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‘Crazy Rich Asians’ actress Awkwafina wields humor to heal

Updated July 7, 2019 - 8:25 pm

Her real name is Nora Lum but somehow Awkwafina (pronounced aqua-fina) just sounded more Hollywood.

Lum used to work in a video rental store, then for an air-conditioning company and a publishing house while trying to break into showbiz. Last summer as Awkwafina, she broke into movies in a big way with a role in “Ocean’s 8” opposite Sandra Bullock and Anne Hathaway. Then came her movie-stealing role as the best friend in “Crazy Rich Asians.”

The 31-year-old New Yorker dabbles in drama this July with a starring role in “The Farewell,” which is about a young woman who travels to China with her extended family when her beloved grandmother has only months to live. The catch: The family has decided that no one will tell the grandmother her prognosis or why the family has gathered.

That’s just one of her upcoming films, which include “Jumanji 2” and a “Crazy Rich Asians” sequel.

Review-Journal: What’s a relaxing Sunday?

Awkwafina: I’m all about the binge watching! You can take a whole day and just binge “Orange Is the New Black” or my true love “Forensic Files.” … Just give me good friends, good food and a good show. That’s a great Sunday.

Can you believe the kind of year that you’re having?

I wake up speechless every single day. I’m the one who believes in never having a plan. I never expect anything. I came into this business just wanting to work with cool people and do cool stuff.

But it helps to be driven.

I’m a hustler who always looks on the bright side — a trait I get from my grandmother.

Is it true you lovingly dub her Grammafina?

Yes. My mom died when I was a little girl and she raised me. My grandmother taught me to always look for the positive. For instance, when I was making $10,000 a year, I was having the best year of my life. Right now, I’m having the best year. I grew up being told that you have to hold onto what’s good.

“The Farewell” marks your first big-screen drama. Were you nervous?

I had my self-doubts. People know me from “Crazy Rich Asians,” which is my safety spot. I can be funny. With a drama, I was a little bit afraid of measuring up. Luckily, it was easy on this film because all of the other actors were so amazing. They helped to get me where I needed to be.

This movie was based on director Lulu Wang’s family.

In Eastern culture, some people don’t tell a family member that they’re dying.The culture believes that there is a mental burden in knowing that death is near and will fill you with a heavy heart in your last days. My character really grapples with this lie, but she is told the reasoning behind it, which is it’s our job to carry this burden.

You connected personally with this film.

I was raised by my grandmother after my mother passed away when I was four. I knew about the bond between grandmother and granddaughter. Grandmothers give you love that you will never get in the same way in your life.

The film hit a cultural nerve.

It was about how a westernized young woman would feel going back to China. You want to feel a sense of place there. You have to prove to your family that you haven’t been too westernized and still understand the culture and the customs.

How difficult was it for you to cry on screen?

I didn’t think I’d be able to cry on screen or harness those big emotions, but with this movie I cried when we were even blocking a scene. It was so raw for me. So real. I discovered a whole other side to myself.

When did you know that you were funny?

Everyone was so sad about my mother, and the adults cried to me. The only thing I could think to do was try to make them laugh. If I could make one person laugh, then I was having a good day. And I did crazy stuff in school to make people laugh because it just felt so good to hear that laughter.

At 15, you started using Awkwafina as your stage name.

Awkwafina isn’t the introvert. She just doesn’t care. She never gives up. Nora can be neurotic and an over thinker. Awkwafina was free. Awkwafina became my shield because she is full of confidence.

Did you realize the importance of a film like “Crazy Rich Asians” when you were making it?

We knew we were doing something bigger than our- selves. We wanted to show that people would come to the theater to see our stories.

What has been the impact?

Hollywood wants characters now who just happen to be Asian. It’s about telling a story so everyone can relate. … I’m in the industry at a time where voices like mine are being heard. Hollywood is going through some good shifts. At the same time, I really do respect how hard it must have been for many Asian actors who came before me.

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