She introduces herself as “Nora” but to most, she is Awkwafina, rapper and actress who had two breakout roles last year with the smash worldwide hit Crazy Rich Asians and the all-female Ocean’s Eight.
She’s sitting in a Beverly Hills Hotel to talk about her latest role as Billi in Lulu Wang’s The Farewell. It is perhaps her most personal role to date. And while there’s comedy, there’s plenty of drama in the film as Billi (Awkwafina) travels home to China after learning that her grandmother has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Her family, in sticking with Chinese tradition take on the burden of protecting Nai Nai from the truth, and use the excuse of a wedding for the family to gather and say goodbye.
The role was a journey, not just for Billi, but for Awkwafina. I sat down with Awards Circuit’s Karen Peterson for this fun interview with Awkwafina.
Karen: You’ve been around for a little while, but last year was your breakthrough year really in these big comedies and now you did this drama. What made you want to do something that was completely different?
I think the rule for me is that, when I get scripts, they might not be right. It’s not a matter of they suck, it’s a matter of is it right?
The scripts that speak to me in the way that The Farewell did, I don’t care what genre it is, I’m up for it.
How specific it was and how personally I related to it, that was for sure. I had no idea what the response would be. I didn’t wake up one day and think, “I should do drama,” and then a script came. I still have my insecurities there. It was a really good script and I loved it.
Jazz: You went back to China to shoot this. What was it like for you to return there? Talk about striking close to the heart.
It really was that. As an Asian-American, every time I went back to China or Asia, there is always an inner journey that takes place. A lot of questions from your childhood come up. I’ve been told my whole life to go back to China. Now, that I’m in China, what now?
To be there filming this story and to be in Lulu’s hometown, with the thought of my grandmother in the back of my mind, it meant so much. It was incredible to work with an international crew and cast, we’re doing the same thing but differently, and I think it was cool to see the different ways that people do that.
Karen: I was talking to Tzi (Ma) and Diana (Lin) earlier, and they were talking about how you have an international crew. The DP was from Spain, right?
Yeah, and she was amazing.
Karen: What was it like working with a diverse cast and crew?
It was incredible. I think, for me; it was the third international film that I shot in a row. I went from Crazy Rich Asians, Paradise Hills and The Farewell. I hadn’t worked in America for a couple of movies. I treasure those experiences so much.
In China, we had a blessing ceremony which I’ve never had before. You know, when you go to a dim-sum place and there’s a stage and you don’t know what the use of that is. It was in one of those places, and everyone from the set was there. The camera was on the stage, and it was covered. There was a ceremonial pig, and they have a blessing for a safe shoot. I thought it was such a beautiful thing to have that camaraderie before we started. There was also a very emphasized sense of reverence and respect, which is very important in Chinese culture. So, it was just a once in a lifetime opportunity.
Jazz: You were also working with two languages; you’re not just speaking in English, but in Chinese too. What was that like, going between the two for you?
I did not grow up in a Chinese speaking household. It was a major source of insecurity. If I’m going to speak in another language, I like to be able to know what I’m saying. I don’t want someone to say something and then have to repeat what I heard. I want to understand it. After a while, my command of it became a bit easier. I could find my way there easier. It was just really cool to be able to speak my mother tongue.
Karen: You’re playing a version of your director. What was your relationship like with Lulu not only as a director but also playing basically her?
Lulu and I are very similar. We both spent time in China. We are both very close to our grandparents and we both chose this industry – maybe not the dismay of our parents, but something like that. I think when it came to the character of Billi; Lulu was not precious about her. She didn’t say, “This is me, and this is what I do” It wasn’t like that. Any input that I had, Lulu was always open to that, and I think what Billi became at the end of the day was this vessel for really anyone in her situation. She’s very neutral of a character. You don’t know much about her personal life or her love life. You just know that she loves her grandma so much, that’s all you know about Billi. I think it’s a better way to do that. I don’t think I could imitate Lulu to that extent.
Jazz: One of the scenes that got me was the meal scenes. In Crazy Rich Asians, the food was a good thing. Here, you can’t eat because of what you’re going through. What was that like shooting those scenes?
Off-camera, we would eat. [laughs]. I’d never seen portrayed in that way. It’s just nauseating at that point because of what’s going on. I thought that was really beautiful. It’s a symbol of family. When that is threatened, food itself doesn’t become appetizing. Off-camera though, very appetizing and we ate a lot.
