As a high-spirited child from an outer borough of the large metropolis, Awkwafina (aka Nora Lum) took an enormous danger on fame. Several films, TV reveals, and a rap profession later, it has paid off spectacularly. The subsequent strikes are hers.
BY: Michelle Lee
PHOTOGRAPHED BY: Christine Hahn
Awkwafina and I are going deep on our love for true crime. “Dateline is, like, king,” she says. We commerce favourite episodes and she or he provides a spot-on armchair evaluation of the typical perps. “It’s always the husband and it’s usually some kind of infidelity. And it’s…it’s…stupidity because they never cover their tracks, right? You know what I mean?”
Her affection spans the full spectrum of the style (Forensic Files, The Inventor, even a detour down the true-crime-adjacent Sex Sent Me to the ER rabbit gap), however her candy spot is scammers, elaborate cover-ups, and scandals like American Greed. The psychological itch it scratches for her, she suspects, is a bit of schadenfreude: “I’m so glad that I’m not this stupid and this greedy.”
During a brief spell of downtime as COVID-19 despatched us into lockdown final spring, whereas others tinkered with sourdough starters and banana bread, Awkwafina (or Nora Lum, as we’ll name her from right here on out) was unlocking the mysteries of a distinct pandemic passion, a talent she first dabbled in when portraying a pickpocket in Ocean’s Eight: magic methods. “You don’t really learn them so much as you learn what the trick is to deceive people,” she explains. “I’ve always seen this trick where they put a pen through a dollar…and I was like, ‘How do they do that?’ Because it’s obviously a hole, [but] how do they put that hole back?” And like some of our favourite Dateline episodes, generally the appropriate rationalization can also be the best rationalization. “This one is straight-up like you cut things and then put tape. It really is, like, very practical, practical magic.”
In a 12 months when a lot of the world appeared to return to a screeching halt, this 32-year-old actor has needed to grasp onto her spare time when she will be able to discover it. I catch her on a Zoom name throughout a uncommon break from filming. On the first morning that we chat, she’s already showered and gone for a stroll with Haeng-Un, the three-year-old pup she adopted just a few weeks earlier. She’s again in mattress with Haeng-Un (which suggests “good luck” in Korean) for our dialog, and afterward, she’ll rush off to the set.
Lum has labored virtually nonstop via the pandemic: Marvel’s all-Asian superhero film, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, was fortuitously filming in Australia, the place COVID-19 had been shortly introduced below management. She flew house to L.A. for a month or two, after which to Vancouver to movie Swan Song with Mahershala Ali. Then it was again to New York for season two of her Comedy Central collection, Nora from Queens.
“It’s insane. I’m doing it every day and many weekends,” she says of filming. “But it fills the time up better when you’re busy rather than kind of idle. I was watching this Joan Rivers documentary and she has this scene that I really relate to, where she pulls up a calendar and said some iteration of, ‘My nightmare is when these boxes are all blank.’ ”
Photographed by Christine Hahn. Fashion stylist: Kyle Luu. Hair: Gonn Kinoshita. Makeup: Grace Ahn. Manicure: Naomi Yasuda. Production: Hudson Hill Production.
These days, Lum’s calendar displays the hustle and pleasure of a star whose stream of thrilling incoming alternatives has gone from a trickle to a fireplace hose. Looking at Awkwafina: Bona Fide Celebrity as we speak, it’s simple to neglect that only a few years in the past she was an under-the-radar actor reducing her tooth on roles like “Waitress 1.”
I first met Lum — five-foot-one with a large smile and an enormous character — proper at that inflection level. In June 2018, she visited my workplace round the launch of Ocean’s Eight and weeks earlier than Crazy Rich Asians. Several months later we had enjoyable in an L.A. studio recording a podcast collectively, and the subsequent 12 months we caught up at a dinner to rejoice the launch of her movie The Farewell.
By now I’ve heard and browse — and browse once more — the Awkwafina origin story, as I think you could have too. Before scripting this, I made a decision to not point out Lum’s begin with the viral rap video, “My Vag.” (I even wrote “*no My Vag” in my pocket book.) With a filmography that’s almost three-dozen credit deep, Lum has certainly earned the proper to raise past some of her résumé’s earliest particulars.
But once we get to speaking about the happiest moments in her life, she brings up the YouTube video. (Fine.
“*no My Vag.”) She appears again fondly on that point as the first indication that her life was about to vary.
After graduating from LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts, she traveled for a 12 months in China, after which received a level in journalism at SUNY Albany. Post-college, she took a job in ebook publicity and a $9-an-hour gig at a vegan bodega in Brooklyn. Lum, who began rapping at 13, wrote “My Vag” on GarageBand when she was 19; at 24, she recorded the music video. The day the video received picked up on web sites and began racking up views, “I remember living in my dad’s house in Queens and going up to the mirror and being like, ‘Is this really happening?’ That was kind of a pinch-me thing.”
