How YouTube rapper became A-lister
The Awkwafina you see in The Farewell is worlds away from the brash pocket rocket scene-stealer from Crazy Rich Asians, and even further from the YouTube rapper whose first claim to fame was a song called "My Vag".
It's just another side to the New York-born Nora Lum, who's better known by her adopted stage name Awkwafina.
A relative newcomer in the acting world, Lum has made such an outsized impression in every role, she's managed to book high-profile gigs at incredible speed - from being one of Ocean's 8 to Peik Lin in Crazy Rich Asians to the lead in writer/director Lulu Wang's semi-autobiographical film The Farewell.
The film follows the character of Billi, an Asian-American woman who is faced with her beloved grandmother's fatal cancer diagnosis and an elaborate ruse concocted by her family to keep the news of that death sentence from the matriarch.
Lum's lyrics to the aforementioned My Vag rap include the lines "Yo vag look like Tony Danza". If anyone told you three years ago the My Vag girl would be a feted A-lister, you wouldn't believe it.
Lum is earning plaudits for her performance, another notch for an actor you'll be seeing plenty more of in the next few years.
She's currently filming her own series for Comedy Central with the somewhat clumsy albeit accurate title of Awkwafina is Nora From Queens, and she will be seen in Jumanji: The Next Level.
She voices SkekLach in Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance and will be heard as Sisu the water dragon in the upcoming Disney animation Raya and the Last Dragon.
Oh, and she's also booked a Marvel movie, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, which will shoot in Sydney next year.
Lum is one in-demand woman.
During a quick break during filming last week, Lum got on the phone with news.com.au to have a chat about The Farewell.
Do you remember how you first heard about The Farewell?
It was shortly after I finished working on Ocean's 8. We got the script and it was unlike any script I'd ever seen. It had a very specific relevancy to my own personal life and it detailed a relationship between a girl and her grandma and I was raised by my grandma.
It was a script that caught me off-guard in its specificity but also in its rarity. There aren't a lot of scripts out there that frame an Asian family in this way, so I was very taken aback by that and I told my team, I want to do this, I really want to do this.
You're better known for your comedic roles so did you think it would be difficult to transition into a dramatic role?
Yes, definitely. I was very nervous about whether I would be able to do it. I was fairly new to acting in general and given the weight of the role. It wasn't even something that was a technical thing, it was more about understanding the material and realising how heavy it is and how much of it was emotionally driven.
It was a very interior performance as well, I guess in part because Billi's Chinese language skills aren't that developed so she can't say everything she's thinking.
Yeah, 100 per cent. People have asked me before, 'What was it like speaking bad Chinese?' It wasn't actually that foreign to me. In many ways, a lot of Asian-Americans or Asian-whatever kids have to do that too.
They don't really know how to negotiate themselves between both of those worlds and language is a big part of that. So it was almost familiar to have that you can't really express what you're thinking but you still have to be in the moment.
What was your first meeting with Lulu like? Do you remember thinking that there was this huge responsibility attached to the project because it's her personal experiences?
We had this really great conversation just about our similarities in general, not even about the project. I came to see it as something where Billi really was representative of this vehicle between both of the worlds.
And I had definitely expected Lulu to be, 'Well, you know, this is me, why don't you study me a little bit?' Lulu was not precious about this character and I think she really wanted my input, and she really wanted to share the character with me and with everyone who made the movie.
So that was a really cool thing to work with someone who wasn't militant about the way a person should be played.
What aspect of the character is most similar to yourself?
I think I would deal with grief in a very similar way. I think I wouldn't really know what to do, especially in this kind of conundrum (of keeping it from grandma). That's what really drives a lot of that quieter performance.
I think anyone put into that spot would have to battle with what is right. It was also that fierce love and undying respect for her grandma, the need to protect her. That's something I share with Billi a lot.
What was it like meeting Lulu's real-life grandma when you were filming in China?
It was awesome, she was so warm and she was very sprightly and full of life. It was difficult because we still weren't able to talk about (the cancer because she still doesn't know). So then it became our mission to protect grandma.
She was so lovely and I came to love her as my own, same as Zhao Shuzhen who plays my grandma. We became very close.
What was the experience of filming in China like? Is China a country you visit frequently, do you still have family there?
I don't visit it frequently. I lived there for a little while back when I was first graduating high school. But I haven't spent a lot of time there since. I don't see my family there a lot.
It was really cool to film a movie there. I think it also added a layer of intensity to it that we were in Lulu's family's hometown. So that definitely added to how real this story really was.
Did Lulu take you around to places in that town that were important to her?
For sure. We spent a lot of time in Changchun. The banquet hall where we filmed the wedding scene was the actual place the real wedding took place. We went to her real grandpa's grave to do the ceremony scene.
I think at some point, we even wanted to use her real grandma's apartment as the grandma's apartment in the movie. But I think at the last minute, they decided not to do that. It would've been a little crazy.
I've seen people walk out of The Farewell and everyone is emotional - you can see it on their faces. What has been the most memorable audience reaction for you?
When I saw people leaving Crazy Rich Asians, for example, there were tears but they were more tears of joy.
But when people were leaving The Farewell at the Sundance screening, there was a different kind of emotional experience going on. I think more specifically for some people who went through that experience of having to lie to a loved one, and had to do it recently to their grandparents or other family members, for them, seeing that deeper level of representation was very astonishing and very moving.
And other people really want to call their grandma at the end of it.
What was your grandma's reaction when she saw the film?
Oh man. I kind of caught her on a day when she was doing stuff and towards the end, she just got up and started cooking. So I was like, 'OK, do you want to finish the movie?' and she was like, 'Eh, I have to cook because it's 5pm'.
But she ended up seeing it in theatres and she really loved it.
Do you think the industry is more open to accepting people who don't fit the traditional mould?
I've definitely come into this industry at a time when it's in a progressive place that does kind of accept new voices you don't see a lot. I think that was the state of the industry when I came in, but it's also important to recognise what the industry is changing from.
You always have to be grateful to those who came before you, and I know what they went through to give you the same opportunities. I am overall very optimistic about where this is going.
In the projects that I have done, they're representative of people like me in a positive way, as opposed to filling in a diversity rainbow which I don't think I've ever been used for. There are projects out there that can translate what our experiences are and want to hear our voices and use our stories.
Now that you've landed a Marvel movie, does it feel like an 'I've made it' moment?
I mean, to be in a Marvel movie is incredible, especially to be part of a project like Shang-Chi. We haven't seen that before. And I'm really excited for it. I haven't been to Australia before so that's going to be fun. What should I do in Sydney?
You should wake up early and spend a lot of time at the beach.
OK, I might have trouble with the first part. Good to know.
The Farewell is in cinemas now
Share your movies and TV obsessions | @wenleima