Karen: You have these really dramatic, emotional scenes. What happens when someone yells cut? Is there a moment to decompress?
I had told Lulu before we went to China, “Hey listen, I can’t cry. I don’t think I can cry. I’m not one of those people who can cry in this eye. I can’t do it. I can’t do it.” I was crying so hard. During blocking rehearsal. Lulu was like, “Stop it. Save it.” There was one specific scene where I was saying goodbye to Grandma, and I was crying so hard. You could really feel the weight. There was a crowd that was gathering because it was an outdoor scene. At first, they were making cheeky jokes. By the end of the scene, they were all crying. You don’t even understand the context. You don’t even know what’s going on here. Get out of here. On that same day, I was crying so hard that I’d duck into a corner and dry heave a little bit. Real Grandma came up to me and asked, “Why are you crying?” If only you could know. It was so meta.
Karen: What was that like, that you could talk to her, but you couldn’t talk about what you were doing?
We had to whisper scenes. That lie became all of our responsibilities. If she went this far without knowing, we wouldn’t want to be the ones, but also understanding the foundation of respect that comes from that lie. It shouldn’t be their burden. It should be your burden for them.
Jazz: I think that’s what I loved about it so much, is that we’ve never seen this side on screen. This “tradition”
Ever. I’ve never seen it. I think when people leave; a great thing would be to have a conversation about it and what side they’re on.
Karen: What I love is that the movie doesn’t take a side, and that’s what is so beautiful.
It is. I think, and Lulu said this, but there aren’t answers in life. It just is. When Billi, at the end of it, she understands and that’s all.
Jazz: I think that’s the beautiful journey of it all. She goes from not understanding to understanding.
And being at peace with both.
Jazz: What’s going on with the music?
I just got a guitar. An acoustic. I literally bought a child’s guitar from the only guitar shop near the town that I’m shooting in. I make music every day. Every day I’m making a beat, I’m writing something down. It’s what drives me. For me, when I do a movie. Right now, I’m doing a show. When I have a project at hand, my responsibility to that project is to be fully present and to focus on that, and the same thing goes for music.
The last album I released in 2018 and I was on that. When the time comes, I’m ready. I’m still figuring things out.
Karen: When was the moment you realized you were a celebrity?
Right now, when you just said it. [laughs].
Karen: You’ve had a pretty big year.
It’s been a big year. It’s always context. You have to have a strong sense of self to realize how you’re changing, or if you want to change. Life is still the same old shitty self for me. I still live in the same old shitty apartment I still eat Stouffer’s lasagna every day.
Karen: It’s good.
Jazz: Never had it.
Oh really? I’ll hook you up. [laughs] I think my social media is a little crazy, but there’s still a part of me that doesn’t know if this will end tomorrow. I think as long as you know that, you’ll never think too highly of yourself.
Jazz: What is the family recognition of it all and how did they react?
It wasn’t until Crazy Rich Asians, that my grandmother was like, “Woowwwww.” Asian people always say, “You’re never famous until you hit the Chinese or Korean newspapers, then your parents believe you.”
She can’t even say the title right. She says, “Crazy Asian… Crazy Rich.” She never says it right.
Karen: How has The Farewell changed you personally?
It forced me to confront something that I’d been dreading my entire life, which is losing my grandma. When we grow up and we’re -Americans. There is isolation. There is a sense of loneliness. To know that other people go through this, makes you feel less alone. To see stories like this is compelling. When I watch The Farewell, it’s almost like I’m not in it and that’s a very beautiful thing.
Jazz: Representation. First, we had Crazy Rich Asians, first all-Asian cast in twenty-five years. This year, we have The Farewell, how do you think it’s going?
I’ve said this many times, and I’m very optimistic with where Hollywood is going. I remember when I first came into this industry. I’d read roles; it had to be Asian, had to be Black and had to be Latina. Now, roles don’t have descriptions. They don’t even have sex attached to them sometimes, and I think that’s a beautiful thing.
At the same time, you don’t want to say that I want to forgo all Asian stuff when I do a movie, it’s that the element of how accurate these stories are, how authentic they are, where they’re coming from. That’s important.
Representation is something that evolves. The tears on people coming out of Crazy Rich Asians are of joy, maybe bittersweet because that’s how important representation is when you haven’t had it your whole life. The people coming out of The Farewell and crying, these are tears that are a little bit more specific because they just did that to their grandma. It’s different levels. I feel right now, the message we send is that these are our stories and they matter, and they resonate.