Don’t tell Awkwafina that it’s her moment or that it’s her year.
Sure, the actress/rapper starred in this summer’s Ocean’s 8 and is starring in next week’s much-anticipated romantic comedy Crazy Rich Asians, but the idea of it being just a moment stresses her out.
“I get stressed out when people tell me, ‘this is my best year’ or ‘this is my best summer ever’ or I’m having a ‘moment,’ because all of those things imply a fleeting sensibility,” said Awkwafina. “I want to continue doing this but at the same time, how? How do you do that? There are a lot of questions for me still. I do have that Asian grandma mentality — that kind of doomed mentality — and I think that’s why I have a hard time taking it in. I’m enjoying myself and I feel truly blessed. I feel very lucky.”
Phoning from the Crazy Rich Asians press junket in Los Angeles, the rapper/comedian/actress has been on a week-long press tour traveling from Toronto to Miami to Atlanta and now to downtown Los Angeles. Traveling with her on-screen father, Ken Jeong, and co-star Nico Santos, Awkwafina has been attending early screenings and doing meet-and-greets with lucky fans. “I’ve been traveling like crazy,” Awkwafina said casually. “It’s been cool. It’s been real.”
The Queens native is no stranger to the junket and press tour lifestyle, having just finished one for Ocean’s 8 just two months ago. “I enjoy press tours. It’s fun. You’re with your movie family.”
Long ago are the days when the actress first went viral on YouTube in 2012 singing “My Vag,” a parody rap/ode to her vagina. After finding some success in music from her 2014 album Yellow Ranger, Awkwafina began doing television and films. She eventually landed a supporting role in the comedy Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising and the indie comedy Dude. Studios took notice to Awkwafina’s charisma, which led her to be cast in Ocean’s 8 and Crazy Rich Asians.
In the film, adapted from Kevin Kwan’s bestselling novel of the same name, Awkwafina plays Peik Lin, the designer-silk-pajamas-wearing best friend and Singapore lifestyle guide to our heroine, Rachel (Constance Wu). Critics and fans who have seen the film have already called Awkwafina its breakout star.
“Oh man,” said Awkwafina, who seemed to have a tough time taking the compliments. “I don’t think I had a lot to do with that. I feel like Peik Lin already, as written, is a very relatable character and one that the audience needs because she guides them through these two worlds.”
Awkwafina credits her performance to director Jon M. Chu, who hired her without seeing a finished reel. “Peik Lin is already set up to be likeable. The cool thing is working with a director like Jon Chu, who really trusted me. He took a risk hiring me. It was even a bigger risk hiring me as Peik Lin. He had an immense amount of trust in me. So I didn’t even know what she would be. It wasn’t until I saw the screening and go ‘Oh, that’s what she is.’ He allowed me to improv and ad-lib, so there is a lot of me that I put into the character but the character was already amazing as written.”
This film will also mark the first time in 25 years that we have seen an all-westernized Asian cast from a major studio since The Joy Luck Club in 1993. As Chu had said during a special screening in April, “It’s not a movie. It’s a movement,” and Awkwafina agrees. “I feel extremely blessed and honored. Crazy Rich Asians means so much to me in so many ways. For the Asian American community, Asian Americans walk into the screenings and they want to cry. It’s so impactful for them.”
She remembered a quote by Santos, “Rising tides lift all ships,” and felt it reflected this movie for her. “I think in the larger scope, this movie represents an opening of new era in Hollywood where stories that were typically not put on the stage are now being featured very prominently. I think there is a yearning for it that came from the people. People want movies that reflect them. They want movies that tells their stories. If they don’t, then there is no way to connect. I think I was looking for this movie as a kid. I think that when it comes to — I think it’s amazing for Asian Americans — it is, but it’s also for any marginalized group that never experienced this.”
Awkwafina understands her responsibility for Asian American representation, even if she didn’t ask for it. Having been in the industry for almost 15 years, Awkwafina has felt the pressure of being the “Asian representative” and completely accepts it. “I think a lot of artists want to say ‘I’m an artist. I’m not just Asian American,’ but what I learned very quickly that everything I do in this profession impacts my community — bad or good. So, it is my responsibility to protect them in the media that affects how everyone thinks of us in the world. I think for me, I embrace representing my community.”
She remembered the first time she felt that responsibility when she performed at a university and a young Asian girl “who looked just like me” went up to her and thanked her for being there. The young girl told Awkwafina, “Thank you for doing this. I didn’t think it was possible.”
“It was a moment for me that I realized when I was young and how I felt about Margaret Cho and Lucy Liu,” Awkwafina recalled. “I think giving a younger generation a purpose and a feeling of inclusion and a feeling of that they can do it. I think that was a big moment for me.”
She does understand that Crazy Rich Asians does not represent the entire Asian community, but she does hope it will lead to more films and opportunities for stories to be told. “I think that this adds to that general movement. I hope it gets better. Sandra Oh is nominated as the leading lady [for the Emmys] — the first Asian Canadian woman to do so. We’re moving in the right way. I feel very optimistic in the direction that Hollywood is moving in.”
In many of Awkwafina’s interviews, she declared that everything that is happening doesn’t feel real to her. Even with two major studio films and two films lined up next year, Awkwafina still can’t believe this is happening for her. “It’s hard to believe but I think, at the same time, I think that it’s going to be bad if I tell myself that I didn’t deserve this and I didn’t work hard. I am very self-deprecating, but the thing that I do know is that I worked hard and I gave it my all in everything I’ve done.”
Crazy Rich Asians opens in theaters everywhere on August 15.