One of the biggest breakthrough performances of the year comes in an unexpected package; the Sundance Film Festival favorite “The Farewell” introduces audiences to 75-year-old Chinese actress Zhao Shuzhen in her dazzling American film debut. “I’m so lucky,” Shuzhen says via translator in an interview with Variety. It’s a word she uses frequently, and precisely the word filmmaker Lulu Wang uses when talking about finding the actress who embodies her grandmother on screen.
Wang opens the movie, which opens in New York and Los Angeles this week, by telling us it is “based on a true lie.” In a 2016 episode of “This American Life” titled “In Defense of Ignorance,” Wang detailed the lengths her family went through to obscure the truth from her real-life grandmother after she was diagnosed with cancer and given only weeks to live. Believing her final days should be spent in blissful ignorance – and that it would adversely affect her health to learn otherwise – the family rushed a wedding as an excuse to bring the whole brood together in China.
In the film, Awkwafina plays Billi, the granddaughter who struggles with concealing the truth, and Shuzhen is her beloved “Nai Nai” – Chinese for “grandma” – a tough but loving matriarch adored by her family. With a story so personal, Wang obviously wanted the perfect Nai Nai, but it was a tall order: audiences have to believe she is the type of woman who won’t let a thing get by her when studying a menu, but is unaware her entire family is deceiving her.
Shuzhen has been a professional actor since the age of 16. “I’ve done a lot of series in China and spent years on the stage in theater,” she says. “Most people know me from a TV show I did here many years ago, a family drama that was very popular. There was also a more recent one in which I also played a grandma.”
She first heard about “The Farewell” from Diana Lin, who plays her daughter (Billi’s mother) in the movie. Originally, Shuzhen didn’t even realize it was a true story. “Lulu Wang called me herself to talk and told me about her Nai Nai,” Shuzhen recalls. “And that’s when I learned it was a true story.” She also wasn’t familiar with her onscreen granddaughter Awkwafina, but the two quickly developed a bond – Awkwafina refers to her as “Teacher Zhao.” Says Shuzhen, “On the set she was really professional and funny and pleasant to work with. When we were on set she made everybody laugh. Everyone was so happy there on the movie. I liked her a lot and we got close really fast.”
(Warning: The following paragraph contains spoilers for the film. Do not proceed if you haven’t seen the movie.)
Shuzhen also had the opportunity to meet the real Nai Nai before shooting began. The real Nai Nai thought she was just meeting a friend, as she was still unaware of her diagnosis. “I visited her in her house with Lulu and was really touched by their connection,” she says. “She was very strong and optimistic and had a big smile on her face.”
Audiences have been buzzing about Shuzhen’s performance since the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won the audience award. Shuzhen wasn’t able to attend, as she was working and it coincided with Chinese New Year.
Asked about the mounting awards buzz around her performance, Shuzhen laughs. “I haven’t thought about that, I just love the film,” she demurs. “When we were shooting I felt all the cultures connecting and people were so respectful of each other. The whole shooting made me really, really happy.”