It's hours before the Los Angeles premiere for the highly-anticipated Crazy Rich Asians, the first major Hollywood movie featuring an all-Asian cast in 25 years, since The Joy Luck Club, and Awakwafina, who broke through earlier this summer with the all-female Ocean's 8, takes a moment to reflect on her whirlwind year. "It’s a long time coming," the 29-year-old multi-hyphenate, who, just five years ago was posting original rap music videos on YouTube, told ET last week when we connected over the phone.
Based on Kevin Kwan's best-selling book and directed by Jon M. Chu (Step Up franchise, G.I. Joe: Retaliation), Crazy Rich Asians kicks off when a Chinese-American NYU professor, Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), goes to Singapore to meet the family of her boyfriend, Nick Young (newcomer Henry Golding), secretly the heir to the oligarchical Young dynasty and set to inherit one of Asia's largest fortunes. Awkwafina (birth name: Nora Lum), plays Goh Peik Lin, Rachel's over-the-top best college pal and former roommate, who lives in an extravagantly gaudy, gold-crested mansion in Singapore her parents proudly profess was inspired by Donald Trump's bathroom. Peik Lin's memorable zingers ("Bok bok, b**tch!" is a line for the ages) and outrageous fashion don't overshadow the fact that she's Rachel ride-or-die, as Awkwafina's uninhibited performance shines brightly amid a brilliant ensemble.
If Ocean's 8 was the appetizer, Crazy Rich Asians is the main course that is about to catapult Awkwafina to stardom -- and she's well aware this moment doesn't come around often, especially for a girl born to a Korean immigrant mother and a Chinese-American father and called Queens, New York, home. Just days before the film opens nationwide, she shared the difficult road she endured to get to this place, writing in an emotional Twitter post, "I remembered those days when I got fired from my job for Awkwafina, when I was broke for Awkwafina, when I got kicked off line-ups because 'Awkwafina is a joke.' Awkwafina was a dream I was chasing, and in some ways, I am still chasing her."
With Crazy Rich Asians hitting theaters in under 24 hours, Awkwafina gets real with ET about her ascension in mainstream Hollywood, why the film is about more than just the Asian community and her family's reaction to her success, including why her grandmother was top of mind when she took the role. (And yes, we even get into Peik Lin's unruly blonde wig!)
ET: You have had a fantastic, whirlwind year. With the success of Ocean’s 8, many people took notice of your scene-stealing performance and you became the breakout star from the movie.
Awkwafina: Oh man!
Now you have Crazy Rich Asians, which the Asian community is incredibly excited for and passionate about. How have you been celebrating your big year?
You have to take a moment to enjoy it all. That’s something that I’ve had to teach myself. I was running around so much. I filmed something in China. I stayed home and filmed a pilot. It’s such an insane time. I remember I got sent [a] bottle of Johnnie Walker and when I was growing up, that was my dad’s favorite liquor, so you couldn't touch the John. You can touch everything else, you just can’t touch the Johnnie Walker. Everyone was freaking out and it was just a great way to sum it all up. It was the night I wrapped a pilot about my life and about my family, and it was a really good occasion to celebrate and share it with everybody. Sometimes you have to enjoy the moment and seize it for what it is. It’s been a really good year, but a fun year.
How have your friends and family reacted to your success?
My family is cool with it. They’re not overly excited; they’re not like, “Oh my god!” It’s kind of funny because my grandma is on YouTube now but she only searches for Awkwafina videos. I used to write this algorithm where you search for specific kinds of videos and that’ll be the only thing that will come up. So she called me one day and was like, “Nora, you’re all over YouTube. It’s only your videos!” And I was like, “No Grandma, it’s an algorithm … forget it! Yes, yes, it’s all me! Thank you!” (Laughs.) They’re not overly excited but I think that shows how cool they are. With Crazy Rich Asians, I remember [during] filming, I really wanted my grandmother to see this movie and I thought she would be really proud of it. It would affect her as an Asian immigrant. She’s been living in this country since the 1960s. I think it’s going to be momentous for generations across the board.
You've said that you felt like you had to be a part of Crazy Rich Asians. Why was it important for you to be in the movie?
I first heard whispers about this right around the time I was filming Ocean’s; even a year and a half, maybe two years ago, the fact that that movie has an all-female remake, even that was kind of crazy of an idea. I remember the first time I saw Crazy Rich Asians in a Hudson News in JFK. I saw the cover and the profile of an Asian woman’s face and it had this crazy, audacious title and I looked at the back and I was like, Oh, well it’s not about the war. It’s not about historical. It’s not about anything crazy and dark. It’s just a simple story that centers on an Asian American girl who goes to Singapore and is taken on this insane journey. That alone and the fact that it was a New York Times bestseller, that was influential. When it came time to bring it to existence, a friend was like, “They’re making this movie,” and I remember feeling excited -- not in a way where I was like, Oh my god, I need this, but I remember calling my agent and manager saying, “Listen to me, this movie is going to be big, so please [get me in].” When you put requests like that, you don’t know how they’ll come back and I was honored to even have an audition for such a big part. It was a no-brainer. Everything that I predicted and thought about how big and impactful it is for my community, it has been and it goes beyond that. It’s bigger than all of us.
