A year ago, 76-year-old actor Zhao Shuzhen shot her first American movie, “The Farewell,” based on writer-director Lulu Wang’s very personal family story. In November, Shuzhen found herself making her first visit to the States, where she earned standing ovations from audiences and posed for pictures with stars like Robert Pattinson at parties. Then she landed a nomination for best supporting actress from the Independent Spirit Awards.
It’s easy to see why people have fallen for Shuzhen. In the film she plays the beloved Nai Nai (Chinese for “grandmother”) to Awkwafina’s American-raised Billi. When Nai Nai is diagnosed with cancer, her family decides not to tell her, instead throwing a wedding as an excuse to get the whole family together one last time.
During her visit to Los Angeles, Shuzhen spoke to Variety (via translator Eugene Suen) about the character and her favorite moments onscreen.
Shuzhen: “Initially, I did hesitate in whether or not to join this movie. I hadn’t read the script yet and wasn’t familiar with the project. I was very busy acting and fielding offers from shows. Out of the blue, Lulu gave me a call and told me that Diana Lin, who plays Billi’s mother, had given my files and materials to her. She told me the story of her grandma and her family and I was very deeply moved by what she had to share. I could tell she had so much love for her family and grandma, it was so authentic and moving.
“The first time I read the script, I read it very quickly, it was a quick read. To be honest, the subject matter in the film is very commonplace in China and something we’re familiar with, so you wouldn’t normally make a film about it. Families often withhold a diagnosis like this. It’s a very elegant, simple story.
“Once we started filming, there was a language barrier between me and some of the crew and cast at the beginning. But they all turned out to be such warm people, so friendly towards me, so respectful. So any discomfort went away quickly. Also, Awkwafina was so funny and I could tell she was really close to her grandmother, she would be calling her on breaks. She was constantly doing things to tickle me, to amuse me, to loosen me up. Our chemistry was established in a very organic way.
“There were some challenges involved in the role because the character is complicated. On one hand, she’s a very sharp and observant person. But she really believes what her children tell her and goes along with it. She notices people seem concerned and she goes to the hospital for something simple and everyone shows up. But she’s also a grandma whose attention is all on her family and she’s concerned with other peoples’ well-being, like finding someone for her granddaughter. To balance that simplicity of being pure with shrewd was really interesting to play.
“One of my favorite scenes to watch is the hospital scene between the English-speaking doctor and Awkwafina. They’re speaking in English and actually lying to me, but I’m just sitting there being so awed there’s a doctor educated in the U.K. who speaks English, and I’m trying to play matchmaker. I’m just so happy there’s my single granddaughter and this handsome English-speaking doctor, and I’m trying to set them up while they’re lying to me.”