She feared she’d lose that PR job as a result of of the bawdy parody clip. She did. But as they are saying, when one door closes, one other swings open. The video caught the consideration of Seth Rogen, who employed Lum for a small function in 2016’s Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising. Then issues actually kicked into excessive gear when she appeared as pickpocket Constance in 2018’s Ocean’s Eight alongside Sandra Bullock and Rihanna.
But it was two months later, in August 2018, with the international success of Crazy Rich Asians, that the rapper-actor turned Thee Awkwafina, official breakout star of the highest-grossing romantic comedy in a decade and bonafide family title. The bullet practice hasn’t slowed down since.
In Hollywood, humorous individuals usually keep of their lane for not less than just a few years earlier than attempting to show their dramatic chops. But only a 12 months after being heralded as one of comedy’s brightest new stars, Lum confirmed her vary in The Farewell, Lulu Wang’s bittersweet household drama, portraying a granddaughter caught in an intergenerational household lie. Then she made historical past in 2020, turning into the first Asian American lady to win a Golden Globe for finest actress.
A peek at her upcoming tasks reveals a wholesome dose of voice-over work and motion fare combined with indie drama and even some sci-fi. It’s additionally clear that Lum has impressed the of us at Disney. She voiced the comedian sidekick, Sisu, in Raya and the Last Dragon and she or he’ll seem in Shang-Chi (which has been moved to September to accommodate the reopening of theaters). Next, she’ll play Scuttle the seagull in the live-action The Little Mermaid.
Her rise has coincided with a time of essential racial and gender reckoning in the leisure business. It was maybe inevitable that Lum would come to epitomize a brand new wave of illustration. She acknowledges that progress has been made for Asians in Hollywood, however solely after a fairly ugly historical past of inequality. “We couldn’t even be in movies, so we had to have white actors play us,” says Lum. But she sees how as we speak’s elevated visibility may also help form tradition. “They work hand in hand,” she says, paraphrasing a quote from her Crazy Rich Asians costar Gemma Chan: “The way that we’re treated onscreen, it bleeds into real life.”
It’s an particularly poignant level proper now. Lum and I are speaking at a painful time in Asian American historical past. Our first video name is simply three days after the tragic capturing of eight individuals, together with six Asian girls, in the Atlanta space, the place a gunman focused three Asian-run spas. It’s been a curler coaster of feelings for a lot of in the AAPI group, who’ve felt traumatized by a 12 months of elevated discrimination and violent assaults towards Asians.
The morning after the Atlanta shootings, Lum learn the information at work and talked about it with a fellow Asian American lady, a puppeteer, who was on set that day. But she didn’t course of it till that night time. “I came home and I lay awake in bed and I just started crying,” she says. Her gravelly voice cracks. Tears effectively up. She appears towards the wall. “Yeah, it makes me emotional right now.”
This particular tragedy hit her laborious as a result of she noticed herself and her family members in the story. “I was raised by a working-class, Asian American woman, so to see that, and the videos of all these other things, is very triggering. It’s a helplessness.” That vulnerability is especially acute when she thinks about that Asian American lady who raised her — her grandmother — and her father. “My dad commutes into work and I worry about him and…it’s that powerlessness. Because, well, how could you help them?”
The Atlanta bloodbath represented an ideal storm of misogyny and racism and shined a needed gentle on socio-economic points inside the Asian American group. “This insane, heinous, horrible crime of terrorism was against a group of Asian people that are often ignored in the conversation, especially when you bring in the model minority myth: working-class, Asian immigrants — Asian Americans,” Lum stresses. “We have to think about their safety as well.”
Ultimately, racism towards Asian Americans continues to take root as a result of we’re nonetheless considered by some as foreigners in our personal nation. Even rising up in New York City round a lot range, Lum usually felt othered. “I probably learned more about the implications of my culture from being mocked on the street than I did from actually being at home,” she says. “I knew that some of those stereotypes were very not true and that’s where I thought, Well, that’s bullshit.”
Racial points will be difficult and tough to debate, particularly in these tense, politically polarized occasions. But in the case of the current spate of assaults, “you realize that it is tied by one thing and that is hate,” she says. “Pure and simple.”
I used to be only a hurricane all over the place I went. Hair all the time tousled. Always actually searching for firm and a superb time.”
Lum is extremely close with her family. After her mother died of pulmonary hypertension when Lum was four, she was raised in Queens by her dad and her grandmother in a one-bedroom apartment. Losing her mom at such a young age left an open wound. She remembers knowing that her mom was sick for a few months but not truly understanding. Shortly after she died, Lum recalls, “what made me process it, and what made the emotions flood, was watching Bambi. And seeing his mom.” It’s a credit to the simple emotional brilliance of those Disney classics, she says. “It almost was like it was showing me a kid’s version of a life lesson that I needed to learn but [that] not a lot of people could teach me at that time.”
