Nobody is quite like actress, comedian, and rapper Nora Lum, known better by her professional name Awkwafina. From her breakout role as Peik Lin in Crazy Rich Asians to the standout and relatable best friend in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Awkwafina is the next rising star on the horizon and is doing incredible work to bring Asian representation onto the big screen.
With a Golden Globe win for Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical for her role in The Farewell and a nomination for outstanding character voice-over performance at the NAACP Image Awards for her work in Disney’s Raya and the Last Dragon. She is undoubtedly an actress to keep a lookout for in the film industry and an inspiring role model in her own right.
Awkwafina was raised primarily by her Chinese grandmother and her Chinese-American father after her mother passed away when she was only four years old. Connected to her Chinese heritage through her grandmother, Awkwafina has been inspired by the likes of Margaret Cho and Lucy Liu since her younger years and commented that she looks up to these women because they: “represented us (Asian Americans) as truly authentic beings.” Despite her Chinese upbringing, Awkwafina never became fluent in Mandarin, and when it came to her role in The Farewell, she wanted to do it justice.
The Farewell is about a Chinese family who discovers their grandmother is dying and decides to keep the diagnosis from her and plan a wedding gathering before she passes. Bili (Awkwafina) struggles with the upcoming loss of her grandmother, with whom she shares a close relationship while dealing with her family and cultural identity. Feeling similarities between herself and Bili's story Awkwafina said, “… it felt like it just came to me in an auspicious way. So I studied really hard. Six-hour days of just drilling it in, getting the accent right. It meant that much to me. I really wanted to work for a character like that.”
Awkwafina is genuinely determined to bring more depth and authenticity to Asian characters than what is typically seen on our screens today and breakthrough stigmas with characters like Katy in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.
In an interview with RadioTimes.com about Katy, Awkwafina said: “I loved what was already written for Katy, and I really do feel like they did make her a little bit different.” She hopes that the future of Asian representation in the film industry will continue to change for the better, and when asked about it in an interview for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. Awkwafina stated: “Being the first Asian superhero in the MCU and kind of its scale, it felt different, but it also adds to this larger picture of how we’re changing what representation means in Hollywood. And in that way, I’m always very grateful to be part of projects like this.”
These issues of representation include the next generation and conveying the importance they will have on the film industry through films like Raya and the Last Dragon. In the film, Awkafina’s role is slightly different as she voices Sisu, a dragon who can help save humanity. Although the meaning of her role came with a lot of pressure because the kids would watch the film, Awkwafina didn't feel any different.
"I haven't thought about it in that way… I think just seeing Raya would have meant a lot. And it would have been different… I'm very optimistic about the future and I think... there's still progress to be made. To be a part of these movies, especially like Raya and The Last Dragon that broadens that scope of representation to the Southeast Asian community, I'm just really proud."