An episode with... Awkafina on The Farewell
Chinese culture, like many others, has its own superstitions. What can you tell me that I might not know?
It's very, very bad to drop a chopstick. And if you drop a chopstick, then that means you are going to have bad luck gambling. So I keep my chopsticks tight in my hands. Also, don't open umbrellas indoors - but that's not Chinese though.
Watching you on the red carpet, you seem very confident. Where does that confidence come from?
I think at first it was having nothing to lose, because I don't come from a rich family. If I had to pursue acting, I would have had to have a job right? So, at the time I was working at a bodega [eatery] in New York and when you have nothing to lose, you would be surprised at how shameless you get. And also, ever since I was a kid, I would be called "weird" a lot. People didn't get me. I would come home and my grandma, who raised me, would tell me, "Don't let them tell you what weird is, because the things that they think are weird will make you special." And she always gave me that confidence and that spunkiness.
This is your first feature film as a leading actress and you're playing a Chinese American who goes to China to visit her family. In real life, you have a Chinese father and South Korean mother. I'm assuming there must have been scenes that resonated with you?
Yes. I realised that, as someone who had been going back to China to see some of my relatives who I can't understand, there is a bond that does not need words. And I think that's when I realised the levity of someone going home to someone they love and not really understanding them because they don't speak the language but feeling joy with them.
As shown in the movie, the Chinese culture has an interesting relationship to death where there is much less fear about it than other cultures. Am I right?
Yes, well, my own relationship to death, pretty scared to do it, not looking forward it ... but I think that when it comes to the Chinese culture, they don't seem to fear it as much which is something I realised a little bit just having my grandma. She's like, "Oh, I can't wait to die. Just take me." But I lost my mum when I was very young and I really wanted to believe that she went somewhere and that I would see her again. But I think, as a 4 or 5-year-old when she died, I also knew that a world that could take her away probably will not let me see her again. So my outlook on death is that it's something natural and it's not the person who's dying that suffers, it's the people they leave behind.
You were in Crazy Rich Asians and now The Farewell. In what ways has this enlightened you that contrast with your American upbringing?
I think the aspect of community. We have to do things for each other and we have to look out for each other.
You've been to China to see your family. Can you speak any Chinese at all?
I stayed for about a year the last time. I had relatives, my grandma's cousin lived there and I picked up a little bit, just enough to go to McDonald's.
We now know the Rock as Dwayne Johnson, the actor, so will you become your real name at some point as an actress? Are there really two personalities and how do these two personalities inform each other?
I don't think I can because people would think we are two different people. I think I don't have that privilege yet. I mean Awkwafina, it's such a ridiculous name, that when I was cast for Oceans you see all these names, Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Rihanna, Awkwa, what? So that really confused people. But I think in the very beginning, I was 24, I had never been on a stage, I had never done anything and so I think I needed Awkwafina to shield me, to bring out that confidence. I needed her. But I think as my career progressed, that she is born out of Nora and that we are the same thing. And also that Awkwafina gives anxiety attacks, Nora takes them. But aside from that, they are the same thing. And I think that right now I have to put up a little shield because I am a little nervous.
How have you adjusted to having fans?
The fans, yeah, I didn't know that "Awkwafina pre-Crazy Rich Asians" was so not famous; I thought that I was famous a little bit! Before Crazy Rich Asians, I was like, "I'm famous, right?" It wasn't until after that I was like, "Wow. Awkwafina was completely irrelevant." But yeah, I think the first time I noticed it was when a non-Asian person came up to me and I was like, "How do you know who I am?" The fans aren't voracious but sometimes they will want a really long hug. That's all right; I'll give you a long hug, that's okay. But all in all it's been okay; it's been manageable.
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The Farewell is now on at cinemas around the country.