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Listen: Lulu Wang on ‘The Farewell’ Oscar Buzz and How ‘Secretary’ Inspired Her to Become a Filmmaker

Lulu Wang didn’t know she wanted to be a filmmaker until she was a senior at Boston College and watching “Secretary.”

“I don’t know if I talk about this very much, but it’s the film that made me want to make films,” Wang says on the latest episode of “The Big Ticket,” Variety and iHeart’s movie podcast.

“Maggie [Gyllenhaal] is so spectacular in that,” she said. “Even though she’s in the position of being dominated, I would say it’s still very much her stories about her actually gaining and finding her power within that dynamic. I just hadn’t seen films like that before, that really explored female desire, female sexuality, and it was hot. It wasn’t hot because of the objectification. It wasn’t the male gaze. It was hot because she was in power ultimately. It was about a woman who gains control and power.”

Fast forward to 2019 and Wang is the force behind one of the year’s most successful movies, “The Farewell.” The film is inspired by her real-life story of traveling to China when her grandmother is diagnosed with cancer. Following a tradition of not telling elders when they’re sick, the family reunites for a cousin’s wedding and to say goodbye to their matriarch.

“I’ve gotten messages from Chinese Americans who said that they were in a theater filled with non-Asian people. They were like, ‘Oh my god, this film was so specific, that is my family, but I don’t know that anyone else is going to get it,’” Wang said. “Then they’re literally surprised because they’ll see the white guy next to them laughing his head off, right? They’re like, ‘Wait, you get this?’ I think that’s such a magical experience and it makes me so happy that the film was in theaters because if it wasn’t, if people weren’t seeing it in a room and feeling that all these people who don’t look like them are in that same room feeling the same emotions, I think that would be a huge loss.”

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Awkwafina plays Billi, a character based on Wang. Wang reveals that she talked to Awkwafina about being credited in the movie with her birth name, Nora Lum. “At that point, she had been building brand recognition having done ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ and ‘Ocean’s 8,’” Wang said. “She was getting bigger and bigger, that we were worried people wouldn’t recognize Nora Lum. But what she and I talked about was she didn’t bring Awkwafina to this role. She brought Nora Lum. Because Awkwafina is a character that she created. But this film, this character, is very much Nora.”

The film has been picking up major awards recognition. If all goes well, Awkwafina will become the first Asian American up for a best actress Oscar when nominations are announced on Jan. 7. The film itself is nominated for best feature at the upcoming Indie Spirit Awards as well as best foreign language film at the Golden Globes. Wang insists she hasn’t thought too much about awards recognition. “I have Chinese parents and a Chinese mother who whenever things are too good, she’s like, ‘Keep your head down, be careful,’” she said. “It was always just sort of like one step at a time, one foot in front of the other. Let’s make sure that the film gets a good release, that people are going to come out and watch it.”

You can listen to the entire interview with Wang below. You can always find “The Big Ticket” at iHeartRadio or wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts.

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