Awkwafina (Nora Lum) is blowin’ up. The rapper turned comedic actress starred in the critically acclaimed cultural moment that was “Crazy Rich Asians” and, alongside Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett, in “Ocean’s 8.” She even hosted “Saturday Night Live.”
During the monologue of that October 2018 SNL broadcast Awkwafina gave a shout out to her grandmother, which, taking into account her star dramatic turn in Lulu Wang’s buzzy Sundance flick “The Farewell,” was all too fitting.
In “The Farewell,” written and directed by Wang, Awkwafina stars as Billi, a Chinese-born writer who moved to America when she was 6 years old. The film centers around Billi’s family’s decision not to tell their beloved matriarch, Nai Nai, that she has been diagnosed with lung cancer and doesn’t have long to live. Instead they throw together a wedding back in China so that everyone in the family can, in effect, say their goodbyes.
She told TheWrap that the idea of taking on what is her most dramatic role to date made her doubt herself.
“I definitely doubted myself at first. I didn’t know if I would be able to do it justice,” Awkwafina said at TheWrap’s studio during the Sundance Film Festival. “I did become emotionally invested in the character and in the story. It’s so beautiful and moving, I never thought that I would see a script like this in my career.”
She added, “You couldn’t just get a spec script on this and just be like, ‘Oh, that’s a fun fiction story.’ This is real, it’s coming from the heart, it’s written from the heart. The characters are based on very multi-dimensional Asian people, almost to the point where they’re accidentally Asian and they’re just human.”
TheWrap’s Carlos Aguilar described Awkwafina’s performance in “The Farewell” as melancholic, and she’s gotten rave reviews out of the festival for her first dramatic role. “The Farewell” was one of the festival’s hottest titles and was picked up by A24 for somewhere between $6 million and $7 million.
The film is based on a true story, or “an actual lie,” as it’s described in the opening frame. Awkwafina serves as an avatar for Wang, who told the story on NPR’s “This American Life” podcast in a segment titled “In Defense of Ignorance” back in 2016.
“The Farewell” is told mostly in Mandarin, which Wang said was important to her. It’s actually a recurring theme in the film — Billi’s language limitations. Because she moved away from China as a child and grew up in New York, Awkwafina’s character is knocked for her poor Mandarin and for culturally not quite fitting in.
“Very early in my career everyone was like, ‘You gotta find your voice, you gotta do something personal.’ What does that mean? How do you go find your voice?” Wang said. “Something personal, does that immediately mean something Asian when you’re in America? Because if I was an Asian filmmaker, making something personal wouldn’t mean being Asian, and so I struggled with that for a long time.”
Wang was born in China, but grew up in the U.S. in Florida, and Awkwafina was born and raised in New York City’s Queens borough.
“That journey is real. I think any ‘dash-American’ person is going to experience that in their lives. They’re going to feel something missing in both areas,” Awkwafina said. “There is like a weird feeling of fitting in physically, you don’t feel like you’re different, but culturally you’re still an anomaly. That experience is real and I think ‘The Farewell’ really touches on that.”