Awkwafina Channeled Her Entire Life into a Career-Defining Performance in 'The Farewell'

Phillip Faraone/Getty Images & Jason Hoffman/Thrillist
Phillip Faraone/Getty Images & Jason Hoffman/Thrillist

The night before I sat down in A24's New York office to talk with Awkwafina about her extraordinary work in The Farewell, she came face-to-face with a lion. Leading a crowd who had just stepped out of a screening of the film to a nearby dim sum restaurant, the dancer in the beastly costume paraded down Chinatown streets with the celebratory flock in tow. "Oh hell, yeah," you can hear Awkwafina shout just off-camera in her Instagram story documenting the procession before screaming "no!" as the (actually very cute) creature approaches her.

The Awkwafina narrating the video is one fans would instantly recognize from her work in Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean's 8: brash and hilarious. But The Farewell, based on director Lulu Wang's own story first shared on This American Life, is set to complicate that perception of the star, while revealing a new facet of her identity. In this new film, Awkwafina (aka, Nora Lum) plays Billi, a thinly veiled version of Wang. Billi's a struggling writer living in New York City when she learns that her beloved grandmother, Nai Nai (Zhao Shuzhen), has late stage cancer. The catch is that Billi's family has decided not to tell Nai Nai about her diagnosis, a practice not uncommon in China. When the adult children and their families all gather in the elderly matriarch's hometown for a shotgun wedding celebration -- a cousin is the nervous groom -- Billi must keep her emotions in check at the behest of her pleading relatives, as she wrestles both with her opposition to the secrecy and her own mounting sorrow. 

Awkwafina is remarkable in the role, bottling feelings of isolation, frustration, and love. As she lounged on a couch, we talked about crying on screen, watching The Farewell with her own grandmother, and finding solace in malls.

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Thrillist: I saw your Instagram stories from last night.
Awkwafina: I didn't like it when they're coming toward me. I felt very uncomfortable. It's like dolphin. Have you ever met a dolphin? 

Yes, I have met a dolphin.
Awkwafina: They are bigger than you think. And when they are coming toward you…

It's a little scary. 
Awkwafina: Little scary. 

There's a long history of comedic actors turning dramatic. Was there any fear in letting the audience see you in this mode for The Farewell
Awkwafina: Yeah, for sure. If I was playing a dramatic character that was different than my experience, maybe in a period piece, that would be different. But I felt like I had been preparing for this my whole life, in terms of portraying this vessel for the Asian-American experience that shows how difficult it is to negotiate that identity, but then also to go back in the face of this event. It's very personal for me. I lost my mom when I was very young. I was raised by my grandma. And I developed comedy as a way to keep things light and -- what I realized while filming The Farewell -- a way to not be vulnerable. I think what Lulu taught me was by not depending on that muscle to impulsively do something, to be still and to be present, and I think that was very therapeutic.

That actually brings me straight to something that I wanted to ask you, which was filming the scene where Billi breaks down. It's one of the most vulnerable scenes in the film. What was shooting that like for you? 
I don't know if this is an obvious thing, but I empathize with that. Because I think that what Lulu went through is a very similar thing to what we all go through. And I know what it's like to feel like something has been stolen from you, and, in that speech, Billi is saying that in her childhood, she wasn't able to be there when she when she wanted to be there. I felt that. I always told Lulu I was very scared about crying. "I don't think I can do it." Some actors can cry with one eye. I can't do it. But it's not about that. That's a very shallow feeling when you're dealing with what's at hand. When you talk about real tears in a scene, it was very real, because not only would I cry, Diana [Lin, who plays Billi's mom,] would cry when she was off camera. It's written in a way where you really feel her pain. 

Have you ever had to cry on camera?
I've been asked to but I couldn't conjure it. For this, I still couldn't tell you how I could conjure it. It really was that real. I would end up crying, like, during blocking. And Lulu was like, "Save it!" I really felt that whole thing and I think being there made it very intense as well. 

lulu and awkwafina
Awkwafina and Lulu Wang on set. | A24

What was it like filming in Changchun, Lulu's grandma's hometown, and interacting with her actual family? 
Yeah, that was really out of body. That was weird in the sense that you never experience something like that. It really came to life all around you. The [movie] wedding was the same place as the real wedding. There's always a very personal journey that occurs when you're Asian that I felt even when I went to Singapore and Malaysia [to film Crazy Rich Asians]. When you go back to that part of the world as an Asian-American, you feel a sense of your own history. When we went back to Changchun it was that, but then also knowing that the subject at hand is very real and it's not in a way that is in a performance sense. It's in a human sense. I now want to protect Lulu's grandma. It's now, like, this is my family and then my co-stars and the empathy and everything. It just played very real, realer than you'd expect. 

You're acting with Lulu's actual great aunt, playing her Little Nai Nai in the film.
Who really went through that.

