Awkwafina Is the Moment (Whether She Likes It or Not)
You might recognize Awkwafina from her role as the brash and hilarious Peik Lin in Crazy Rich Asians. Or maybe you heard her unmistakable voice in the animated film Raya and the Last Dragon, where she played Sisu, the titular last dragon. You could have even seen her take on a more dramatic role in director Lulu Wang’s The Farewell, for which she was the first Asian American to win a Golden Globe for best actress in any category. Maybe you’ve watched her Comedy Central sitcom Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens, which is in its second season. Or perhaps you’re a die-hard fan who’s followed her career from the very start when she was rapping viral hits like “My Vag” and “NYC Bitche$.”
No matter how you were introduced to Awkwafina, whose real name is Nora Lum, it’s evident from a quick scan of her résumé that she can cross all genres and art forms. Now, the 33-year-old is ready to take on the action genre—in a big Marvel film no less—with her role in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, which hits theaters on September 3. Like any Marvel movie, there’s a lot of hype, but the stakes seem especially high for this film since it’s the first one in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (the MCU) whose lead is an Asian superhero. Lum plays Katy, who is described as a “hotel valet” and friend of the superhero himself, Shang-Chi (played by Simu Liu). But if you’re looking for more plot clues than that, you’re out of luck. In true Marvel fashion, that’s all we get on her character. We don’t know if she becomes a superhero or if she’s a love interest or even the villain.
Lum is tight-lipped when I start asking questions during our Zoom chat, affirming her apprehension toward giving too much away. “I’m so scared of accidentally just doing that because I know the stakes are high in the MCU with the spoilers,” she says. “I’m not at all prepared for what the fans might have to say.”
While she can’t reveal much about the script or the plot, she did share some details about the initial conversations she had before signing on to the film, which, of course, were shrouded in mystery, too. “There wasn’t a lot of information at that time on it, just that it was a new take on an existing comic book character that definitely has its own history,” she recalls. “That, and the martial arts aspect, was interesting to me. I didn’t really know what I was gonna do. But I met the director, Destin [Daniel Cretton], and I was a really big fan of some of his other movies like Short Term 12. He’s done really heartfelt indies, and I remember just hearing his pitch on what he wanted to do with this movie and this new superhero. And by the end of the meeting, I was like, ‘I absolutely have to do this. It’s so cool.'”
With Shang-Chi, Raya and the Last Dragon, and the upcoming live-action remake of The Little Mermaid (she voices Scuttle in an absolutely genius casting choice) under her belt, Lum seems to be a beloved member of the Disney “family” now. “It’s really cool because of what these movies mean in terms of my own childhood, the significance of The Little Mermaid and reprising a character that I’ve always kind of loved,” she says. “It’s such an honor to work with them. When we were shooting Shang-Chi, I described that whole world as a very utopian film universe—not only in the fact that the food [on set] is great and everything is smooth, but there’s a real family aspect. I think everyone there is a genuine creator. They have childlike instincts that make the Disney movies do so well. It’s a real place for creation.”
Starring in Marvel and Disney films and having a historic Golden Globe win wasn’t exactly what this kid from Queens dreamed of when she was growing up. Raised in Forest Hills by her father and grandmother (her mother died when she was 4), Lum attended the famed Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts as an instrumental major, and she played the trumpet. But when I asked her what she imagined for herself while attending the prestigious arts school, whose alumni include the likes of Timothée Chalamet, Jennifer Aniston, and Nicki Minaj, it was clear her aspirations were miles away from what she’s achieved now. “When I was in high school, I was imagining, ‘God, I would have to be so good at the trumpet to just even make it to the pit of an off-off-Broadway show.’ You know that was the trumpet dream, right? So I didn’t really know what to do with that track. My schoolmates, some of them were so good,” she explains. “And the school is on the Upper West Side, so I definitely witnessed this glamorous New York City lifestyle, this kind of Sex and the City version of Manhattan, that I felt that I was literally just an outsider.”
While she might have felt like an outsider, listening to her speak about her beginnings made me realize that, in a way, her experiences gave her a leg up in terms of dealing with the highs and lows of an intimidating industry like Hollywood. “I think there’s so much you witness at such a young age. There’s an objective brutality, then this kind of dark humor with it and this constant tragedy around you but then joy in these small moments. And it’s like the city is a fertile environment for someone who maybe wants to dream of that.” But in actuality, it’s not the city that she credits the most for helping her cope. It’s her early stand-up gigs. She remembers going to cities by herself, staying in random hotels, and playing gigs where people didn’t even want her there or know who she was. “I think that has prepared me more than anything else—having to deal with a live crowd and one that’s also heckling you. You have to learn how to do that. I think that definitely prepared me for some of the rejection, the on-the-spot stuff, and the other parts of the industry,” she reflects.
