With her first lead role in the all-Asian dramatic film, The Farewell, Awkwafina is showcasing a different side of her talents after years as a comedic rapper and actor. Here, she discusses her alter ego, her favorite cat videos, and why her grandma is her best friend
TUCKED AWAY IN the historic L.A. neighborhood of Echo Park, next door to Don Draper’s fictional childhood home on Mad Men and blocks away from the Charmed set, Awkwafina and I chat on the top level of a Victorian dwelling with a view of downtown Los Angeles as our backdrop. Born Nora Lum, Awkwafina wears a black leather jacket, a light pink T-shirt with cut off black jeans, and tan heeled mules. Upon her arrival, she wants to invite in a black cat who is waiting patiently at the bottom steps. The BUST photographer, who is cat sitting, lets him in. Awkwafina is smitten with the kitten. Inside, she scoops him up. They snuggle for a second, but then he does the thing cats do and darts away.
As we sit down to chat, I notice a large photo of Judge Judy on her iPhone wallpaper. “I love her,” Awkwafina responds when I compliment the photo. Her connection to the short, in-your-face, small claims court judge makes sense considering her scene-stealing role as Peik Lin Goh in 2018’s Crazy Rich Asians. Her character’s spunky designer outfits and epic improv scenes with on-screen dad Ken Jeong endeared her to audience members immediately. When I mention that I cried with laughter during her family dinner scenes with Jeong, she admits the cast lost it, too. “Constance [Wu] is hard to break. She’s a good actress. She broke for Ken. I had water coming out of my nose. The twins who play his daughters in the film, who don’t even speak English, were laughing,” Awkwafina says, remembering her days on the Crazy Rich Asians set. The same year that Crazy Rich Asians premiered, Awkwafina was also part of a star-studded cast with Rihanna, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, and Mindy Kaling, as a stealthy pickpocket who joins Sandra Bullock’s jewelry heist team in Ocean’s 8.
Seven years ago, before she popped up on the silver screen, Awkwafina uploaded her “My Vag” video on YouTube and cemented her place as a memorable figure in pop culture. The viral sensation, now at 4.3 million views, is a take on Mickey Avalon’s track “My Dick,” and features a line that sums up the Awkwafina persona: “Awkwafina’s a genius/ And her vagina is 50 times better than a penis.” It was during this time that she first graced the pages of BUST magazine. “I love BUST. They were one of the first to support me,” she says. One of her earliest public performances was at BUST’s 20th anniversary party in 2013, and she admits she was nervous beforehand. “Gloria Steinem was right in the front row. It was crazy. But I went out there, and it was like my eyes rolled back, and Awkwafina came through.”
In her new film, The Farewell (out July 12), 30-year-old Awkwafina steps out of her comfort zone and into different territory as a dramatic lead actor. The movie, written and directed by Lulu Wang, is based on Wang’s 2016 story “What You Don’t Know” for the radio show This American Life. In the audio recording, Wang details traveling back to China under the guise of attending her cousin’s wedding, but it’s really to see her grandmother, who the entire family is keeping in the dark about her stage-four lung cancer diagnosis.
When Awkwafina’s trusted manager passed along The Farewell script to her, he told her to stop what she was doing and read it. “He’s never said that about any script ever. I read it and it was like Lulu transcribed real conversations. I felt like it detailed the Asian experience in such a subtle way that we haven’t seen, especially for millennials,” Awkwafina says. She wanted to audition for the film, but she had a hurdle to overcome: language. Much of the movie is in Mandarin Chinese, which Awkwafina only knew a little of prior to her audition. To prep, she hired a Mandarin coach to come over every day for hours so they could run lines before she put together her audition tape.
“Gloria Steinem was right in the front row. It was crazy. But I went out there, and it was like my eyes rolled back, and Awkwafina came through.”
For Wang, Awkwafina wasn’t an obvious choice. When she was casting the movie, Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean’s 8 hadn’t come out yet, and she only knew Awkwafina as the rapper in the “My Vag” video, who she initially wasn’t sure would be an ideal fit for a dramatic role. But after meeting for coffee together, Wang felt connected to Awkwafina. The two talked about Awkwafina being raised by her Chinese grandmother in Queens, New York, since she was four, after her mother passed away. “Awkwafina sent in an audition tape, and as soon as I saw it, I knew that her personal connection to the story and her relationship to her grandmother made her performance feel very real. She embodied the role in a way I hadn’t seen,” Wang says of her lead star, when I interview her after a recent screening.
Beyond the language barrier, the emotional work Awkwafina delves into during the movie—debating whether to tell her beloved grandmother the truth about her condition or to adhere to her family’s beliefs—displays a vulnerability that viewers have yet to see from her. “Nora would get nervous because she’s never done a role like this, but I kept reminding her that she had everything she needed when she did that audition tape for me,” Wang recalls. “She just had to be a woman who loved her grandma.” On set, after every shoot, Awkwafina would FaceTime her real-life grandmother and best friend, and soon the rest of the crew started calling her “Grandma Fina.”
