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‘Crazy Rich Asians’ Breakout Awkwafina on Stealing Scenes and Why Representation Matters

Though more conversations are taking place all around Hollywood about inclusion in movies, the latest statistics continue to be pitiful.

A recent study out of USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism of the 1,100 top-grossing films from 2007 to 2017 shows little has changed over the past decade. As with many minority groups, Asian actors are woefully underrepresented on-screen, particularly in leading roles. Of the top 100 films in 2017, 65 had no speaking roles for Asian or Asian-American females.

The upcoming release “Crazy Rich Asians,” the buzzy adaptation of the first book in Kevin Kwan’s trilogy, stands as a notable exception. The movie, which hits U.S. theaters Aug. 15, features an ensemble of Asian actors from around the world. But in a cast of scene-stealers, it is Awkwafina (born Nora Lum), the internet personality, rapper and actress, who walks away with the most laughs.

It’s been a rapid ascension in the acting world for Awkwafina, who began rapping at age 13 and found fame with such songs as “My Vag” and her solo album “Yellow Ranger.” Earlier this year, she appeared in “Ocean’s 8” alongside Oscar winners Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett. Variety spoke with the 29-year-old multihyphenate about her early role models and the state of the industry.

What can the industry do to make improvements in representing Asians on the big screen?

Representation starts both in front of and behind the camera. I think a big reason there aren’t a lot of our stories reflected is people don’t know how to write for us or think they can’t write for us. So I think for any minority group, you need to have writers who can reflect those stories and tell them honestly. It’s important to give people a chance. Take a chance on opening up roles, even leads, for actors of color.

Who are the Asian filmmakers and artists you’re watching right now?

I just came off a film written and directed by Lulu Wang. It doesn’t have a title yet, but it’s based on a story she told on “This American Life.” To work with an Asian-American woman at the helm and tell her story was an extremely powerful experience. And there’s an up-and-coming writer named Gloria Chao who wrote this book “American Panda” — she’s brilliant. There have always been Asian-American directors, but they don’t always get the opportunity to direct Asians, and I think this may be a different time for them.

What was it like to be working with an entirely Asian cast in a film? 

It was amazing, and honestly, we became a family in a way I’ve never really experienced on a set before. From the moment the film was announced, I was just excited to see the movie come to fruition, whether or not I could be in it. I knew it would be impactful for my community.

Awkwafina Variety Portrait
CREDIT: SHAYAN ASGHARNIA for Variety

Growing up, did you have Asian actors you could look up to and emulate? Did you even think acting was a viable career choice?

Not at all. I remember watching “Air Bud” and thinking it would be so cool to be that kid and then realizing, “But how could that be? I wouldn’t make any sense in that context.” The first time I saw Margaret Cho on Comedy Central, she was like a unicorn. She was an Asian woman who had a perfect American accent, something I wasn’t used to seeing. And she was so funny and unashamed and bold. I remember thinking, “That is what I want to be.” Just seeing her made it seem slightly more possible. And then Lucy Liu in “Charlie’s Angels” and Michelle Yeoh in her action movies. When you don’t have representation growing up, you don’t know how to materialize your dreams. You don’t even know it’s possible.

So you launched a career by creating your own content and gave yourself opportunities. Did you think that would translate to movies?

No, never. Just in the last few years with the rise of YouTube, we’re seeing [that for] a lot of Asian-Americans, that’s their way in. There’s no gatekeeper; it’s fan-generated. But I never even thought I’d be doing that. At the same time, I had nothing to lose.

Who gave you your first big opportunity in film?

Seth Rogen and Nick Stoller. They had stumbled upon my first viral music video and asked me to audition for “Neighbors 2.” I got the part and showed up for this big movie with this amazing cast — it was ridiculous. I remember looking into the room and going, “This is crazy.” And it wasn’t specifically written for an Asian woman.

“When you don’t have representation growing up, you don’t know how to materialize your dreams. You don’t even know it’s possible.”
Awkwafina

Have you played many roles that weren’t written as an Asian character?

Some parts were written with me in mind, but outside of “Crazy Rich Asians,” I think almost all of them weren’t specifically Asian. At least that’s what I was told.

It’s hard for anyone to break in and find good, meaty roles, but add to that being a woman and a person of color, and it becomes even harder. How do you feel about the future of representation?

Hollywood is changing at a rapid pace in terms of the stories that are being told and the people being put in leading roles and the people writing and directing movies. More and more, I’m seeing stories like Lulu’s that are coming to me. So I think times are changing. And it really takes discussions about whitewashing to realize America is not one color. It’s a giant melting pot, and there are so many ways people can relate to movies, to music. I think Hollywood is realizing they can reflect that. And at the box office, the numbers are very impactful. They’re trying, and now that they know, they’re taking chances. I’m very optimistic about the changes to come.

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