She was filming a scene with Rihanna for “Ocean’s 8” in the New York Times building, as one does, and when she walked outside, it was nighttime in the city where she grew up. It was beautiful and crisp and clear, and when she looked up, she saw it: The office where she used to work. The one she would take the subway to every morning, hating herself. The office where she got fired.
Back then, the rapper-actress-comedian went by her real name, Nora Lum, and although she admits she was “a s---ty publicist,” getting canned still didn’t feel good. “I felt disgrace from being fired from that,” she said. “It was at a time when my dad, no one, really believed that Awkwafina would be a thing.”
It was under the name Awkwafina that she released “My Vag,” a sharp, hilarious music video that was a direct response to a Mickey Avalon song with an unprintable (but very predictable) title and an indirect response to the type of men who would write such a song. Awkwafina’s video went viral. Nora Lum’s boss sent her packing.
That was in 2012. In 2018, Awkwafina, now 30, released a critically acclaimed hip-hop EP, “In Fina We Trust,” and is charming the masses in two of the summer’s biggest movies: As a scammer-slash-pickpocket in the aforementioned heist flick, and in “Crazy Rich Asians,” in which she’s the primary scene stealer as Peik Lin, the uber-wealthy, borderline-manic best friend to the romantic heroine, and carries herself as though nobody told her that she’s not the star of the movie.
Director Jon M. Chu has admitted that when he cast Awkwafina, he “had no idea whether it was going to work. I was like, ‘This will either ruin the movie or take the movie to another level.’ But she knew exactly what she was doing.”
“I think it’s so exciting when you get to watch a star right before they explode. And this is what we’re seeing” with Awkwafina, said Elaine Lui, a celebrity expert and founder/editor of LaineyGossip.com. “That is what Hollywood is built on: the moment a star arrives.”
Only two weeks after she found out she’d gotten cast, Awkwafina was on a plane to Singapore to start filming. “When you’re Asian American or Asian Australian or Asian Brit, and you go back to Asia, there’s always a very personal journey that takes place,” she said. “And I think that we were all the tokens, at some point. We were all that one Asian on set. And that dynamic just didn’t exist.”
With the “Crazy Rich Asians” cast, she said, “I felt like I’d known these people my whole life.”
Awkwafina was 5 years old when “The Joy Luck Club” hit theaters in 1993. In the quarter-century since, of the very few major Hollywood studio movies featuring majority-Asian casts, all were set in the past. “Crazy Rich Asians” is the first to treat its characters not as historical subjects but as actual people living in the present day.
“I think I definitely clocked that this had never happened, and I never thought it would ever happen in my career,” she said.
Surely this was not the inner monologue of, say, Tom Hardy, gazing across the set of “Dunkirk”: “I never thought I’d get to be in a movie with so many white men, written by a white man, and directed by a white man.”
It can be tempting, in a stretch that’s seen the box office triumphs of “Black Panther,” “Coco,” “Get Out,” “Girls Trip” and “Wonder Woman” (not to mention “Ocean’s 8”), to feel as though inclusion is the new normal. But Hollywood is no more diverse now than it was a decade ago, on screen or off. The new normal looks an awful lot like the old normal. It does not look very much like “Crazy Rich Asians.” Not yet, at least.
Lui gets emotional talking about this movie, about seeing people cry at screenings. “A lot of people in the Asian community have felt after watching this movie, or while they’re watching this movie, that they’re being seen for the very first time,” she said.
It’s not that “Crazy Rich Asians” is a tear-jerker. Just the opposite. Based on Kevin Kwan’s best-selling novel of the same name, the film is a luscious, glittery, love story. “I think the emotion comes from the fact that the movie is so joyful,” Lui said. “Ironically, it makes you emotional because these are happy, joyful people. They’re living big lives. . . . Being Asian, that, too, is not something we see in an English-language film, to see us represented in that way. [To see us] not recovering from a war, [or feeling] sadness because of whatever you discovered in your ancestry. Those are valid stories, too. But these are just modern Asians who are out there living their best life.”