The Farewell is Awkwafina’s second all-Asian film, and she tells me that after screenings for both Crazy Rich Asians and The Farewell, viewers have come up to her in tears. For the splashy rom-com that broke domestic box office records, the tears were from Asian Americans who were moved to see the first all-Asian big-budget Hollywood movie since the debut of The Joy Luck Club, 25 years ago. With her new movie, the tears were flowing for a different reason. She’s had a diverse non-Western group of fans relay how much the story resonates with them. “People would tell me, ‘We did the same thing for my grandpa,’” she says. “The Farewell involves a very human tragedy, and it hits people the way movies should, especially ones that are trying to bridge gaps.” Wang tells me that she’s spoken with viewers who hail from the Middle East, South America, and Africa, who also say that their family did the same thing as what’s portrayed in the film. Awkwafina and I discuss the fact that it might be hard for some viewers to understand why anyone would keep a cancer diagnosis a secret. “It’s been described to me that, in the East, we think as a group, and we take that burden for her,” she says. “We suffer for her and let her be happy. I had never really thought about it like that.”
“You don’t realize how important representation is until you see it,” Awkwafina says of her two films featuring all-Asian casts. But she’s quick to point out that Asian American cinema existed long before 2018. “As a high schooler, I worked in an independent video store with a small Asian American section. I sought out representation in those movies, like Chan is Missing, Saving Face, and Red Doors. I went through every movie, but no one sees them because they get pigeonholed,” Awkwafina says.
It’s not lost on Awkwafina that she is one of those breakthrough actors who is bringing more visibility not only to Asian Americans, but also to Asian American women. When she delivered her Saturday Night Live monologue on October 6, 2018, she recalled that 18 years earlier, she’d waited outside the famed 30 Rockefeller Plaza when Lucy Liu was set to host. She didn’t have tickets and didn’t get in, but years later, here she was hosting, as one of the few Asian American actors to hit the SNL stage. Prior to Awkwafina’s debut, funny men Aziz Ansari and Kumail Nanjiani had each hosted in 2017, and five months after her appearance, Sandra Oh hosted.
“You don’t realize how important representation is until you see it.”
In years past, Lucy Liu and comedian Margaret Cho were the only Asian American women we saw in pop culture. When I share with Awkwafina what it was like the first time I watched Margaret Cho perform stand-up in a New York City venue when I was in college, she nods knowingly. “Blew your mind?” she asks. I nod in agreement. “Margaret Cho did the same thing for me. I saw her when I was seven years old on Comedy Central. She opened a window for me, in my mind, as a child, to know that other people like me could exist. She was brash, uncensored, and talented. It only takes one, and that’s really the larger goal of Awkwafina—to inspire. I think when Awkwafina stops working is when she stops inspiring, and she stops encouraging other people to do this.”
In May, 2016, Awkwafina got a chance to collaborate with Cho on a music video called “Green Tea” that pokes fun at Asian female stereotypes. Awkwafina recalls when Cho contacted her to team up on the song to celebrate Asian American and Asian Pacific Islander Heritage Month. “She reached out when I wasn’t even popping, which says something about her personality,” she says. “Instead of being threatened by up-and-coming people, she wants to give them a platform. When I met her, she was incredibly down-to-earth. We had long conversations about the industry.”
Along with Cho, Awkwafina counts fellow comedic talent Ken Jeong as a mentor. Her on-screen dad calls himself “Papa Fina” in his Netflix comedy special, You Complete Me, Ho, and Awkwafina echoes the mutual respect. She says Jeong, one of the nicest dudes she’s ever met, texts her daily to check in. “When things first started scaling with my career, it was very overwhelming. I had a lot of anxiety. I talked to him a lot about it,” she says.
As her star continues to rise, the young woman who espoused the wonders of her vag still holds her feminist ideals close to her heart, as she has since she was a kid. “I never experienced the meek, docile Asian woman. I only saw strength. My grandmother worked four jobs to support my family in a one-bedroom apartment,” she says. “Looking back on our relationship, I saw how much she sacrificed for us. I also understand the undying reverence her children have for her. She is the neck; she is the one who supports the family.” Growing up with a formidable matriarchal figure, Awkwafina had a strong sense of self early on. “As a kid, I saw why feminism needed to exist in smaller ways, too. I was a sports kid, and I knew that I could hit balls longer and crazier than dudes could. I truly believed I could do anything a man could do.” In college, at the State University of New York at Albany, Awkwafina majored in journalism with a minor in women’s studies, and the history she learned about feminism informs how she moves through the world. “There are different waves of feminism. Some feminism serves certain groups more than others, but I think the movement is becoming a more inclusive environment,” she says.
“I got a cat when I was 11 and I was an only child, so I feel like I developed mannerisms like a cat.”
