Crazy Rich Asians’ Awkwafina on the power of representation and having an alter ego

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Rosamund Dean
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From Ocean’s 8 to Crazy Rich Asians, Awkwafina is 2018’s hottest scene stealer…

My first experience of rapper-turned-actor Awkwafina came when I saw her announced as part of the of superstar-studded all-female heist caper Ocean’s 8. As the only name I didn’t recognise – among Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Rihanna et al – I wanted to know who she was. So I Googled her.

And that’s how I came to watch her video for My Vag, in which she raps about her vagina (sample lyric: “My vag speaks five different languages / Told your vag, ‘Bitch, make me a sandwich’”) while producing objects like a violin and a toaster from between a pair of thighs. I was in the office at the time, watching My Vag at my desk, while colleagues slowly gathered around asking, “Who is this?!”

When I tell Awkwafina this story, she laughs at the thought of a bunch of British women huddled around a screen watching the video she posted on YouTube six years ago, as a jokey response to Mickey Avalon’s My Dick. It now has well over three million views.

“I mean, I really didn’t expect it to get more than, like, 200 views,” she rasps in her surprisingly husk voice. “I thought, if I get more than 100, I’m lucky. And I might get 200 but it will be my aunts and uncles being like, ‘Good job Nora!’”

Nora Lum (Awkwafina was a high school nickname, a play on the water brand Aquafina, “because awkwardness is a pretty big part of my personality”) is having quite the year. There was, of course, the small matter of A-list-heavy blockbuster Ocean’s 8 at the start of the summer, and next week sees the release of Crazy Rich Asians, a movie based on Kevin Kwam’s hugely successful 2013 book, which has already topped the box office in the US.

Crazy Rich Asians is special in two ways. First of all, with its joyful decadence, knowingly-funny script and gorgeously charismatic cast, it’s a good romantic comedy (and those are hard to come by). Secondly, it’s the first mainstream film with an all-Asian cast since 1993’s The Joy Luck Club. A frankly embarrassing gap of 25 years, which only reinforces what a whitewash Hollywood still is.

Think of all the Asian stereotypes you’ve seen in films over the years. The shy girl who is good at maths. The man who knows karate, or has obscure-but-wise advice for our Caucasian hero. Well, the thunderously larger-than-life characters of Crazy Rich Asians fly in the face of these stereotypes. Awkwafina stars as Peik Lin, the straight-talking best friend of Constance Wu’s Rachel, acting as the voice of reason, explaining the power of Singapore’s mega rich to the audience just as she explains it to Rachel.

Sandra Bullock and Rihanna starring alongside the pretty much unknown cast of Ocean’s 8

As we speak, Awkwafina is, albeit briefly, in her New York home during a break in the whirlwind of the Crazy Rich Asians press tour. “I was in Toronto last night,” she says, sounding exhausted but exhilarated, “I just got back to my apartment so I’m hanging out with my cat.” A New Yorker through-and-through, she is delighted to be back in her home city. After all, one of her other viral hits is her love letter to New York NYC Bitche$

As we talk, a pizza is delivered and I can hear her decompressing as we discuss gratuitous ogling, breaking boundaries for dogs and the influence of that vag.

I loved the film, but it did make me feel very poor.

[Laughs] Yeah, it was a constant reminder to everyone involved that we’re poor. That’s not my reality, for sure.

It’s very overdue in terms of representation in Hollywood. Did you think about that while making it?

You know, I didn’t really understand it until I saw the final product. I saw it at a very early screening, and I was really crying, very deeply emotional. I realised later that that is the power of representation. It means so much.

I remember feeling weirdly emotional watching the all-female Ghostbusters.

Of course! Often you don’t realise you’ve been missing something. Of course! Often you don’t realise you’ve been missing something until you see it. It is a very moving feeling. We’ve been speaking at a lot of screenings and I see that feeling in the faces of these young Asian-American girls.

Another thing I loved about the film is the male objectification. There are definitely a couple of gratuitous torso scenes…

Yes! I love it! Asian women are often sexually objectified but not the other way around. We need to see beautiful bodies of all kinds, and there are some beautiful men in this movie. Oh yeah, there are some lookers in that cast. I was number 45 on the good-looking list.

