Chances are you’ve been hearing the name Awkwafina, the alias of Queens-born actor and musician Nora Lum, a lot this year. She’s the co-star and premier scene-stealer of Crazy Rich Asians, the rom-com phenomenon getting a ton of buzz this month for its landmark place in cinema (and for just being a really good time at the movies – 92% and Certified Fresh right now). She was also the co-star and premier scene-stealer of Ocean’s 8, another buzzy cinematic milestone that made big dollars earlier in the summer. Critics and audiences have left both films singing Lum’s praises and wanting to know more about her.
What they find out is that Awkwafina didn’t happen overnight (she recently shared her story in a touching Twitter post). She’s been making music for years, first uploading to YouTube and then releasing two EPs; her biggest hit, the hilariously pointy rap “My Vag” (sample lyric: “My Vag is Godfather 1, and yo vag is Godfather 3”) has racked up almost 3 million views on YouTube. Watching the video, or any of her other earlier work (sample titles: “Queef,” “Green Tea,” a duet with Margaret Cho), it’s obvious she was destined to break big – household name big – and Crazy Rich Asians could be the thing to do it.
In the movie, adapted from Kevin Kwan’s crazy-popular novel, Lum plays Peik Lin, a college friend of Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), who reunites with Lin when she travels to Singapore to meet her (crazy-rich) boyfriend’s family. Peik Lin is Rachel’s guide through the parties and social thorniness of wealthy Singaporean culture, and her champion and coach when things get rocky in love. For the audience, she’s more than comic relief – though she is definitely that – she’s a one-woman Greek chorus in a world so opulent it can overwhelm. And she’s great at it. As Bill Goodykoontz writes in The Arizona Republic: “I’d watch every episode of a reality show with a camera following Awkwafina while she attends parties of the rich and famous while cracking wise about them.”
With Crazy Rich Asians in theaters, Lum sat down with Rotten Tomatoes to share her Five Favorite Films in a chat that touched on representation, baseball, and Bette Midler.
When I grew up, grandma would say, “Why do you like this movie so much?” And I would say, “Because I am Kit Keller. You don’t understand, like I am Kit.” It was very influential, and I saw it when I was four or five. Must have been really, really young. And I just remember, it made it seem normal that women could play baseball. I absolutely loved Lori Petty, like Lori Petty was me. I related to her in so many ways. I played baseball, I played softball. And, yeah, I even made a costume, a Halloween costume, for myself one year of the Rockford Peaches. It was just an amazing movie.
It comes down to my specific brand of comedy – I really enjoy comedy that takes things to different places. Best in Show had already been out when I saw it, and it was the first improv sketch film I saw – it was my first mockumentary. And I noticed that the way that they do it is just so amazing. I was in love with Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy, who are amazing in A Mighty Wind as well. But Best in Show is so good because it was so evocative of a time and a place, this dog show that goes on, and I’d never seen, like I said, a mockumentary, I’d never seen improv.
Have you ever done a mockumentary yourself? Would you do one?
I would do a mockumentary so fast! Like, it’s not even funny. But, no, I have not been invited to do a mockumentary.
This is an open call to Christopher Guest, then…
Christopher Guest! I am – I am avail! Hit me up. Don’t even go through my agent, just hit me up. Hit me up on MySpace.
I actually had the poster of Saving Face hanging in my room for a long time. It was the first Asian-American movie that I saw that really connected with me. I’ve seen some Asian-American indies, but that really kind of opened up my search for them. I didn’t even really know about the genre when I first saw it. It was written and directed by an Asian-American woman, Alice Wu, and it centers around, an Asian-American lesbian. It stars one of my favorite actresses ever – Lynn Chen – and Michelle Krusiec. This girl, she’s from Queens, and she takes the 7. It was the first time I’d ever seen a movie with an Asian American on a 7 train!
I think that was the first time I really understood what representation was. But it hit closer to home because she was an Asian-American woman and because, you know, she is from Queens. And she went to Flushing all the time, and her mom [Joan Chen] was kind of this Flushing socialite who actually becomes pregnant. And she kind of has to go between both worlds of being the good Asian daughter and also coming to terms with her sexuality. It was one of those movies that I think explored a lot of layers about the Asian-American experience and the negotiation that come with it. And, so, I love that movie so much. I still have the poster somewhere.
I didn’t even know when I saw it that Marisa Tomei had won an Academy Award for it, but it makes so much sense ’cause she’s amazing. It’s also my dad’s favorite movie, so I literally had a tape of it. But it wasn’t an official tape, it just kind of had a strip on it that said “My Cousin Vinny.”
We would put it on, and me and my grandma and my dad would sit there and just be cracking up. And I really liked it because, you know, I’m from New York City, and you know, he kind of [embodies that]. It’s the perfect juxtaposition between someone from New York City that goes to the south and all the kind of lost-in-translation stuff that occurs.
Some people say Tomei’s win was a potential mistake (not me!). What do you think about that – did she deserve it?
Where are those critics? Call those critics up, tell them to come to my house. We’ll have a little talk, alright? We’ll have a little talk.
Yes! Martin Lawrence and Luke Wilson play a hilarious cop duo. I love Blue Streak because I used to watch that movie with my grandma. And my grandma loved Martin. She would watch his show on UPN, and, that was her favorite show. But, yeah, Blue Streak is definitely my favorite [action-comedy]. Love MarLaw.
What do you think makes a good buddy cop duo?
Well I think it helps when someone is just pretending, you know? The cops definitely have to be different, so one of them has to be a real cop, and I think one of them, you know…. Like in Rush Hour. There’s always that unlikely cop who has to kind of carry him through.
Who would you want to do a buddy-cop comedy with?
Oh man… Bette Midler?
Really? Why Bette?
Because she’s amazing – hello? Well, she’s amazing, and I think that she would make a really hilarious cop.
Crazy Rich Asians is in theaters now.