Discover WSJ. Magazine‘s profile on actress and musician Nora Lum better known as Awkwafina written by Molly Lambert for magazine’s first all digital edition. In charge of photography was Katie McCurdy, with styling from Shibon Kennedy. For the story Awkwafina is wearing selected pieces from top brands such as Mugler, Versace, Gucci, Givenchy, and Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello to name a few.
“There’s a lot of anxiety, but also this disbelief that it’s actually happening. It’s crazy. I have dreams all the time that my life is a dream, and I wake up and I’m back working at the bodega and living in my sh**ty Brooklyn apartment.” – Awkwafina on the anxiety brought on by her success.
On creating her stage name:
She first christened herself after the water brand when she was a wisecracking teenager playing with GarageBand in her parents’ apartment in Queens.
“People still to this day are very confused whether my parents actually named me that,” she says. “[Awkwafina] existed to me when I was 15—I made her up in my head. To see it on a chair back?” She smiles.
On what she thought her life would be:
“I think when I was young I had trouble finding a connection between childhood, teenagehood and then adulthood. And I really didn’t think my life would be anything more than mediocre.”
On her favorite music:
Her favorite rapper right now is Tierra Whack—“I think she’s amazing, she’s so good”—and she also listens to a lot of ’70s rock (“Fleetwood Mac; I love me some Michael McDonald”).
On growing up in Queens and why she decided to set her new Comedy Central show there instead of Brooklyn – Brooklyn fatigue:
“I’ve seen every ounce of Brooklyn on TV at this point,” she says. She knows even Queens is gentrifying these days. “I catch myself sounding like one of those 85-year-old women hanging on the stoop complaining about all the kids and how things are changing…. I think [what’s] hard to witness as a New Yorker is [the dissolution of] communities,” she says. “It’s not neighborhoods—it’s communities. They just get smaller and smaller, and people get greedy. They rent out their houses, they hike up the rents.”
On her connection to her new movie The Farewell:
“I opened [the script] up, and the title of it was Nai Nai, which is the Chinese word for grandma. And my grandma raised me my whole life,” she says. “And to this day she’s my best friend, and we have a very special relationship.” In school, where Lum’s college professors praised her writing for blending poignancy and humor, she wrote about their relationship. “I never asked my grandmother why she came to this country,” she wrote at the time, “because…the answer was always clear to me. The proverbial ‘better life’ is something we (Insert Ethnicity)-Americans come to understand as the ultimate guilt trip. It is a looming reminder that the life we find ourselves Jägerbombing, shoplifting and prostituting away is something we should be eternally grateful for.”
On crying on cue to play her role the The Farewell:
“I learned comedy as a defense mechanism when I was young, and so I used it to keep things light, and essentially I depend on it in my performances, right? Like it’s a muscle that’s overworked,”
“I would tell Lulu, ‘I don’t think I can cry. Just a heads-up. I don’t think I can do it,’ ” “Then the material was so powerful that I was, like, crying while we were blocking. And when I would cry, Diana Lin, the actress who plays my mom, would see me crying and she would cry. And Lulu would be like, ‘Save it! Save it for the tape!’
Comedian Margaret Cho on Awkwafina:
“She is seriously a genius,” Cho says, touting Lum’s ability to blend comedy, music and acting. “[It’s] as if she were just tuning in to some internal force—quite literally being a force of nature. I learned a lot from watching [her] just being so in sync with her creativity.”
Photography © Katie McCurdy for WSJ. Magazine / Courtesy of © WSJ. Magazine
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