×

Why ‘The Farewell’ Director Lulu Wang Made Awkwafina Her Lead

One of “The Farewell’s” most emotionally poignant scenes revolves around food. Billi (played by Awkwafina) and members of her extended family take turns plucking off morsels from shared family-style platters while debating the merits of growing up in the United States versus China. 

Billi’s father (Tzi Ma) recalls one story from Billi’s childhood in the U.S.: after the family immigrated there, a stranger gave them the key to a church so she could practice on its piano, as they did not yet have one of their own.

“That,” Billi’s father says in Mandarin, “is America.” 

It’s one of the many anecdotes drawn from writer/director Lulu Wang’s own life, as is the entire premise of the movie. Just as it happens in the film, Wang’s family didn’t tell her aging grandmother that she had stage-IV lung cancer and, instead, staged a wedding in northern China as the family’s goodbye to her. 

But the piano is particularly important to Wang and not just because she was once on track to becoming a concert pianist.

“The piano represents so much of my relationship to my family versus to my art and to my individuality,” Wang tells Variety

Wang’s family moved to the U.S. from China when she was 6 years old. She says her mother always wanted to give her children the chance to learn an instrument and, after settling in Miami, would bring a young Lulu to a local church to practice.

“And she did that, every single day. It became a huge sacrifice for her. When they had enough money, had a savings account, the first really expensive purchase they made was for me to have a piano,” Wang recalls. 

Wang would go on to study music and literature at Boston College but pivoted away from pursuing the piano full-time, a decision she says put her at odds with her parents. 

“At first, they were like, ‘We’ve put too much into this, you can’t quit.’ And the older I got, they would go a more passive-aggressive way and say, ‘Oh, you can quit. Just throw away everything we’ve put into it. Yeah, that’s fine,’” says Wang. “So I’ve always had this troubled relationship with the piano, and I felt like for Billi, too, represented everything the family had done for her.” 

At one point in “The Farewell,” after much chiding from her family for quitting the instrument, Billi sits down at a piano and deftly bangs out a solo piece, a jarring aural break in an otherwise quiet story, told almost entirely in Mandarin. The tension between family duty and intrepid individualism is one explored throughout “The Farewell,” which features Awkwafina in her first dramatic role. Wang, who knew her best as the artist behind the song “My Vag,” was initially hesitant to cast the rapper-turned-actress in the role. 

“[When] my producer brought her name up I was like, ‘Awkwafina, the rapper from Queens?’” recalls Wang. “‘This is who you think should play, I guess, a version of me in a drama? Are we making the same film here?’”

But it was a sense of melancholy Wang says Awkwafina conveyed in her audition tape that convinced Wang to make her the lead.

“There was a quality of both light and dark, where she’s able to make a joke but you kind of feel like, in a way, she’s doing it to mask something deeper,” says Wang. 

Years ago, Wang had unsuccessfully pitched the film to producers. Instead, the story found a home in public radio form on the program “This American Life,” where it was heard by producer Chris Weitz (“About a Boy,” “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”). During its development, Wang found herself pushing back on potential producers who pressured her to not make the film primarily in a language other than English or change some of the leads to be white. Doubling down on her vision of “The Farewell” — a film mostly in Mandarin with an exclusively Asian lead cast — was empowering, says Wang.

“I was like, ‘I can’t make a film where the grandmother speaks English ‘cause I don’t know what that’s like,'” she adds.

“The Farewell” debuted at Sundance in January and was picked up by A24. It broke the box office record set by “Avengers: Endgame” for per-screen average, taking in $351,330 in four theaters when it opened in limited release on July 12, averaging an impressive $87,833 from each location. It goes into wide release on Aug. 2. 

A comedic drama that is neither a Disney remake, superhero movie or “Fast & Furious” spinoff is surely more thoughtful, understated fare for the summer box office — not that Wang, who made her first feature film, “Posthumous,” in 2014, is opposed to doing something, well, bigger. 

“I would absolutely love to do a superhero movie. It just has to be the right one. It has to have the right message,” she says. “Yes, I’m putting it out into the universe. Bring me all the superheroes. Definitely female. I definitely want to do a female superhero.”

More Film

  • Amanda Awards

    ‘Out Stealing Horses’ Tops Norway’s 2019 Amanda Awards

    HAUGESUND, Norway —  Hans Petter Moland’s sweeping literary adaptation “Out Stealing Horses” put in a dominant showing at Norway’s Amanda Awards on Saturday night, placing first with a collected five awards, including best Norwegian film. Celebrating its 35th edition this year, the Norwegian industry’s top film prize helped kick off the Haugesund Film Festival and [...]

  • Editorial use onlyMandatory Credit: Photo by

    Richard Williams, 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit' Animator, Dies at 86

    Renowned animator Richard Williams, best known for his work on “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” died Friday at his home in Bristol, England, Variety has confirmed. He was 86. Williams was a distinguished animator, director, producer, author and teacher whose work has garnered three Oscars and three BAFTA Awards. In addition to his groundbreaking work as [...]

  • Instinct

    Locarno Film Review: 'Instinct'

    Now that “Game of Thrones” has finally reached its conclusion, releasing its gifted international ensemble into the casting wilds, will Hollywood remember just what it has in Carice van Houten? It’s not that the statuesque Dutch thesp hasn’t been consistently employed since her startling 2006 breakout in Paul Verhoeven’s “Black Book,” or even that she’s [...]

  • Good Boys Movie

    Box Office: 'Good Boys' Eyes Best Original Comedy Opening of 2019

    Universal’s “Good Boys” is surpassing expectations as it heads toward an estimated $20.8 million opening weekend at the domestic box office following $8.3 million in Friday ticket sales. That’s well above earlier estimates which placed the film in the $12 million to $15 million range, marking the first R-rated comedy to open at No. 1 [...]

  • Pedro Costa’s 'Vitalina Varela' Wins at

    Pedro Costa’s 'Vitalina Varela' Triumphs at Locarno Film Festival

    The 72nd Locarno Film Festival drew to a close Saturday with Portuguese auteur Pedro Costa’s dark and detached film “Vitalina Varela” coming away with several awards together with superlatives from segments of the hardcore cinephile crowd, including jury president Catherine Breillat. In announcing the Golden Leopard prize for the film, as well as best actress [...]

  • Vitalina Varela

    Locarno Film Review: 'Vitalina Varela'

    Frequently beautiful compositions and the theatrical use of a fierce kind of artifice have long been the hallmarks of Portuguese auteur Pedro Costa, regarded by a small but influential group of aesthetes as one of the great filmmakers of our era. For those in tune with his vision, the director’s films offer an exciting lesson [...]

  • Notre dame

    Locarno Film Review: 'Notre dame'

    Not to be too cynical about it, but might the recent horrific fire in Paris’ cathedral attract audiences to a film in which the gothic gem plays a major role? It’s likely a wiser marketing strategy than promoting the unrelenting silliness of Valerie Donzelli’s oh-so-kooky comedy “Notre dame,” the writer-director-star’s return to contemporary Paris following [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content