The loneliness of being an only child led to creativity and a search for camaraderie. “I had imaginary friends,” Lum says. “I would make up that there was a hole in my closet that led to a circus world or something.”
Like many multiethnic Asian Americans, Lum’s identity is difficult to parse. Her mom emigrated from Korea around college age, but Lum was so young when she died that she spent more time immersed in her dad’s Chinese culture, or at least Chinese American culture. He “had the kind of Queens drawl,” she says, loved rock and roll, and read underground poet Charles Bukowski.
Further complicating matters, Lum learned Chinese culture not only through her father’s generation, but also her grandmother’s, “…which was, like, witch hazel,” she underscores, referring to the host of traditional Chinese-grandma home remedies like witch hazel, Tiger Balm, and Po Chai Pills that were often recommended for a comically vast range of ailments (acne, also food poisoning). Home life was an intergenerational melting pot: “It was a mishmash of two different cultures within that Chinese identity.”
Memories of early childhood can be notoriously foggy, but echoes of Lum’s “very Korean” mom occasionally surface. “I remember certain things like tteokbokki [stir-fried rice cakes], banchan [small Korean side dishes], and things that I came across in my older life [that] kind of triggered these memories.”
Through the years, she’s grown more curious about her Korean roots, with some of her longtime Asian American-rapper friends, like Dumbfoundead and Year of the Ox, taking her under their wing. “They very often take the role of the big brothers that want to immerse me back into that culture,” Lum says. “So I relearned a lot from them. It’s weird working out an Asian identity, especially when you are half Korean, half Chinese. You don’t feel often of either. You feel American. And then you search for them, I think.”
As a child, Lum was a “little Tasmanian Devil,” she says, “constantly falling, tripping, throwing myself, rolling down hills, rolling in mud, just out of control. I climbed to insane heights.” One time her father came outside to find her way up in a tree. “He was horrified,” she says. (Dad had to get her down with a ladder.)
Lum is, by nature, an immensely visual storyteller. Within minutes of chatting with her, you’re taken in by her animated facial expressions and by the vivid pictures she paints with her anecdotes. “I was just a hurricane everywhere I went. Hair always messed up. Always really looking for company and a good time.”
Ever the entertainer, she frequently got in trouble at school for class-clown behavior. Her free spirit put her in other risky situations too. Though she’s made it this far with- out a broken bone, she has amassed some scars. She scans her forearms, thrusting them toward her webcam to show me: one from Rollerblading backward down a steep hill, another from biking in the dirt (“not dirt-biking, just biking in the dirt,” she emphasizes).
But there was no slowing down young Nora. There was fun to be found. “I loved to just zoom around,” she says.
She took that Tasmanian Devil energy with her to film Shang-Chi. “There’s something just so awesome about entering that [Marvel] universe,” she says. “There is an electricity on set. I’m really excited for it.”
Lum’s role has been shrouded in secrecy thus far, but I dig anyway: Was there physical training involved?
She’s mum on the details, but will say that she didn’t do nearly as many feats of strength as her castmates — although she did find herself hanging off the sides of buildings. She has the utmost respect for stuntpeople, but there are just some stunts that a tree-climbing, Rollerblading, biker-in-the-dirt simply cannot turn down. “It’s like, ‘We wanna slingshot you…’ Yes!” she says. “It’s about trust. You’re in a harness. I love being thrown. I love dropping. But it’s usually a lot of dangling, which I don’t love because that’s more of a core thing.”
At the end of the day, it’s back to home or hotel. When you’re a person who overflows with energy, it’s hard to control exactly when and how to shut it off. “I’ve always had insomniac aspects,” Lum says. “When I come home from a long day at work, it — extrovert, right? — it energizes me. Then I’m filled with those thoughts of, Did I say that? And I’ll be up for, like, a whole other workday.”
Recently, she says, she’s been getting really into her Myers-Briggs personality type. For the record, she’s an ENFP (Extroverted, Intuitive, Feeling, Perceiving). They tend to be highly creative and social but also disorganized and prone to overthinking. “They’re not necessarily hams, but they’re, like, ‘Hey, what’s up? You got that? You got my email?’” she purrs, putting on a slick, used-car salesman’s voice. “Also, I do have a very strong empath quality — I want to make people comfortable.”
Perhaps her ENFP status helps to explain the duality that often comes up when discussing her personality. It’s even present in her name: Awkwafina as the brash, bold performer; Nora, the anxiety-riddled alter ego. According to Lum’s self-analysis, she’s split precisely in half: the extroverted good-time-seeker next to the introspective brooder.