When Awkwafina was watching her dailies on set with Chu, she also cried. “I think it was in that moment that I realized what we were doing there,” she said. “When you’re filming a movie, you don’t understand the impact yet. But it was an impactful moment for me. ”
Awkwafina was born to a Chinese American father and a South Korean immigrant mother who died when she was 4. She says it was her grandmother who really nurtured her to be funny and outgoing.
“I never cared about anything,” Awkwafina said. “I would do anything for a laugh. I would jump off a building for a laugh.” She also had “a love affair” with hip-hop. “It was my outlet for everything. Especially as kind of an angsty teen, I felt something extremely subversive about hip-hop that connected to me.”
At LaGuardia High School, the performing arts academy (other notable alumni: Timothée Chalamet, Nicki Minaj, “Ocean’s 8” castmate Sarah Paulson), she played the trumpet. She developed her alter-ego when she was about 15: a hyper-expressive public self who performs in a way Nora Lum never would. “I think everyone has that duality inside us,” she said. “They have this overly confident person that they’d love to be, but can’t, because adulthood set in and they’re neurotic and really, really self-conscious. But Awkwafina, she doesn’t do that.”
“My dad is totally Americanized,” she said. “I didn’t even see the Asian dad part come out until I started doing Awkwafina, and he thought I was going through, literally, a quarter-life crisis kind of thing. He thought I was insane.” She set out to prove him wrong. She made “Tawk,” a scrappy Web series in which she conducted interviews in bodegas, laundromats and subway cars. In 2014, she released her debut album, “Yellow Ranger.” She landed a spot on MTV’s humorous advice show “Girl Code” and parts in “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising” and the Netflix stoner comedy “Dude.”
Awkwafina pieced together her path to success without any clear example to follow; it’s not like young Nora Lum could turn on the TV and see women who looked like her, doing what she wanted to do. She’d watch her childhood favorite movie, “Air Bud” (yes, the basketball-playing dog, what of it?) and think, wouldn’t that be so cool, if I was that kid? But she thought “it wouldn’t make any sense if I was that kid, because I wasn’t white,” she said.” Her only “guiding light” was Margaret Cho, with whom she eventually collaborated on a song, “Green Tea.”
“When I was growing up, I was really looking for movies like ‘Crazy Rich Asians,’” said Awkwafina. “I was looking to see how dreams could materialize. Because if you don’t have that, how can you dream? . . . If you’re the first one doing all this stuff, there’s no road map for it. You can’t ask anyone for advice. Being the first, sometimes it’s really scary. But it’s really important, because it allows room for more.”
“Crazy Rich Asians” isn’t just a win for representation; it upends limiting, persistent stereotypes about who Asians are and can be. “The cast has talked about this all the time: When they’re in movies, they’re doctors with clipboards, they’re accountants,” Lui said. Here’s an Asian-American rapper who is a movie star, who swears, who talks about her vagina. That breaks the mold of so many expectations of what Asian women should be.”
Awkwafina already has new projects lined up: hosting the iHeartRadio MMVAs on Aug. 26, shooting sci-fi thriller “Paradise Hills,” voicing a character in “The Angry Birds Movie 2.” And she’s “feeling optimistic” about the direction of the industry.
“We [want] a Hollywood that represents the realities of the people that live in this country,” she said. “This movie, every movie that strays against the very old-timey narrative is a giant middle finger to any kind of ideas that we are not American, that we are all one color, and all those things.”
And no offense to Nora Lum, but she plans to do this all under the name Awkwafina.
“I feel like any Asian American that’s doing it right now, they need to be remembered,” she said. “It’s imperative to be remembered. And when people see my name, they’re a mixture of confused, angry, distraught, disturbed — they don’t understand it at all. But it’s important, because they’ll never forget it. I need people to not forget me.”
Crazy Rich Asians (PG-13, 120 minutes). Opens Wednesday at area theaters.