Lum might not have mapped out her career path in high school, but she’s always chosen roles with care. “I look for complexity of character. I look for the motive behind it. I look for complexity in the story that also has broad elements that have heart. If the script’s good, the role’s good, it’s fluid, it makes sense—that’s what I look for,” she says earnestly. “But I think I’ve always been picky. I’ve never done a project just because it’s like, ‘Whoa, a project.’ There has to be something else because also you’re dedicating a portion of your life to it. You want it to be good and worth it.”
The serious way Lum speaks of her craft is striking to me. Although I know she’s an actress and can’t be “on” all of the time, I wasn’t expecting the Lum I met during our interview. I was imagining her as some of the characters she’s portrayed—loud and bold with a penchant for antics or shticks. Even though we were thousands of miles away from each other (she’s in London, and I’m in Los Angeles), I could feel her groundedness and down-to-earth vibes. It was like having a normal chat with a friend, one in which we’re both wearing casual tees and not much makeup. She was relaxed and thoughtful and listened intently. Sure, there were the lighthearted, laugh-out-loud moments, but I could definitely tell I wasn’t getting the “Awkwafina” you see on-screen. I was getting the real Nora Lum. “My family would definitely describe me as the loud and kind of funny one,” she says. “But many friends that meet me, they always say, ‘You’re moodier than I thought you would be.’ I do have a side where I do go into my inner mind, I just want to be alone, and I am a little moody. I’m just very closed off and introspective and just like brooding. It’s just a polar opposite of just those two states, and I think people will be surprised. I really am not always loud and crazy. I think I can get there. But generally, I’m pretty chill, I think.”
While on the subject of her family, I couldn’t help but think of the stereotype that Asian parents are hell-bent on their kids getting straight As in school and then becoming a doctor, lawyer, CEO… *insert lucrative and fancy career here*. As a first-generation Asian American, I didn’t really have that experience since my mom has been very supportive of my journalistic aspirations, albeit with a few normal reservations and parental worries. So I wondered what Lum’s own family thought when she told them she wanted to go into show business. It turns out she got mixed reactions. Her aunts, uncles, and cousins thought it made sense, but her father and grandmother had different views. “My dad was having a breakdown. He was like, ‘What?!’ He couldn’t believe it,” Lum recalls with a laugh. “And my grandma was like, ‘Cool. That’s awesome.’ So that’s always been the dynamic of it. It wasn’t really that traditional like, ‘How dare you?!’ My grandma has supported every whim that I’ve had. My dad was like, ‘Oh my god,’ and he signed me up for all of these government job listing mailings, like for meat inspectors, air traffic controllers, and things like that. I still get job listings from them.”
Despite her father’s reservations, Lum is flourishing in this industry. What’s more, she has forged her own path and continues to break down barriers. I remember the excitement I felt watching her win the Golden Globe for The Farewell, a movie that had me sobbing in my theater seat while thinking of my own grandma and my own heritage. I asked Lum how it felt to win and if anything changed after that. “It felt just really crazy that happened at all. To know that the movie was appreciated, I’m forever grateful for that. I still can’t believe that happened. But that moment was incredible because it was also a testament to my relationship with my grandma and the work that we put into Lulu’s movie,” she says. “And then after, it wasn’t like all of a sudden the next day you could walk into RadioShack and everything’s free. Like, ‘Oh, come on into the back entrance of RadioShack.’ You know, it did solidify things, especially for people who were just like, ‘Can she do anything but just make fart jokes and things like that?'”
Being the “first” can come with a lot of pressure, though. While representation seems to be growing in Hollywood and we’re starting to see more people of color on our screens, Lum is still one of the few Asian actors in the industry who are considered “household names.” She’s become the face of Asian representation. I imagine it would feel like a burden at times to have that pressure on you, but Lum takes it all in stride. “I’ve said this a lot—when you first start out, you don’t understand why you have to shoulder it for the community. You don’t understand why your choices will reflect this entire community of people that are very diverse, and you just want to be known for yourself,” Lum thoughtfully explains. “What ends up happening is that you’re just gonna end up representing either way. Whether or not you want the burden, the burden is always there. If that is, by any definition, a sacrifice, responsibility, or burden, as you said, then it’s just something you have to take on if you choose to go into this industry. I don’t mind it, because when you are the first or there’s not a lot of you, it’s like you’re pioneering land that has never been touched before. You’re building roads on land that is really hard to build a road on. Sometimes, you have to start from scratch. So that’s why I think that it’s not something that bothers me, really, and that I accept.”
