Movie News & Reviews

Rapper-turned-actress Awkwafina takes a star turn in first leading role

Now is Awkwafina's time.

After a scene-stealing supporting role in "Crazy Rich Asians," the rapper-turned-actress will debut as a film lead in her first drama, Lulu Wang's "The Farewell," opening Friday.

"I am not what you would think of when you think of a movie star. I don't look like one. I don't sound like one. I don't act like one," Awkwafina, who was born Nora Lum, told the Daily News.

"I want to show girls, young Asian American girls, that you can be literally what you don't see there and you can still do it," she says, "You have to open the door for the next generation."

As for "The Farewell," Awkwafina, 31, says she "never thought a script like this could ever exist: one that was written by an Asian American woman and directed by an Asian American woman. I'd just never seen it."

The film follows her character Billi, who leaves New York to visit her dying grandmother in Changchun, China. But Billi's family has no intention of revealing the grim prognosis to their matriarch and attributes the reunion to a last-minute wedding, spurring debates over morality and cultural identity.

"I think that any 'dash American' in this country feels always like one foot in the door, one foot outside the door," Awkwafina, who was born in Queens to a Korean mother and Chinese-American father, told The News. "You never feel like you belong to one or the other."

The film's portrayal of warring identities resonated with Awkwafina, who paraphrased journalist Jay Caspian Kang, saying, "The only thing that ties Asian Americans together, because it's such a broad category, is discrimination."

"Everyone feels that," she said. "Along with that, it's the feeling of being an outsider."

But as a staunch advocate of thoughtful Asian American portrayals in media, Awkwafina refuses to encourage stereotypes "like the nail lady ... the things that we are actively always trying to improve about ourselves and the way that we're seen in this country."

Now though, she says tropes are slowly becoming a thing of the past.

"I'm seeing scripts that have no descriptors of race, for small parts, for leads, for anything, or even sex, which is awesome," she told The News. "I think the industry is moving toward a good spot where Asian people are seen now as people that can do other things."

"I think when you first start out and you're an artist, you want to be just known as an artist. You don't want to have to be pigeonholed," Awkwafina says. "And I think that that's a real desire, but it's not realistic when it comes to how you're viewed by younger generations, by kids."

No one can pigeonhole Awkwafina, who added "Saturday Night Live" host to her resume last year. She became the second Asian American woman to host the show in its 44-year history, joining Lucy Liu in 2000.

That brought her a memorable moment in her hometown, which is gratifying. Despite her work in Hollywood, Awkwafina remains a tried and true New Yorker.

"I 100% will die in New York," she declares, "But I feel like I should leave before I turn into that 85-year-old woman that's talking about how much it's changed. ... I know I'm gonna be that woman, just let me get out for a little bit."

As for where Awkwafina hopes to say her own farewell?

"I think I'd want to die just right on Madison Avenue," she laughed. "In the '20s."

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