wang said the family still didn’t tell Nai Nai about her cancer, even after the This American Life episode was released.
“Nai Nai had already outlived her three-month prognosis, so my dad was like, ‘See, we did the right thing!’” Wang said. She also told NYT that her family was not concerned about Nai Nai hearing about her diagnosis due to the popularity of the podcast because it was a “very American show.”
In 2016, Wang gave an update on her grandmother at the end of the podcast saying, “It’s been three years now since Nai Nai was first diagnosed. Little Nai Nai is certain her big sister is still alive because of her decision to lie to her, because we gave Nai Nai joy instead of worry.”
Later, when development of The Farewell began, Nai Nai wasn’t aware that Wang was pitching a film about her. Even so, when The Farewell was filmed in 2018, the crew shot in Nai Nai’s house and her hometown of Changchun in China. Wang said in her NYT interview that the crew didn’t speak about the entire premise of the movie when Nai Nai was around. “She thought that the movie was loosely based on our family, with everybody coming back to China for a wedding,” Wang said. “There are cultural differences, and hilarity ensues.” Despite the film’s praise at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and its theater release, the NYT reported in its profile of Wang published on July 5, 2019 that Nai Nai has not seen the film and still doesn’t know what it is about.
So there you have it, your update on the sweet, darling grandma from The Farewell: She's doing just fine, and her family would very much like to keep it that way.