HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA – DECEMBER 09: Awkwafina attends the premiere of Sony Pictures’ “Jumanji: The Next Level” at TCL Chinese Theatre on December 09, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images)
  • Golden Globe Awards

Nominee Profile 2020: Awkwafina, “The Farewell”

Comedian Awkwafina never expected to get a script with a subject of death until director Lulu Wang cast her as the leading character Billi in The Farewell. The film follows Billi and her immigrant family’s journey back to China after they learn their grandmother has only a couple of months left to live. They decide not to tell her and plan a wedding before she dies so all her friends and family will get to say goodbye. Awkwafina told HFPA journalists that Lulu Wang and her “both came to the decision that Billi will be a vessel for every Asian-American girl who has experienced loss and had to go to their home country and felt like a stranger there.”As most of the production took place in China, Awkwafina felt like a stranger on locations as well. But through the production, she got to experience the Chinese culture and community in an immediate and visceral way. Chinese actor Zhao Shuzhen who plays Billi’s grandmother does not speak any English while Awkwafina still had a lot to learn about Mandarin, yet they bonded while shooting their first scene doing Tai Chi together. Awkwafina recalled: “that’s when I realized the levity of someone going home to someone they love and not really understanding them but feeling joy with them.”Though scenes between Billi and her grandma produce the most frequent laughs, the story also has poignant and heartbreaking moments. “I can’t cry,” explains Awkwafina, “I am not going to be able to do it; I don’t know how actresses do it, I can’t do it. I was crying during the rehearsal; they couldn’t shut me up. So, the scene where I am saying goodbye to grandma was a very heavy scene and I was really crying, and I would kind of duck off to the corner and dry heave a little bit.”The Farewell is loosely based on director Lulu Wang’s own experience. Awkwafina expresses her excitement about working on a project “written and (…) directed by an Asian-American woman”. She told HFPA that “Lulu is fiercely talented, and I think that she knew what kind of story she wanted to tell.”Awkwafina began as a rapper on YouTube and has made a successful transition from music to films. In 2018, she was cast in the female-starring Ocean’s Eight alongside Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett. That same year, she played a supporting role in the culturally groundbreaking film Crazy Rich Asians. This year, besides The Farewell, Awkwafina also starred in Jumanji: The Next Level and produced and wrote her own comedy series Awkwafina Is Nora from Queens.Awkwafina’s real name is Nora Lum. She was born in New York City to a Chinese American father and a South Korean immigrant mother. Looking back on her career path, Awkwafina admits that she felt she needed a stage persona to bring out Nora’s confidence when she was 24 years old. “When you have nothing to lose, you would be surprised at how shameless you get,” she says. “But I think as my career progressed, that she is born out of Nora and that we are the same thing. And also, that Awkwafina gives anxiety attacks, Nora suffers from them. But aside from that, they are the same thing.”