Awkwafina Changes the Rules of the Game — Cover Interview

As a high-spirited kid from an outer borough of the big city, Awkwafina (aka Nora Lum) took a big risk on fame. Several movies, TV shows, and a rap career later, it has paid off spectacularly. The next moves are hers.

BY: Michelle Lee


Awkwafina and I are going deep on our love for true crime. Dateline is, like, king,” she says. We trade favorite episodes and she offers a spot-on armchair analysis 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 genre (Forensic Files, The Inventor, even a detour down the true-crime-adjacent Sex Sent Me to the ER rabbit hole), but her sweet 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 short spell of downtime as COVID-19 sent us into lockdown last spring, while others tinkered with sourdough starters and banana bread, Awkwafina (or Nora Lum, as we’ll call her from here on out) was unlocking the mysteries of a different pandemic hobby, a skill she first dabbled in when portraying a pickpocket in Ocean’s Eight: magic tricks. “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 favorite Dateline episodes, sometimes the correct explanation is also the easiest explanation. “This one is straight-up like you cut things and then put tape. It really is, like, very practical, practical magic.”

In a year when much of the world seemed to come to a screeching halt, this 33-year-old actor has had to grasp onto her spare time when she can find it. I catch her on a Zoom call during a rare break from filming. On the first morning that we chat, she’s already showered and gone for a walk with Haeng-Un, the three-year-old pup she adopted a few weeks earlier. She’s back in bed with Haeng-Un (which means “good luck” in Korean) for our conversation, and afterward, she’ll rush off to the set.

Lum has worked almost nonstop through the pandemic: Marvel’s all-Asian superhero movie, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, was fortuitously filming in Australia, where COVID-19 had been quickly brought under control. She flew home to L.A. for a month or two, and then to Vancouver to film Swan Song with Mahershala Ali. Then it was back to New York for season two of her Comedy Central series, 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 reflects the hustle and joy of a star whose stream of exciting incoming opportunities has gone from a trickle to a fire hose. Looking at Awkwafina: Bona Fide Celebrity today, it’s easy to forget that just a few years ago she was an under-the-radar actor cutting her teeth on roles like “Waitress 1.”

I first met Lum — five-foot-one with a wide smile and a big personality — right at that inflection point. In June 2018, she visited my office around the release of Ocean’s Eight and weeks before Crazy Rich Asians. Several months later we had fun in an L.A. studio recording a podcast together, and the next year we caught up at a dinner to celebrate the release of her film The Farewell.

By now I have heard and read — and read again — the Awkwafina origin story, as I suspect you may have too. Before writing this, I decided not to mention Lum’s start with the viral rap video, “My Vag.” (I even wrote “*no My Vag” in my notebook.) With a filmography that’s nearly three-dozen credits deep, Lum has surely earned the right to elevate beyond some of her résumé’s earliest details.

But when we get to talking about the happiest moments in her life, she brings up the YouTube video. (Fine. “*no My Vag.”) She looks back fondly on that time as the first indication that her life was about to change.

After graduating from LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts, she traveled for a year in China, and then got a degree in journalism at SUNY Albany. Post-college, she took a job in book publicity and a $9-an-hour gig at a vegan bodega in Brooklyn. Lum, who started rapping at 13, wrote “My Vag” on GarageBand when she was 19; at 24, she recorded the music video. The day the video got picked up on websites and started 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 because of the bawdy parody clip. She did. But as they say, when one door closes, another swings open. The video caught the attention of Seth Rogen, who hired Lum for a small role in 2016’s Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising. Then things really kicked into high 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 global success of Crazy Rich Asians, that the rapper-actor became Thee Awkwafina, official breakout star of the highest-grossing romantic comedy in a decade and legitimate household name. The bullet train hasn’t slowed down since.

In Hollywood, funny people typically stay in their lane for at least a few years before trying to prove their dramatic chops. But just a year after being heralded as one of comedy’s brightest new stars, Lum showed her range in The Farewell, Lulu Wang’s bittersweet family drama, portraying a granddaughter stuck in an intergenerational family lie. Then she made history in 2020, becoming the first Asian American woman to win a Golden Globe for best actress.

A peek at her upcoming projects shows a healthy dose of voice-over work and action fare mixed with indie drama and even some sci-fi. It’s also clear that Lum has impressed the folks at Disney. She voiced the comic sidekick, Sisu, in Raya and the Last Dragon and she’ll appear 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 crucial racial and gender reckoning in the entertainment industry. It was perhaps inevitable that Lum would come to epitomize a new wave of representation. She acknowledges that progress has been made for Asians in Hollywood, but only after a pretty ugly history of inequality. “We couldn’t even be in movies, so we had to have white actors play us,” says Lum. But she sees how today’s increased visibility can help shape culture. “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 especially poignant point right now. Lum and I are talking at a painful time in Asian American history. Our first video call is just three days after the tragic shooting of eight people, including six Asian women, in the Atlanta area, where a gunman targeted three Asian-run spas. It’s been a roller coaster of emotions for many in the AAPI community, who’ve felt traumatized by a year of increased discrimination and violent attacks against Asians.

The morning after the Atlanta shootings, Lum read the news at work and talked about it with a fellow Asian American woman, a puppeteer, who was on set that day. But she didn’t process it until that night. “I came home and I lay awake in bed and I just started crying,” she says. Her gravelly voice cracks. Tears well up. She looks toward the wall. “Yeah, it makes me emotional right now.”

This specific tragedy hit her hard because she saw herself and her loved ones 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 particularly acute when she thinks about that Asian American woman 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 massacre represented a perfect storm of misogyny and racism and shined a necessary light on socio-economic issues within the Asian American community. “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 against Asian Americans continues to take root because we’re still viewed by some as foreigners in our own country. Even growing up in New York City around so much diversity, Lum often 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 issues can be complicated and difficult to discuss, especially in these tense, politically polarized times. But when it comes to the recent spate of attacks, “you realize that it is tied by one thing and that is hate,” she says. “Pure and simple.”

I was just a hurricane everywhere I went. Hair always messed up. Always really looking for company and a good 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 Dumbfounded 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

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