But Lum doesn’t feel the need to put on an act when she’s representing her community. To her, being yourself is the best way to do it. Showing your authentic self and seeing if people find a similarity or relate to you is much better than trying to be someone you’re not. “I do think it’s really important to know that representation really is just telling your own story,” she says. “The Farewell, for instance, literally was an actual event that Lulu simply documented. And she didn’t set out to make an ‘Asian’ movie. She just wanted to make a movie about a story that happened to her. When you’re doing stuff like that, it helps because it’s also personal.”
As for what she wants for the future of representation in Hollywood, she hopes that it continues in the direction of showcasing people behind and in front of the camera that traditionally have not been seen. That includes recognizing that the term “Asian” is a huge umbrella that encompasses a very diverse group of people—not just East Asians—and she hopes that some groups within it can get their proper representation, too. “We want to watch things that reflect our reality. We want to watch experiences that reflect our reality,” she explains. “What we have to understand about this country is that Asian Americans are part of our country’s reality. We are American. The really horrible attacks and just coming off of a really hard year, it really shows that there’s a lack of empathy … and a lack of understanding that we are American. It’s a hard thing.”
While Lum can speak passionately about her career and representation, there’s one thing she doesn’t really want to think about, and that’s how big her star is about to get. After fangirling for a few minutes about how I predict that she’s going to blow up even more after Shang-Chi comes out, she sheepishly thanks me for betting on her. But she seems wary about it all, saying she just enjoys what she does. She also recognizes how important mental health is through it all—at the end of the day, it’s all you have. “None of it matters if that’s off, and that’s what I really realized. So I’m so grateful for every opportunity that happens. I can’t believe that I’ve even come this far. But I think my priorities will always be taking care of that in there,” she says, pointing to her head. For her, therapy helps, as does being able to get to the root of your feelings and confront and deal with things that have happened in the past rather than push them away.
At this point in our conversation, things are getting a little heavy, and I feel the need to switch topics. Since this is a Who What Wear story, the fashion pivot was essential. She’s not exactly VIP status at the aforementioned RadioShack just yet, but Lum’s definitely become a fixture on red carpets. Lum says that she’s gained a better appreciation for fashion since she started working with Los Angeles–based stylist Erica Cloud. But she leaves it up to Cloud to coordinate everything, acknowledging that having confidence in putting together looks is a big part of it all, but it’s something she doesn’t have yet. She joked that some fashion girls can pull off one Croc, eight toe rings, and a cool vintage tee and look “lit,” but without that confidence, it’s not lit at all. So it’s something she’s still working on. “Erica is literally like a dream. I couldn’t be happier,” she says. “Erica puts a big emphasis on comfort and how I feel. She knows what I’m uncomfortable with, and I think it’s really important to have that relationship with your stylist—one that trusts your opinion as much. It’s really cool to work with someone collaboratively, especially on that kind of stuff.” For the record, she loves pantsuits but stays away from anything that highlights the bust because she “doesn’t have the equipment for it.” Her worst nightmare is her dress being pulled down while she’s reaching for a pig in a blanket without her noticing.
As we wrap up our chat, I ask what’s next for her, and what I got was a long list of exciting movies: The Little Mermaid, Swan Song with Mahershala Ali, the animated film The Bad Guys, and an untitled Netflix movie in which she and Sandra Oh play sisters. (You might have seen photos of the two hanging out; they’ve gone viral.) “I’m excited to just immerse myself back into the experience of filming, which is just something I really love doing,” Lum says. “I think each one has its own thing, and I just hope that they’re received well and that people think they’re good.”
If her previous projects are any indication, I don’t think Lum has anything to worry about. She can go ahead and unsubscribe from those meat inspector and air traffic controller job listings.
Photographer: Charlotte Hadden at Together Associates
Photography Team: Jakub Gessler and Tom Porter
Stylist: Iman Alem
Hairstylist: Liz Taw at The Wall Group
Makeup Artist: Ariel Yeh at Saint Luke using Clé de Peau Beauté
Manicurist: Chisato Yamamoto at Caren using Morgan Taylor
Producer: Samantha Obalim
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