The newly minted drama queen is one of EW's 2019 Entertainers of the Year.
Awkwafina has been here before. She and the other female stars of Crazy Rich Asians were among EW’s Entertainers of the Year in 2018, but now she’s appearing on her own, at the end of her second big year in a row, and feeling completely different. “It’s still a ride, but I feel like I have a better sense of self,” the actress says. “I have a better idea of where this all may be going.”
Her year began this past January at Sundance, where she debuted two films — and a whole new side of herself. As the star of The Farewell, the 31-year-old rapper-actress ventured into dramatic leading-lady territory for the first time. She collected rave reviews for her performance as Billi, a Chinese-American woman coping with her grandmother’s cancer diagnosis while concealing it, according to Chinese custom, from the sufferer. “I was really scared about drama, because I just literally didn’t do it [before],” says Awkwafina, who related so deeply to writer-director Lulu Wang’s script she felt compelled to make it.
The film brought more firsts for her: “Working with Lulu was especially powerful,” she says, as “I had never worked with an Asian-American female filmmaker before.” Nor had she ever been to Sundance, though while working her first job, at an independent video store in NYC’s West Village, she became “obsessed with indies,” she recalls. “They always had [the Sundance logo] on them, and I really always dreamed of, like, ‘What would it be like?’”
She got to find out with a Park City double feature, and the star impressed again in her second title at the fest, Alice Waddington’s Paradise Hills. She appeared in the dystopian feminist parable as Yu, a prisoner at a sinister fairy-tale reform school for young women. Where Billi’s angst lies partially in the tension between her Chinese and American identities, so, too, do the girls of Paradise Hills struggle to reconcile conflicting ideas of who they ought to be. “As a girl, as a woman, we’re constantly negotiating our identities,” Awkwafina says. “How we’re seen by the world, and how we want to be seen, and how we want to see ourselves.”
The actress has maintained something of a split personality throughout her career. Awkwafina — whose real name is Nora Lum — invented her comedic persona as a teenager to overcome stage fright, not particularly thinking the nickname would stick. “I almost [equated] Awkwafina to this mask I would put on that just imbued confidence,” she says. She also used humor as a coping mechanism to deal with the pain of having lost her mother when she was 4 years old. “I learned [making] The Farewell that it’s an instinct for me not only in my performances, but in my real life,” she admits. “Because I don’t want to face the heavy stuff. I want to keep it light.”
But now that she’s going to these raw places — she attributes the success of her performance as Billi to the bond she shares with her own Chinese grandmother — she’s got to take that mask off and let the feeling weigh on her. “[Directing her] was more about getting her to not use comedy as a crutch — it’s almost a muscle that you use to deflect emotion, to dissipate tension,” says Wang, whose personal experience inspired the film. “For this character, she needed to carry that [discomfort] in her face and in her eyes.”
That doesn’t mean the star’s comedic background was an obstacle to overcome — just a tool to repurpose. “Comedy and music are acts of expression,” Awkwafina says. “Everything that you do will come from that little place.” She accesses it again playing pickpocket Ming in Jake Kasdan’s Jumanji: The Next Level (out Dec. 13), which stars Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart. She calls the sequel “another departure” for her, never having done an adventure film before, but it’s familiar in a different way: “My whole career has been kind of defined by being thrown into groups of people that are, like, idol status,” says the actress, who also counts 2018’s star-studded, girl-powered Ocean’s 8 among her past credits. She will next star in a semi-autobiographical Comedy Central series she created. “I’d never seen anything like it,” she says of shooting the show. “Telling stories about living with my grandma and my dad — it was very real.” The series, arriving Jan. 22, is aptly titled Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens.
“People can say that Nora’s the serious one and Awkwafina’s this crazy comedy one, but for me, the older I get and the more I [do], they become one,” she says. “I can’t leave Awkwafina. Awkwafina is a part of me. I didn’t create Nora; I created Awkwafina. So it makes it powerful when I see her name somewhere.” Lately, she can see it listed among major awards contenders, but the actress is still “just happy to be here” on The Farewell’s extraordinary journey, wherever it may lead.
“When these things happen, you wonder what got you here,” she reflects. “I think that for every project, I do feel a little bit of that still, that kind of ‘I’m a nobody, who am I?’” Lucky for her, there’s more than one right answer.
For more on Entertainment Weekly‘s 2019 Entertainers of the Year, the new issue will be available at select Barnes & Noble stores starting on Dec. 20, and all newsstands Dec. 26-27, or you can order a copy now. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.