The Summer Of Awkwafina

What happens when you star in not one, but two of the most talked- about blockbusters this summer?

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

What happens when you star in not one, but two of the most talked- about blockbusters this summer? You quickly become the one to watch, and a quick Google search on your name will throw up articles like “Who is Awkwafina?” and “Five Things You Should Know About Awkwafina”. Well – if you didn’t know, now you know. 

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World, meet Nora Lum. Better known as her stage name Awkwafina, the 30-year-old hits the big screens twice over the span of two months this year: first in Ocean’s 8, and again in the highly-anticipated Crazy Rich Asians this month. 

Her initial claim to fame, though? A music video called “My Vag”, which appeared on YouTube six years ago and has since garnered more than two million views. Choice lines include: “My vag won best vag, your vag won best supporting vag” – which, now that we think about it, might become a self-fulfilling prophecy given that her career is on a steep upward trajectory. 

First, let’s talk Crazy Rich Asians. How much of the country did you get to see?

A lot of it was shot at Marina Bay Sands. We also went to Tim Ho Wan and Lau Pa Sat a lot. There was a lot of eating. And shopping too, because we were right next to Far East Plaza. It’s, like, the best mall ever. We were in Singapore for a month, and we’d been in Kuala Lumpur for a month before that. It was really cool because Henry Golding has lived in both KL and Singapore, so he took the cast around to the restaurants. 

What are some of your favourite Singaporean food?

OMG, the chicken rice was really good. And also the prata, which was really good in both KL and Singapore. 

You were also in another huge summer blockbuster, Ocean’s 8. The experience must have been insane with the ensemble cast. 

There was a lot of anxiety. I was extremely nervous, but those nerves quickly disappeared. They are professionals who are really sweet, and we’ve become a very tight-knit family. 

How did you deal with that anxiety? 

There is going to be anxiety on any level: you want to do well and you want to be as good as the people in it. What kept me going was that I knew I could play my character Constance well. You could feel like “OMG, OMG, I can’t” but at the end of the day, we all belong there. So that really helped me, just the feeling that I belonged there.

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Akwafina as Goh Peik Lin in  Crazy Rich Asians. 

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From left to right: Anne Hathaway, Awkwafina, Sarah Paulson, Cate Blanchett, Sandra Bullock and Mindy Kaling. 

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In Ocean’s 8, Awkwafina plays a loudmouthed street hustler known as Constance. 

The two movies generated a lot of conversations about diversity and representation – was it a conscious decision for you to pick these roles?

These roles were a no-brainer in many ways. I learned I was doing something way bigger than myself, and something that I think will influence how people look at [women and Asians]… The audiences need to see that world, where Asian-Americans exist and we have stories that are beautiful and bold, and where women can all get together and be bada**es. 

How does that feel, knowing it all started from a rap video about your vagina? 

(chortles) I mean, it’s very unbelievable, you know. A lot of people asked if I planned this, but the truth is, I’ve never dreamt that this would happen. 

Was there a moment where it suddenly hit you, like, “Oh sh*t, this is happening”? 

It’s weird. Yesterday, I was at the Ocean’s 8 promo and even then I still couldn’t believe what was happening. When I saw the first trailer for Ocean’s 8, I was like “OMG, this is happening” and for Crazy Rich Asians… I’d never imagined that this would happen in my lifetime, like, having an all-Asian cast, you know? 

How are you juggling these two sides of your identity – Awkwafina the comedian-rapper, versus Awkwafina, the glamorous Hollywood actress? 

I often say that Awkwafina and Nora represent this duality in my personality. Nora could never do what Awkwafina does musically. She can’t perform live. But I think that both Awkwafina and Nora do bleed into acting. In general, music is my thing, and that’s what I’m going to do. With acting, I can’t control it. I can’t say I’m going to be in this movie this year and that movie that year. Every movie that happens is a blessing. 

Speaking of music, let’s talk about your new EP, In Fina We Trust. 

It coincidentally came out together with Ocean’s 8. It took a long time. I had half of the album when I was already in Singapore. I haven’t had a project out since 2014, so it meant a lot for me and I wanted to do it right. 

Your next film is the sci-fi thriller Paradise Hills. It’s a completely different genre from what you’ve been doing; what made you want to take it up? 

I want to challenge myself. I’ve done a lot of comedy, I’ve worked a lot with certain emotions and I’ve learnt to really flex that. But Paradise Hills is a departure from that, and it also makes a strong statement about strong women. And I always want my characters to be strong. 

Does this mean we’re going to see you in more serious roles in the future? 

After watching Crazy Rich Asians, my grandma said I didn’t really act at all, and that I pretty much played myself. So that’s like a compliment as much as an insult (laughs). As an actress, I want to step out of my comfort zone, but comedy is my zone. So I think you’ll see me in a lot of comedy roles. 

Do you ever feel the Imposter Syndrome, now that you’re branching out into acting?

Yeah, for sure. It’s the most human reaction to anything – that when something good happens, it takes them by surprise. Imposter Syndrome is only as real as you let it be. What saves us from that is knowing we deserved [the good things], and that’s a hard feeling for some of us who are very modest. But you have to tell yourself “I deserve to be here, because I worked hard for it.” You have to believe it. 

How do we get to Awkwafina’s level of confidence? Is there a mantra to follow?

Oh man, I wish it was as simple as that. The beautiful thing about Awkwafina’s confidence, is that Nora gets the panic attacks, but Awkwafina’s confidence induces the panic attacks. So one of them deals with all the anxiety, and nervousness, while the other one just dishes it out. You need both sides, I think. You can’t walk around being confident without being humble as well. You need to be grounded. For me, where I found my confidence was that I only knew to be myself, and if you don’t like me for myself, then you’re never gonna get it. When you’re comfortable being in your own skin, it’s going to show and it’s going to be extremely commanding to the people around you. 

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Sh*t Awkwafina Says 

“This is not a paid advertisement. A b*tch just enjoys Subway. And I’m not gonna act like I don’t like Subway. I love Subway. I will die in a Subway.” 

“Always that one dude at a KBBQ who is suddenly a chef and cooks the meat on his own terms.”

“(On selfie sticks) This is probably the greatest contribution that Asian people have given the United States in a very long time. Asian people love this sh*t.”

“I’ve never had a baby. But from what I’ve been told, it’s like pooping out a lemon.”

“If Netflix was crack, I would be at the level where I’m on the street, completely naked, prostituting myself.”

Images TPG/Click Photos, Warner Bros. Singapore