It’s time for Awkwafina to get ready for her cover shoot, so we continue the conversation as her hair stylist and makeup artist prep her. I ask her about cats because she is clearly team feline. She gushes about her gray cat Gus. “My cat taught himself how to pee in the toilet,” she proudly proclaims. Based on my flabbergasted reaction, she scrolls through her phone to show me, and everyone around us, a video of how he balances over the bowl, hovering, then urinates. Awkwafina points to her friend Casi Moss, a photographer and designer who created the album cover art for her 2018 release, In Fina We Trust, and shares, “She managed to train him to sit and give paw.” We eagerly wait as Awkwafina finds the video of Gus wandering toward her as she says, “Sit. Sit. Paw. Paw. Good boy,” while the gray kitty sits on her command and lifts his paw gingerly. She clearly adores him and all cats, and shares, “I got a cat when I was 11 and I was an only child, so I feel like I developed mannerisms like a cat.”
I point out that cats are known for their independent personalities, much like Awkwafina herself. She takes it as a compliment, then jokes, “I shrink away a lot. When I get mad, I go into that position with my back up and I’m like, ‘What’d you say?’” She shares that in high school she was “crazy confident.” She recounts running into actor Liam Neeson in a pizza shop. “Everyone got so nervous, but I stood up and said, ‘Hey, I was going to see you in The Crucible, but I spent all the money on drugs.’ He whacked me with a piece of paper jokingly. I had balls. If you told me to do anything, I would do it.” A self-taught trumpet player who attended the famed LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts in Manhattan, Awkwafina tells me that she considers herself to be just like the instrument: loud, brash, and bold.
She adopted the pseudonym Awkwafina as a gag. At 16, she started producing beats on her computer, and worked on her own songs. She’d email the finished tracks to a select group of confidantes. “I’d send my friends the Awkwafina stuff and they loved it and told me they played them all the time. Then, I’d send over my drippy emo stuff and I would get no response,” she says. Years later, when she was in her 20s, the file got forwarded to a friend who directs music videos. He urged her to make a YouTube music video for “My Vag.” At the time, YouTube was considered “Asian Hollywood,” as Awkwafina explains. “It’s how so many Asian people got famous, because they could control their own destiny and get their own viewers without the help of a gatekeeper.” When it came time to upload her video, her director asked her what she wanted to call herself. The high school moniker stuck. “The Awkwafina name always existed for me, so it had to be good for something,” she says. The video launched Awkwafina and her persona into the internet stratosphere. She credits her brash alter ego with having helped her first perform in public. “Imagine being 23 and having to perform a song in front of 200 people. That anxiety is extremely overwhelming the first time. I think I needed Awkwafina in the beginning to draw something out,” she explains.
These days, Awkwafina is taking her bold vision of a diverse world to the next level. In addition to the world premiere of The Farewell, she stars in Jumanji 3 (out December 13), was tapped to produce and co-star in a crime comedy caper Crime After Crime, and is working on an upcoming Comedy Central half-hour scripted TV series. Titled Awkwafina, it is loosely based on her life growing up in Queens. For Awkwafina, representation isn’t just a buzzword—she made sure to staff her show with an all-female writers’ room.
While she’s found great success as a comedic actor, and hopefully will for her dramatic abilities as well, her first love will always be music. “‘My Vag’ wasn’t supposed to go anywhere. It was just for me. Music is my creative soul, my real passion, and where I find peace,” she says, adding that even if she was in a hospital bed, she’d probably have a little MIDI set up to produce songs.
As we wrap up our chat, I mention that at my screening of The Farewell, Lulu Wang introduced the film, and I loved seeing an Asian American female filmmaker debuting her work. “We’re going to see more,” Awkwafina affirms. “This is just the beginning.” I compare her creative approach to Cho’s mentoring, because I see her as pulling up the next generation of Asian American girls to join her brash and bold squad. She dismisses my claim, sharing, “I think just being me is enough to show girls that it’s possible. If you have your beliefs and you have ambitions, especially for Asian American girls, you have to hold onto them. You can be a good Asian daughter for your parents, but you can’t keep it all inside. I think if your ambition really means something to you, go and prove it to them. When you show them that it’s real, they’ll be fine with it. They just want to know that you’re OK, that’s all.” With Awkwafina out in the world, we’re more than OK. We’re damn fine.
By Jennifer Chen
Photographed by Jeaneen Lund
Stylist: Erica Cloud for TheOnly.Agency
Hair: Marcus Francis @ Starworks
Makeup: Kirin Bhatty @ Starworks
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2019 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!
More from BUST
Awkwafina Shows What It’s Like To Be An Asian American Rapper In The Documentary ‘Bad Rap’: BUST Interview
Sandra Oh Continues To Makes History On SNL
How “Crazy Rich Asians” Star Constance Wu Is Using Her Platform To Change Hollywood