By Shirley Li
April 23, 2018 at 01:45 PM EDT
Sarah Dunn/Warner Bros.

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“Seriously, who is Awkwafina?” asks, er, Awkwafina. “Like, who the hell is that?”

No, the 29-year-old isn’t having an identity crisis: She’s just not sure how to answer the question these days. A few years ago, “Awkwafina” was simply the stage name for Nora Lum, an NYC-born (and -bred and -based) rapper-comedian who made ultra-vulgar music videos and broke out in 2012 with “My Vag,” an epic anthem about, well, you know. “She’ll never be a Billboard artist, and I always knew that,” she says of her persona. “She’s weird, and her audience will always be specific.”

Which is why, at this moment in time, she’s struggling to define herself. This summer, Awkwafina stars in a pair of highly anticipated, highly mainstream movies: Ocean’s 8 (out June 8) and Crazy Rich Asians (out Aug. 17). She called EW from Barcelona — her first time in Europe, by the way — where she’s working on her next big-screen role, in the sci-fi thriller Paradise Hills, opposite Emma Roberts and Milla Jovovich. Between projects, she’s been fine-tuning her sophomore album, the follow-up to Yellow Ranger, which she plans to release by the end of 2018.

So yeah, it’s been a lot. “It’s literally a night on LSD,” she jokes. “If I could imagine what the most insane acid trip could be, that’s what it’s been like.”

Sanja Bucko/Warner Bros.

More insanity’s headed her way once Crazy Rich Asians opens. In the big-screen adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s bestselling novel, Awkwafina steals every scene she’s in as Peik Lin, a wealthy college friend and confidante to the heroine, Rachel (Constance Wu). On paper, Peik Lin mainly serves to help Rachel adapt to her extravagant new surroundings in Singapore; on film, in Awkwafina’s hands, she becomes the blond ball of manic energy that director Jon M. Chu says “ignited” the film. “Honestly, I had no idea whether it was going to work,” he marvels. “I was like, ‘This will either ruin the movie or take the movie to another level.’ But she knew exactly what she was doing.”

Wu agrees. “She’s very loose and free, and a lot of actors you work with, especially ones new to the business, can be a little tight and pre-plan what they say, how they’re going to say it, instead of letting the magic of the moment happen to them,” she says. “Because she’s so naturally relaxed when she’s acting instead of being stressed out, that’s what makes her performances enjoyable to work with as a scene partner.”

Awkwafina, though, doesn’t think so. ”I still don’t know what the hell that is,” she says, referring to her Peik Lin — but then again, she’s made bold leaps ever since her teens. While attending LaGuardia High School (yes, of Fame) in Manhattan for trumpet performance (yes, the trumpet), she developed a taste for hip-hop and at 16 created Awkwafina, an eccentric alter ego who wears oversize glasses, tosses peace signs, and raps about weed. Then, after finding her footing in music, she put Awkwafina on the back burner to pursue acting. Before long, she’d made her big-screen debut in 2016’s Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising and nabbed big-name back-to-back roles this summer (her character Constance in Ocean’s 8 is a pickpocket).

The speed of all that success has made her, she admits, a little nervous. “I just have this really embedded, like, Asian-grandma complex built in me, this kind of doomsday, end-of-the-world vibe,” she says. “In my experience in this industry, when it rains, it pours. When it’s slow, it’s nothing.”

Lucky for her, she has Awkwafina, who… Wait, who is she again? “Awkwafina is someone that I think never grew up, never felt the need to be filtered, that is extremely confident,” she concludes. “Nora is brooding, neurotic, overthinking, completely full of anxiety, and Awkwafina kind of deafens all of that noise.” See, no identity crisis there.

Sanja Bucko/Warner Bros.

Ocean’s 8 hits theaters June 8; Crazy Rich Asians arrives on August 17.

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