Either quality can easily show on her face at any given time. In an ode to Lum for the 2019 Time 100 Next list, Sandra Oh referred to “her beautiful, melancholic face.” I ask how Lum would describe it. “Oh, man. Expressive. It’s expressive to the point where I almost sometimes don’t want it to be,” she says. “I think my face muscles are the hardest-working muscles in my entire body. It can look, not youthful, but childish, like, in an attitude way…and that can definitely show melancholy.”
That toggle between moods is a trait her loved ones know well. “I think the people closest to me would describe me as someone that can turn it on and, when it’s off, it’s off — and it’s almost like it never existed,” she explains. “My good friends would probably say, ‘She’s more serious than I’d expected because she can be kind of a downer sometimes.’”
A few years ago, Lum hopped into a car with her grandmother and road-tripped far down the Long Island Expressway, past Dix Hills and Hauppauge, to the humble house where they lived briefly when Lum was a kid. Neither of them had seen it in years. “It was just this weird trip with her, that I felt like I could make a left turn and we could just go to Vegas,” she recalls wistfully, highlighting it as one of the happiest experiences of her life. “Like, we could just run away, you know?”
Until recently, Lum had updated her dad and grandma on practically every detail of her life. But traveling to different time zones has made it increasingly difficult to connect as frequently. She’s fortunate to have confidantes in the industry, though, who will still tell her the hard truth.
“The more you do this, the more movies you make, you are definitely surrounded by a lot more yes-men,” Lum says. The veil of fame can cloud even the sharpest armchair detective’s lie-detecting abilities, and that’s when paranoia kicks in. “You need people that are, like, straight up, ‘That is horrible. Take that off.’ So I feel myself clinging to those people more and more.”
She is protective of parts of her life, conscious that the trappings of fame can be as destructive as they are enticing. While many others in Lum’s peer group happily go Instagram official with whomever they’re dating or pose hand in hand on the red carpet, she is notably private about that aspect of her personal life. What sparked that reticence? “There are certain things that I’m very, very open about, almost to a point where it’s a little embarrassing,” she says with a laugh. “Then there are other boundaries that I naturally set when I knew that I was going into this. I want to protect the people that I love. It’s like you always want to have something that you still feel is kind of untouched by all of this.”
In general, personal relationships are intensely important to Lum. Her most gratifying career moment, for instance, isn’t getting an award or even a performance. “Something I’m most proud of is that I’ve always treated people with the kindness and respect that I was shown,” she says. “I’m just still blown away that this is a thing. You know what I mean? It’s hard for me to process.” Now her goal is to pull others up with her. I ask who she’s most excited about right now: 1, musician Audrey Nuna; 2, actor Meng’er Zhang, with whom she worked on Shang-Chi; 3 and 4, her longtime stand-in Jessica and her stunt double Lee Chesley — “they’re badass Asian American women that you don’t often see but are really important parts of what we do.”
Although past interviews have painted Lum as famously thrifty, she’ll happily throw down money for a shared human experience, like $1,000 for a karaoke night or a great dinner with friends. And she can be sentimental. Her most treasured possession, something truly priceless, is socked away in a safe. “My mom’s vision was bad. She needed huge glasses. She had these big, ’90s glasses that, ironically, came back into trend,” she says. “[People have been] like, ‘Yo, we can take the lenses out.’ I didn’t want to take the lenses out. Because you could see how she saw with the lenses in.”
The Chinese grandma in her wears those past tales of thriftiness like a badge of honor, but Lum did treat herself to a big Louis Vuitton carry-on while she was in Australia. But her flashy bag has become more of an art object. “It’s ironic,” she says, “because I want to protect it, so I actually just use a normal duffel bag — a Samsonite duffel bag.” Similarly, a pricey La Mer cleanser sits on a shelf at home like a special jewel (“only open it on a holiday”) and she fills her daily skin-care regimen (one she graciously credits me with teaching her during that podcast several years ago) with simpler products. “I started to get really into it because I feel like a routine kind of grounds you,” she says. “And it’s a routine that helps my peace of mind now.”
It’s nearly 4:30 p.m. on Saturday and we’re wrapping up our final interview. Traffic is heavy in NYC today and she needs to get back to the set. A relaxing beachside getaway is probably not in the cards anytime soon (but don’t discount a spontaneous Vegas road trip with Grandma), and that’s just fine by her. Lum recalls a trip to Hawaii a few years ago: “On the third day of shutting off and throwing your phone into the sand, I was like, ‘What am I doing? If I see one more piña colada…’ ”
We say our goodbyes. And like that, she zooms off again. Those boxes on her calendar beckon.
Photographed by: Christine Hahn
Fashion stylist: Kyle Luu
Hair: Gonn Kinoshita
Makeup: Grace Ahn
Manicure: Naomi Yasuda
Production: Hudson Hill Production