The Joy Luck Club was a breakthrough when it came out in 1993 as the first major Hollywood film with an all-Asian cast. Crazy Rich Asians will be that movie for a new generation of Asians and Asian Americans.
Exactly. And you know what? That’s important. This is what I’m realizing about Asian Americans who are seeing the movie. They feel an overwhelming emotion that they don’t understand, but I’ve come to now realize is that that emotion is the privilege of representation. Growing up in a country that you love, that you have integrated into, where this is your country and this is your home but you’re not reflected adequately in the media. When you finally get that, it’s such an overwhelming experience and it moves them to tears. That’s what’s really beautiful -- not only about this movie specifically, but the idea of inclusion and the idea of authentic stories, they just need to exist and it’s OK for everyone. They’re not encroaching on other communities, they’re not saying “it’s only for one,” it’s an inclusive movement.
It seems like you’re going all in on projects that give you the opportunity to showcase what could be the norm in Hollywood. Do you hope to continue that mentality when you're choosing future films, TV shows and musical endeavors?
A hundred percent. A lot of artists, when they start out, if they’re a minority, they don’t want to be known as the Asian, they want to be known as an artist. But the misconception there is anything that they do will represent their community. When I started out, I was scared of that perception that I would be representing all of my people when I am just one person. But the truth is, if I didn’t want to do that, I shouldn’t have chosen this profession. The only thing that I have, the only thing I feel responsible to do is to choose roles that don’t set us back, that don’t mock us, that don’t belittle us, that only progress the cultural movement of letting people know that we’re not one-dimensional. That we can do this. That we got this. That’s the only thing that’s in my power, everything else is out of my power. At least I can say no and at least, I can say “I’m not doing that.” I will always continue to do that and that will be a responsibility that I will fulfill.
We’re coming at a crucial point for Asian representation in Hollywood. Just a few weeks ago, Sandra Oh became the first Asian woman to land a lead actress Emmy nomination ever, which is a staggering thing to wrap your mind around.
Obviously, Crazy Rich Asians is fueling a lot of the conversation. Do you think change is coming?
Oh yeah. [Director] Jon Chu has described Crazy Rich Asians as a movement and that’s exactly what it is. It’s significant of a larger shift in Hollywood right now that we’re seeing. It’s insane that Sandra Oh is the first Asian Canadian leading actress to be nominated [in that category] at the Emmys. Crazy. The crowd doesn’t want to harp on the sadness that it took 25 years to make Crazy Rich Asians, but you also have to realize that at the same time, it’s happening but people really had to struggle before all this. I’m spoiled because I came into this industry when they wanted different stories, they wanted different faces and they wanted authenticity. I don’t know if that was always the case. This is definitely progressive. I don’t think Crazy Rich Asians, at any cost, will be the last. I think this is the first of many. When it comes to different movies, this movie will help all minorities. It’s not just about Asian Americans, that’s the beauty of it. I think people will realize that and that’s why it’s important that people show up. I think it’s going to completely blow it out of the water.
You play Peik Lin, Rachel Chu’s best college friend, and already, you’ve been touted as a scene-stealer in the movie.
Oh my god, it’s good for my self-esteem. I appreciate it. (Laughs.)
How did you approach your portrayal of Peik Lin?
I’m definitely not an Astrid [played in the movie by British Chinese actress Gemma Chan], I’ll tell you that. Was not born with that body type. (Laughs.) The cool thing about Peik Lin, out of all the characters, she was my favorite. The audience needs her in some ways because she’s the go-between between the East and the West, so she serves that purpose. She’s very likable and she’s a good friend. The cool thing about playing her, Jon Chu is an amazing director and he completely puts trust in his actors and in doing so, it allows his actors to not be scared and take chances in their roles. Jon never really told me the correct way to play Peik Lin, she was born on the screen. So I didn’t understand what I was doing until I saw the entire thing and then I was like, “Oh my god, I’m in insane person!” It definitely garnered a reaction and that’s me doing my job.
We have to talk about your blonde wig, which probably helps you get into character.
That’s my natural color. I dye it black to fit in. (Laughs.) No, I’m kidding. It’s not easy to fit into a wig every single day and at first, I looked at the wig and I was like, this is a crazy wig. And then I kind of grew to love it. I put that wig on and I’m Peik Lin.
I may be jumping the gun a little, but is the cast signed on for a Crazy Rich Asians sequel?
I don’t know, but I hope that there is one. And I think that if there is a sequel, that’s a message right there. That, in itself, meant it was explosive enough to bring us all back. It would be an absolute privilege and an honor if there was one. I believe in this movie and in this franchise all the way. If there’s ever a chance, that would be amazing.
Lastly, you've worked with some amazing actors already in your career, like Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett. Who else would you like to work with?
I would love to work with Danny DeVito or Joe Pesci. Those are my idols.