NEW YORK – Who the heck is Awkwafina?
It’s a question that the actress/rapper hears all the time, so much so that she decided to make it her Twitter bio.
“There are entire Reddit threads called that,” says Awkwafina (real name: Nora Lum), who co-stars with Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett in the heist comedy Ocean’s 8 (in theaters Friday). “I get tons of comments that are just like, ‘Who are you?’ I think it’s because people were appalled, confused and angry that my name is Awkwafina and they didn’t immediately know who I was in this lineup of superstars.”
It’s a moniker you should get used to hearing, though. Not only is Awkwafina releasing her new EP, In Fina We Trust, on Friday, she’s also co-starring in landmark romantic comedy Crazy Rich Asians (in theaters Aug. 15), Hollywood’s first major movie in 25 years with an all-Asian cast.
But first there’s Ocean’s, in which she plays the card-flipping, fast-talking pickpocket Constance, who’s recruited by Debbie Ocean (Bullock) to join her Met Gala heist. Shooting the film was a full-circle moment for Lum: The park where viewers first meet Constance is one that her dad used to take her to as a kid, just a couple of subway stops away from where she grew up in Queens, N.Y.
Walking onto the set with Oscar winners and pop stars including Anne Hathaway and Rihanna, “there was a nervous excitement, kind of like your first day of school,” Lum says. “But that quickly dissipated, because they really treated me like their own.”
During filming, she recalls snacking on charcuterie in between takes with Helena Bonham Carter (“I knew where to go for a turkey slice”) and trying to teach Bullock Millennial slang such as “lit.” She still texts frequently with castmates including Bullock, who says that Lum is “one of the funniest human beings” she knows.
The privilege of starring in a female-led major studio movie like Ocean’s isn’t lost on the newcomer, who marvels at the fact that she has her own billboard in Times Square.
“I never thought that would happen,” says Lum, 30, who was born to a South Korean immigrant mom and Chinese-American dad. Growing up, she says she could count the number of Asian-Americans she saw in movies and TV on one hand. It wasn’t until age 7, when she watched Margaret Cho for the first time, that she realized her desire to perform and make people laugh.
“If you can’t see yourself (represented) in any way, your dreams become impossible,” Lum says. “Margaret was the only glimpse of an Asian-American woman who was completely unabashed and her Asian-ness had nothing to do with her funniness. It was just her.”
Lum played trumpet throughout high school and got into music production at 16, when she started rapping under the stage name Awkwafina, meaning, “I’m very awkward, but it’s fine,” she says. While Lum is a self-described neurotic in real life, “Awkwafina just doesn’t care, so I need to harness a little of both when I do movies or write a song.”
She made her TV debut in 2014 in MTV’s Girl Code, which she followed up with minor roles in Storks and Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising. Even starting out as an actress, she was always conscious of being a positive representative for the Asian-American community and young girls, in particular.
“I want everything that I do to uplift and not to set them back,” Lum says. She remembers one audition when she was unexpectedly asked to use a fake Asian accent, and “I walked right out of that. Accents in certain scenarios for characters might be necessary, but if it’s not doing it in a way that’s good, it’s just wrong.”
The fact that Crazy Rich Asians is free of such stereotypes was part of the appeal to Lum, who plays Goh Peik Lin, the new-money best friend of Constance Wu’s Rachel. Adapted from Kevin Kwan’s 2013 novel, the film follows Rachel as she accompanies her wealthy boyfriend (Henry Golding) to Singapore for his best friend’s wedding.
“It’s not a period piece, it’s not trope-y. It’s just a good movie that coincidentally has an Asian cast,” Lum says. The rarity of not being the only Asian American on a call sheet “was never spoken of. How could tokenism ever exist on a set like that?”
Lum, who now lives in Brooklyn, just wrapped shooting fantasy/sci-fi film Paradise Hills with Emma Roberts and is developing a series for Comedy Central inspired by her life.
Moving forward, “I want to play roles that I can’t even imagine right now because they don’t exist,” she says. “I want to try to see if I’m good at drama. Probably not, but we’ll see.”