The FarewellAwkwafina
Credit: Casi Moss/A24

You might not suspect it, but Awkwafina is a crier. She didn’t suspect it herself: Before shooting the dramedy The Farewell, the comedienne warned writer-director Lulu Wang that she might not be able to weep on screen. “I was like, ‘I tried it once. Can’t do it,’” Awkwafina tells EW. “And then I went [to set] and I would cry, like, when we were rehearsing. I couldn’t hold it back.”

It’s a major departure from Crazy Rich Asians’ riotous Peik Lin. “Drama was something I knew I hadn’t done, and I wasn’t really actively looking for it,” says the actress, for whom the film marks her first starring and dramatic role. “But this script was something that I needed to do.”

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The Sundance breakout follows Billi, a young Chinese-American woman who returns to China to see her terminally ill grandmother one last time. The catch? Her family is concealing the cancer diagnosis from the ailing matriarch, throwing a hastily planned wedding for Billi’s cousin as an excuse to gather together around the grandmother. Wang wrote the script “based on an actual lie,” as an opening title card says, from her own experience, and tonally, “for me, what was important was the absurdity of the situation,” the filmmaker says. That balance, between the sadness of the circumstances and the inherent humor of maintaining a big lie, made the actress a perfect fit.

Upon seeing Awkwafina’s audition tape, “I knew that she would be able to carry the movie,” says Wang. “I just felt like she was so natural. There was no performance. She just was the character. You could just feel the rawness of her emotions.”

That might have something to do with the actress’ own Chinese grandmother, who raised her and inspired her in the role. “It was just really, really, a really different experience for me,” Awkwafina says. “Thinking about my grandma and how much she means to me, and putting myself in that place.” It’s no wonder she kept tearing up.

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The Farewell (2019 Movie)
Awkwafina is a new kind of leading lady in wry, smart indie The Farewell
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