Rapper and Actress Awkwafina on Being a Rare Asian-American in Hollywood
"I don't ever go out for auditions where I feel like I'm making a minstrel out of our people."
Photos courtesy of Nora Lum
To say that comedian, rapper, and artist Nora Lum, known by her stage name Awkwafina, is on the come up is an understatement. Lum started rapping while she was studying jazz at LaGuardia High School, and in 2014, the video for her song "My Vag"—a response to Mickey Avalon's "My Dick"—went viral, kicking off her rap career. Since then, she's released a full-length album titled Yellow Ranger, is the host of her own talk show: Tawk, wrote a book about New York City, was featured in a 2016 documentary about Asian American rappers titled Bad Rap, and became a major Hollywood actress.
But Lum, who was in last year's Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising and is slated to star in the upcoming films Ocean's Eight and Crazy Rich Asians, will be the last to admit she's a star. "Throughout my whole career, everyone has always been like so you're famous now," she tells Broadly. "Since I got like 800 views on my first YouTube video, it's like: You're so famous. I don't know that I'll ever attain a very large-scale fame. I'll always remain a bit under the radar, which is good."
For now, Lum, who was born and raised in the New York City neighborhood of Flushing, Queens, is mainly recognized on the street by other born-and-bred New Yorkers. "It's always outer-borough kids," she says.
But no matter what level of fame she attains, Lum is grateful to those who helped her get there. "I owe my career to YouTube, which they actually call the 'Asian Hollywood,'" Lum, who is half Korean and half Chinese, says, crediting the platform for being accessible to minorities. Broadly spoke with Lum about the importance of minority representation in Hollywood, and her own experiences being an Asian-American actress.
Broadly: Your first movie, Neighbors 2, portrayed strong female characters and narratives; Ocean's Eight looks like it's going to be following that path. Do you think we've reached a point where Hollywood is finally realizing the value of female-centric movies?
Nora Lum: I think there is definitely a wave of female-centric movies. I don't necessarily want it to come from a place where executives are like oh, dope [female-centric movies] sell tickets, let's do this so we seem cool. I want it to come from an honest place and I think that Neighbors 2 definitely did that. I think with Ocean's Eight, it's also coming from an honest place. I think it's really important when people say let's put these women together because it's actually dope and they can tell a genuine really good story. Rather than let's put a group of women together because we want to save ourselves from being attacked.
Seeing you in Neighbors 2 is the first time I've seen an Asian woman in a mainstream comedy film.
That's so cool.
Do you think other people are having this realization, too?
They'll remember me for being Asian. And in that way, people always ask me, what is it like? What are the downfalls? Honestly, there are some, but in the end, [being the only Asian in a cast] makes you memorable. It makes me feel really good if people are seeing it and thinking that's an Asian bitch, she's funny and she's cool.
Growing up, did you see any Asian representation in media or film?
I didn't. I always [gravitated] to what little Asian role models we had. I was obsessed with Lucy Liu after Charlie's Angels. And so there we had it: Lucy Liu and Margaret Cho. And when I was 16, I saw this movie called Saving Face. And it starred Joan Chen and Michelle Krusiec. I remember thinking, "Oh my god, this character is from Flushing and she is a gay woman and she is on the 7 train." It was the first time that I had ever seen a movie that represented an Asian American on a 7 train and in real relationships and in real Asian situations, [like] dealing with an Asian mother. That was an insane movie for me, but I didn't see a lot more [like it]. I definitely clung on to the people that I did see.
You just recently finished production on Ocean's Eight. Rihanna is in the movie, people seem really excited about that.
The rest of the cast is Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Helena-Bonham Carter, Mindy Kaling, Sarah Paulson, Rihanna, me, and Anne Hathaway.
That's why I was having waking nightmares before we started filming. I was like, "Oh my god, what is happening with my life?"
The cast is stacked. How was your experience working with these incredibly talented and famous women?
It was amazing. I kind of describe it as like an acid trip but the most amazing acid trip ever. I still don't believe that it happened in this day. Before we started filming, I was so worried I was going to say something weird and they were going to think I'm that weird one, the weird Asian girl. But what happens when you work on a movie with people is that it humanizes them, they become your co-workers and further than that, I was welcomed—they were so warm. I am definitely the least relevant of the whole cast, but I didn't feel that way. I felt equal, and I think that was really important. They made me feel safe.
Was there anything surprising about any of them?
I think the most surprising thing is that—and not to say that I thought that they were going to be anything but—but they were extremely human and nice. You know, you would think as kind of a fan approaching women of their caliber. They're real women and Sarah Paulson is also just hilarious, we would be dying of laughter.
Are there any roles that you wouldn't accept?
I've walked out of auditions where the casting director all of a sudden changed her mind and asked for accents. I refuse to do accents. And I think like—so far, like a lot of the parts I've gone out for have been really real characters and being Asian is not part of their plotline. I'm OK with having an Asian aspect if it's done in a genuine way. I'm not OK with someone writing the Asian experience for an Asian character. Like that's annoying and I make it very clear, I don't ever go out for auditions where I feel like I'm making a minstrel out of our people.