When Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell” premiered at Sundance this past January, the filmmaker’s intimate family feature instantly inspired two types of headlines: chatter about Wang as a breakout talent, and major accolades for star Awkwafina, taking on her first big dramatic role. Hiring a rapper and actress best known for crafting jams like “My Vag” and offering up supporting laughs in films like “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising” was a bit of a gamble.
And while it paid off, with the A24 film earning big critical love (it currently sits at a rare 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes), even the newly minted dramatic actress agrees that such risks are just part of her evolving career.
“I think that if I am cast in a production, already that means that production is kind of forward-thinking,” Awkwafina (who still uses the rap name for work, but is introduced simply as “Nora”) said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “Hiring me is always a risk, a little bit.”
That risk — of hiring an outspoken, out of the box performer like Awkwafina, one who doesn’t adhere to typical notions of what a big Hollywood star looks like (not white), where she comes from (first generation American from Queens), and what she wants to do with her power (help others) — is diminishing. Awkwafina knows that there’s an audience for the kind of films that Hollywood hasn’t always made a priority, the kind of films she appears in, including features with female leads and leads of color.
The actress enjoyed a memorable turn in Jon M. Chu’s box office hit “Crazy Rich Asians,” which made nearly $175 million domestically on a $30 million budget. Before the film got made with an all Asian cast, author Kevin Kwan was encouraged to whitewash the leading lady role.
“People have to understand that what ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ showed is that there is an audience where you wouldn’t expect there to be,” Awkwafina said. “When you give something that you think doesn’t sell because it doesn’t exist or whatever, when you finally give it to an audience, a hungry audience, they will show up.”
There’s also hungry creatives, and Awkwafina is determined to help bring them to the forefront of Hollywood, too. “There’s this myth that there are no people of color, there’s no women [who want to do this work],” she said. “It’s total bullshit, they’re out there. That’s what I want to do. People ask me if I want directing as the next frontier, and my answer to that is, I don’t want to steal someone’s job who really worked for it and who I can help [in other ways].”
At least she doesn’t need to worry about visibility. After slowly racking up acting gigs in films like “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising” and “Ocean’s 8” and series like “Girl Code” and “Animals.,” she’s gearing up for a big next few years. She’ll next be seen (well, sort of) in Netflix’s “Dark Crystal” series, and she’s landed parts in films “Jumanji: The Next Level” and Tate Taylor’s dramedy “Breaking News in Yuba County.”
“I’m getting off of a point where I really didn’t have a lot of control over the opportunities that were coming,” she said. “I’m still getting used to being on a rollercoaster that’s still going. I don’t know how much I can dictate about my future, but I do know that if I gain a platform at any point, I want to help the next generation. It doesn’t end here. It has to keep going on.”
She’s already seen her impact in action. “One of the most moving experiences was my first show at Sarah Lawrence, and a girl that looked just like me in college came up to me and was like, ‘just thanks, thank you for existing,'” she said. “It wasn’t even like that ‘you’re perfect’ or whatever, my existing helped her. That was the first time as a performer that I realized that I do have a responsibility to my community because if my successes will influence them, so will everything else.”
She knows how much that matters, having spent her childhood worshipping another off-beat star. “Margaret Cho was that for me,” she said. “She changed my life. If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t be doing this.” She started on Cho’s irreverent comedy at a young age — she caught an early televised special when she was just seven — and it’s inspired her since.
She’s already seeing Hollywood take note of the need for diversity and inclusion across the board. “I’ve always been very optimistic, because I saw change before my eyes when I first started,” the actress said. “When I first started auditioning, they were still asking for Asian accents in casting rooms. Now there has to be a really good reason for that. I’ve seen roles go from Latina, black, Asian to just nothing. I think it’s leading to a good thing.”
She’s making her own changes, too. While the multi-hyphenate has long been known for her raspy-voiced rapping and bold, girl-powered comedy, “The Farewell” sees her taking on both a rare dramatic part and her first leading role in a film. It wasn’t something she exactly planned on.
“There’s never a moment where you wake up and say, I want to do drama, and a script arrives,” Awkwafina said. “It was actually kind of the reverse where the script arrived, and despite what genre it was, I had to do it. There was an urgency.”
The actress was raised by her own grandmother, and even reading the script, which hinges on the bond between Billi and her own nai nai often moved Awkwafina to tears. She was initially nervous about two aspects of the film: playing a character who speaks Chinese (“I wasn’t sure if the character was supposed to be good at it, because I’m not”) and dramatic acting that would require her to cry on command.
“I’m fairly new to this game, so there were a lot of things that I see now as shallow insecurities,” she said. “When you’re there and you’re dealing with the subject at hand and what’s going on, it really comes down to a combination of empathy and working with personal experiences. But I was definitely unsure of myself. People know me in a very specific way, and imagine if this was like, yikes. It would be horrible.”
While the film is loosely based on Wang’s own experiences, Awkwafina said that the filmmaker was “never possessive about this role.” Despite the similarities with her own family life, Billi isn’t exactly Awkwafina either. That’s a good thing for a rising star looking to expand her range. “A lot of roles that I play, it’s like my grandma says, it’s not acting, it’s just you,” she said with a laugh.
But that’s not always the case, at least not by every metric. In her relatively short on-screen career, Awkwafina has been cast in an array of films, including those that benefit from colorblind casting (think “Ocean’s 8” or teen comedy “Dude,” films where her character’s ethnicity is not at all important to the story) and features that require actors of a certain background (like “Crazy Rich Asians” or “The Farewell”). In a changing Hollywood that is more conscious of ever of the needs for diversity and inclusion, Awkwafina has locked projects that embraced both sides of the coin.
“There will always be roles where you need to be [a certain ethnicity], like it’s relevant to being Asian, it’s relevant to the culture,” she said. “There are also roles that, when you’re reading a script, ‘wow, I really can’t be that role because it says that she’s not Asian.’ Now we’re getting into a time where you can read a role that may not even have a gender. I don’t think that that’s a tool of trickery, I think it’s a tool of like, let’s see everyone.”
That might soon include seagulls. While the actress could not confirm her rumored role as fast-talking bird Scuttle in Disney’s upcoming “Little Mermaid” live-action remake, she certainly seems excited about the possibilities of the film. Just last week, the studio announced that singer and actress Halle Bailey had been tapped for the lead role, in another example of colorblind casting.
Awkwafina hailed the studio for embracing the changing face of “what it means to be an American that enjoys Disney movies.” In her eyes, casting Bailey in the Ariel role is just the next level of that push. And she’s definitely excited about seeing her on the big screen. “When I think about a Disney princess, I see her,” said said. “She is an incredible actress, she has an incredible voice, and it shows that Disney cast a net. I’m here for it.”
She’s also got another wild remake idea kicking around her head. Asked what kind of big, risky thing she’d like Hollywood to do in the next ten years, and she had a fast (and only slightly tongue-in-cheek) answer. “A ‘My Cousin Vinny’ remake, starring me as my cousin Vinny,” she said immediately. “Hollywood, I’m knocking!”
A24 will release “The Farewell” in theaters on Friday, July 24.