Awkwafina plays ‘the sassy friend’ but not like you’ve seen before 

We’re going through this evolutionary time where Hollywood seems to be prioritising diversity in terms of gender, ethnicity, sexuality…

It took having people get really angry about the industry and our culture in general. In the past few years there has been this very defiant PC culture, and a lot of comedians complain about it, saying that there’s a culture of hypersensitivity. But, for me, if we live in a culture where you’re making jokes at the expense of other people, and you get in trouble for it, that’s how it should be. There should be diversity, there should be equality and there should be representation. It’s not like you’re doing us a favour.

There’s a danger in setting this up as a ‘trend’. I want representation to be something that’s here to stay. And I am genuinely optimistic about where the industry is headed.

You grew up in New York, your father is Chinese-American and your mother was Korean. What was your sense of identity like?

It was a negotiation between two identities. My mom passed away when I was four and, since my dad obviously worked, my Chinese grandmother stepped in to the mother role. I would leave this household that had a crooked Asian supermarket calendar on my wall and all these weird smells, then go to school where I’d listen to TLC. I was an American kid at school, but I was made to feel not American enough. 

Then, when I was 19, I went to Beijing and I didn’t feel Asian enough there because I couldn’t speak the language. I think all Asian kids at some point do a pilgrimage to discover their roots, like a bad indie movie. When I was young, I was definitely made fun of for being different and, at some points, I didn’t want to be Asian because I didn’t want to be different. So going to Asia gave me a new appreciation and a respect for where I came from.

What were you like at school?

Quite precocious. From a young age, I was always aiming to get laughs out of adults. When my mom died, I didn’t like the way that adults behaved around me. It just felt awkward for me. One of the first emotions I learned was embarrassment, and I think I learned that a couple of years too young, but it helped me hone this personality as someone who made people laugh. I didn’t want to think about the hard stuff, the dark stuff, I internalised a lot of that. I was a tomboy and I loved music. Then I got in to LaGuardia, which is a famous music and arts high school, and had to travel to Manhattan every day from Queens. That opened my eyes to what a career in the arts could be.

Did that confidence help you hold your own on Ocean’s 8?

Working with that cast must have been the ultimate imposter syndrome.

Yeah, it was insane. But the imposter syndrome and anxiety faded very quickly as soon as I met them. The first thing that Helena Bonham-Carter did when we met was give me a hug, and that was the baseline for the energy on set. They were welcoming to the point where they made me feel like I belonged.

You’ve talked about Awkwafina as a character who allows you to behave in a way that Nora wouldn’t. Is she your Sacha Fierce [Beyoncé’s alter ego]?

[Laughs] I don’t think you can compare me to Beyoncé. But Awkwafina is like a version of me without all the neuroses that come with adult life. Awkwafina induces the panic attacks, and Nora takes them, that’s where that relationship is now. I need Awkwafina to go on stage, otherwise Nora would be hyperventilating in the corner. We’re inextricably linked.

Let’s talk about My Vag…

Wow, I love it when British people say that! I can’t erase it because Awkwafina is that song. Seth Rogen and Nicholas Stoller cast me in my first movie, Bad Neighbours 2, because they saw that video. Everything since came from that, including me talking to you right now.

How was your dad about it?

I mean… no one in my family was surprised at the content of it, because they know me. My dad still wanted me to become, like, an air-traffic controller. He signed me up for so many government job portals, I still get those emails, to this day. Everyone goes through a time where they have some confrontation with their parents, and Awkwafina is a hard thing to sell a parent on. But I know all he wanted was for me to be OK. Now, when we go to dinner, he passes the cheque over to me, so he’s happy. I think he’s proud.

For your next two films, you’re working with some great female directors. One of them is Spanish director Alice Waddington…

Yes, that’s Paradise Hills, a sci-fi with Emma Roberts and Jeremy Irvine, which we finished shooting this summer. Then I went on to do an indie movie written and directed by an Asian-American woman named Lulu Wang. That’s my first dramatic lead role, so hopefully that went well. After that, I don’t know what’s next. I’m just riding the wave.

Since Ocean’s 8 broke boundaries for women, and Crazy Rich Asians broke boundaries for Asian actors, I guess you’re looking for some more boundaries to break?

Yeah, I only take on projects that break boundaries. I have a strict ‘must break boundaries’ clause. Maybe the next thing could be for animals, maybe dogs? You know, just breaking all the boundaries.

Crazy Rich Asians is in cinemas on Friday 14 September 

Images: Rex Features / Instagram

Photography: Olivia Malone