And Ellen, her dog, who I'm obsessed with. 
Love Ellen. Great dog. You hear her sing and then you're like, "OK, stop singing."

What were your rituals when you were filming? 
Awkwafina: When you first get to a place, the instinct is to find a mall. Find just where it is, the familiarity of it. Find where that is, and know that it's there so that if worst comes worst, you can go. We found the mall. Lit malls. Great malls everywhere. The one thing that they do awesome there is karaoke. Their karaoke is like a castle of karaoke. The room is the size of an entire penthouse apartment. It's huge. So we would do karaoke. We did that. I would try to cook.

OK, what's your karaoke song to decompress? 
Awkwafina: "Dreams," Fleetwood Mac. I mean, "Faith." If they have it in the catalog, "Hey Ma." Love that song. We did that a lot. Lulu -- fun fact -- did karaoke with us and knew every verse to the Bloodhound Gang song, like even the back verses. Like, Lulu, how do you know the back verse? 

You've talked a lot about how one of the reasons you were attracted to the script is your own relationship with your grandma. What was the emotional process for you of sitting down with her to watch it? I know in the A24 podcast, you said she got up in the middle to start cooking.
Dude, it was super emotional. I have been waiting for an opportunity to just communicate with my grandma in Chinese. And even when I learned Chinese, it still didn't happen. So there are smaller, little things that I liked about that experience. Yeah, she got up. That's her. I'm not going to be able to change that about her. But she did say that my Chinese was good. And it was really cool to watch a movie that I was in where she didn't have to strain to understand. We had to all watch subtitles, but when there was a funny joke she'd be like, "Do you know what she just said?" Like, grandma, we know, we're literally reading it. But then she laughed. She saw the humor in it which I thought was incredible. She's not the "I love you" type. But she saw the humor and I thought that was incredible that she was able to see the little subtleties there. 

It's also a movie that makes viewers sob. Was there that feeling in sharing it with her? 
There was and it's never one that's met mutually. But I think that just being able at this point in my life to have done a movie like that where she actually complimented my Chinese and was like, "It's not that bad." That was really, really awesome. And I think she knows how much that's always meant to me. I always wanted to have that connection with her. 

Zhao Shuzhen and Awkwafina
Zhao Shuzhen as Nai Nai and Awkwafina as Billi. | A24

What was it like acting in a language that you're not 100 percent comfortable in? 
It was surprisingly easy, because I know what it's like to communicate with relatives in broken Chinese. So I went to China and I learned it for myself -- again, trying to impress my grandma. She didn't give a shit. 

How old were you when you did that? 
I was, like, 18 or 19. I went there, and I learned a crash course. The important thing for me with the performance is that if someone came up to me and said, "OK, here's a line, just repeat it." I could not do it like that. I need to not only understand what I'm saying, but I need to understand the structure of a sentence. But it was surprisingly easy to speak broken Chinese, because it's literally what I'm used to doing, like communicating with someone, trying to be funny with someone. But also I've met -- both Korean on my Korean side and my on Chinese side -- relatives that were bound by blood where you can't communicate in the same language, but you feel that love and you know that love is there. 

Speaking of that family, what was it like filming the big wedding scene? 
It was great. We held a real wedding and, I'm telling you, those Chinese extras killed it as wedding guests. Totally believable. We did the karaoke up there. We we spent a good couple days in there. It was like an ongoing party. It really didn't feel like we were shooting. The coolest thing was, I remember Lulu and [cinematographer] Anna [Franquesa Solano] were under the table with the camera on the lazy Susan and spun it around while we were playing the [drinking] game. I just remember Lulu kept pinching my leg and I was like, "I will kick you now." It was very fun. 

Did you get cupping in the movie? 
Lulu made me a proposition: It's either get the real cupping or sit in makeup for hours getting the purple. I did the cupping. It's spooky how it works. All of the producers out of solidarity did it. But I was hot and this other person was cold. It actually puts you out of commission for like a day. 

You've said that Awkwafina was a persona you developed as a shield. Are there some roles going forward where you are using Awkwafina, the persona, versus something like The Farewell where it's more of Nora on screen? 
I think when Awkwafina came to be, it was more that protection, but I think now in my career, I'm learning that Awkwafina was always there, right? So when I see her billed on movies, it is a tribute to the girl I always was. Even roles that are maybe a Nora Lum role, I still will always maybe air on Awkwafina. We're the same person. 

Would you ever want to fully ditch the Awkwafina name? 
Awkwafina: I don't know. It's also, like, if I was billed as Nora, people would be like, "Are they the same person?" I really don't think I ever could. 

I was poking around your Twitter account: Do you have a family group chat called "Awkwafina Fan Club"?
They named it that! I didn't name it that. Why can't it just be named "Family?" It's so annoying. It goes off constantly. I'm in other group chats. They have social cues. My family does not give a shit. My Aunt Linda is going at all hours of the night: articles, diatribes.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.