'Crazy Rich Asians' Star Awkwafina Has Always 'Aggressively Been Myself'

Aug 17, 2018
Originally published on August 17, 2018 7:20 pm
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The breakout star of "Crazy Rich Asians" goes by one name, Awkwafina. Clever and profane, she catapulted to Internet fame back in 2012, when she released a music video about - and this might offend some people - a slang word for her genitalia.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY ***")

AWKWAFINA: (Singing) My [expletive] like a operatic ballad. Your [expletive] like Grandpa's cabbage.

CORNISH: And we should note for our listeners, that word comes up again, and it may be sensitive for some. Born and raised in Queens, Awkwafina is unapologetic about being a rapper, an Asian-American woman and, as NPR's Mallory Yu explains, connecting with her audience.

MALLORY YU, BYLINE: When Awkwafina first started as a performer, she didn't want the burden of representing all of Asian-America.

AWKWAFINA: No one wants to be the Asian. They want to be the artist, you know?

YU: Now it's a responsibility she's proud to have.

AWKWAFINA: The thing that I've always done is aggressively been myself. And I think that by being yourself, you don't really dictate what an Asian-American is in 2018. You just add to what we are as a diverse people.

YU: And for her, the reaction to "Crazy Rich Asians" so far has been incredible.

AWKWAFINA: People walk out of the theater, and their eyes are swollen from crying. And for some people, it resonates so deep. And for me, at least, it's the power of representation.

YU: She says she knew this movie would be big from the second she heard it would be made.

AWKWAFINA: You know, at first, it was just raw excitement. It wasn't even, oh, my God, I got to get in it. It was just, wow, that's so cool.

YU: She did get in the movie, as Peik Lin Goh, the Singaporean best friend to main character Rachel Chu. She acts as Rachel's confidant, guide and stylist.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CRAZY RICH ASIANS")

AWKWAFINA: (As Peik Lin Goh) These people are so posh and snobby. They're snoshy (ph).

CONSTANCE WU: (As Rachel Chu) Yeah, but Nick's not like that.

AWKWAFINA: (As Peik Lin Goh) Even if he isn't, I guarantee you the family is, which is why tonight, you need to not look like Sebastian of "The Little Mermaid."

She's a best friend that I wish I had. She's honest. She's real. She has humility even though she does have money.

YU: For those who've read the book, Awkwafina's interpretation of her character, originally written as a Singaporean socialite, might come as a surprise. And she says it was a surprise for her, too.

AWKWAFINA: I really had to watch the movie to understand what I had done with Peik Lin because it didn't make sense to me. I think I just hit the ground running while we were filming.

JON M. CHU: In my opinion, she fully knew what she was doing. I mean, she didn't just break the mold of Peik Lin. She shatters it, throws champagne all over it, and glitter and, in her heels, steps all over it.

YU: That's director Jon M. Chu.

CHU: In the book, it's a completely different character. I mean, she's, like, a Singaporean, like, through and through, then her sort of tour guide through the city. But when you have Awkwafina, you got to let her stretch. You got to let her be who she is.

YU: Because Awkwafina can only be entirely, aggressively herself. Before her acting, she was best known for her rap.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY ***")

AWKWAFINA: (Singing) And my [expletive] a chrome Range Rover. Your [expletive] hatchback '81 Toyota.

YU: There's no special story to her moniker. It was a joke amongst teenage friends.

AWKWAFINA: Then people actually started calling me that in real life. And so that was a mistake. But, you know, at least it's memorable.

YU: Born Nora Lum, the 29-year-old Queens native makes a distinction between herself and her persona. Awkwafina, she says, is a wild id with boundless confidence, able to say exactly what she thinks.

AWKWAFINA: I do believe there is a duality between Awkwafina and Nora. I would not be able to perform onstage without Awkwafina. Nora could not perform onstage. So I, you know, all the neuroses, all the self-consciousness that comes with adulthood, Awkwafina doesn't have that.

YU: That allows her to rap about whatever she wants - growing up in Queens, being Asian-American, soda taxes - with a whole lot of words that aren't exactly FCC-friendly.

AWKWAFINA: I made an agreement with myself when I first started that I will never try to push my music to a mainstream audience because I enjoy having a small group of people that totally get it.

YU: It took her family a little longer to come around.

AWKWAFINA: My dad had never really been that quintessential Asian dad ever until "My [Expletive]" came out. And that's when, all of a sudden, he was like, well, you should go become a sonogram technician.

YU: She understands her dad just wanted what was best for her.

AWKWAFINA: He didn't want me to end up in some credit hole, chasing dreams that wouldn't exist. And so that's why it was very important for me to just kind of not argue with it and to show him that I believed it would work.

YU: So far, early box office numbers for "Crazy Rich Asians" indicate that it did. And with at least two more books in the series the movie's based on, fans can expect to see more of Awkwafina's Peik Lin. Mallory Yu, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TESTIFY")

AWKWAFINA: (Singing) Give it time. I'm gon' make the city so proud. Let me testify. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.