Mark 2018 down as the year everyone finally learns Awkwafina (née Nora Lum)’s name. The Queens-born comedian and rapper has major roles in two highly anticipated summer movies—the adaptation of the bestselling novelCrazy Rich Asians and, of course, in Ocean’s 8, as one of the eight right alongside Cate Blanchett and Rihanna—both of which may set a major precedent for the types of big studio releases to come. There’s also a new single on the way, as well as her recent appearance fronting a Gap Logo Remix campaign campaign with other emerging talent of the moment, like SZA, The Florida Project’s Bria Vinaite and 13 Reasons Why’s Miles Heizer, to name a few).
Awkwafina may be recognizable to some from her appearances on MTV’s Girl Code and her fiery 2014 hip hop album Yellow Ranger, but lately she’s found herself “mentally preparing” for a different kind of fame. Oceans’ 8 and Crazy Rich Asians are huge, exciting, career-breaking projects, but the prospect of so many eyeballs on her can be completely anxiety-inducing. Awkwafina confessed she’d never watched herself act before, except for when she appeared in Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising).
“When everyone tells you that this is the best year of your life,” she said, “you wonder if you’ll ever have another ‘best year of your life.'”
In Oceans’ 8, Awkwafina plays Constance, a member of the motley crew of criminals recruited by Sandra Bullock’s Debbie Ocean, along with Rihanna, Sarah Paulson, Cate Blanchett, Mindy Kaling and Helena Bonham Carter, as they attempt to rob Anne Hathaway’s character at the Met Gala. “They’re just incredibly warm and welcoming, to the point where they convinced me I was their equal,” she said.
On set, there were no petty arguments between, no passive-aggressive diva behavior. “People like to say that there are cat fights because they’re jealous, whereas you would never say that about an all male cast,” Awkwafina said. “When you have a group of strong women like that together, it’s empowering.” And even though everyone is extremely busy—Rihanna has a business to run, Kaling just gave birth, and the rest of the cast are some of the most consistently hardworking actresses in Hollywood—Awkwafina said that they still keep in touch. “We crack jokes still, we’re still family. As illustrious as some of the movies the other women have been in are, I think Ocean’s 8 was really special to them.”
Two months after the release of Ocean’s 8 in June, Awkwafina will return to theaters with Crazy Rich Asians, based on Kevin Kwan’s novel set in the go-go world of new money in Asia. “I picked up [the book] years ago at an airport while waiting for a flight. The cover stood out to me—I couldn’t believe there was a book like that in a Hudson News that wasn’t a historical period piece,” Awkwafina said, referring to the fact that much of contemporary Asian literature is often as overlooked as Asian films in the U.S. “It was modern; it was mind blowing!”
When the film was still in its pre-production stages, there were talks of casting whitewashing, to which Kwan defiantly objected. It’s unimaginable, really, to have the main character Rachel (played by Constance Wu) portrayed by a white actress. Five years after the book’s release, the release of Crazy Rich Asians in theaters means Awkwafina will probably find herself at the center of a public conversation around diversity, inclusivity, and representation on screen.
“People ask the question, ‘Where are the Asians in Hollywood?’ right? And, we’re here. We are here,” Awkwafina said. “If you see the cast of Crazy Rich Asians, that’s the Asians in Hollywood right there!” Awkwafina insisted that while filming, any notion of tokenism simply did not exist on the Crazy Rich Asians set. She described it as a rare experience for herself and most of the cast, which also includes Henry Golding, Ken Jeong, and Gemma Chan. “That dynamic didn’t exist on our set, where we felt like we were ‘The Asian,’” she said. “And that was very beautiful.”
“In a way, Crazy Rich Asians is a gamble,” she went on. “This movie will set a precedent for all movies that will feature a minority lead. You don’t know what’s going to happen, but I can only hope that it does well and influences more movies like that to be made. If you are a person of color, any movie that features groups that are marginalized, it lifts us all up. It helps all of us. We’re moving in the right direction.”
Awkwafina carries herself with the same blunt directness that comes across in her lyrics or comedic appearances in sketches and on talk shows, including on social media. “I don’t ever want to be filtered,” Awkwafina said in her characteristically deep rasp. “I don’t want to be in the middle of writing a tweet and then delete it because I’m scared of the backlash. I want to be honest, I want to speak out against the industry that employs me.” In this way, she has received the wisdom of one of those inspirations, the comedian Margaret Cho, whom Awkwafina discovered when she was “inappropriately young” while watching Cho’s specials with her grandmother. “Margaret Cho influenced me in more ways than I can describe, solely based on the fact that she was an unashamed Asian woman and I had never, ever seen that growing up. Ever!” Awkwafina recalled. “I’d seen The Joy Luck Club, but to see her was so powerful for me and I worked with her a couple of years ago and that was a dream come true.”
“The people I idolize tend to be flawed and kind of hate themselves a little bit, and they’re different and made a career being themselves. That’s the kind of person that I like,” Awkwafina said. Surely, others will soon think of her the same way.