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MARGARET CHO

Awkwafina Is a One-Woman Revolution

As she makes her buzzy dramatic debut in this summer's The Farewell, Awkwafina talks shop with her friend Margaret Cho and returns to the deli where she worked before hitting it big.

 

JUL 16 2019, 8:00 AM EDT

In 2016, Awkwafina and I collaborated on “Green Tea,” a rap video send-up of Asian stereotypes, and we became instant friends. Since then she’s shined in Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean’s 8, and is now making her first foray into drama with The Farewell, a film about a Chinese family that doesn’t tell its matriarch she’s dying, and instead stages one last hurrah. With a Comedy Central series also on the horizon, Awkwafina isn’t just an EGOT in the making—she’s a one-woman revolution. When I watch her onscreen, I experience something that’s rare for Asian-Americans: I feel seen, like a cloak of invisibility has been lifted. Here, I catch up with my new favorite movie star.

MARGARET CHO: After Crazy Rich Asians, did things feel very different?

AWKWAFINA: I thought that I had a good fan base, and then Crazy Rich Asians came out, and I was like, “Oh, okay!” Growing up, I really had only you to look up to. Your existence meant so much to me because it showed me what was possible. After Crazy Rich Asians, people would come up to me crying—it was almost a bittersweet joy for them seeing a movie like that and realizing how important representation is. Asian-American actors have told me that before Crazy Rich Asians they couldn’t get one audition. Now they’re getting tons. It helped open the door for movies like The Farewell.

MC: I loved The Farewell. I cried from beginning to end. I’d never seen a film that so accurately reflects the Asian-American experience. Was it emotional for you, especially since you’re so close to your grandma?

A: It was extremely emotional. At the start of filming, I was insecure about crying. But when I got into it and thought about what this girl was going through, it felt very real.

MC: This is such an American movie, but it’s largely set in China, and most of it is in Chinese. That’s what is revolutionary about it. It speaks to everyone, like “How can we understand each other?” It also really shows how we interact with family. My folks never explained anything. My generation wasn’t encouraged to speak Korean—our parents wanted American kids. They would always lie to you about things, since you didn’t speak the language.

A: My family never made a point to have me speak only English, but they never really attempted to teach me Chinese either. I actually hadn’t heard of this Asian tradition of communal lying. During the transformation into my character, Billi, I really grappled with the idea of not telling someone about their own medical condition. As an American, it seemed very wrong to me at first. But as Asian people, we have an undying reverence for our elders, and when you think about it as a communication of love, respect, and generosity, you realize that it’s complicated, layered, and very profound. I think this role helped me understand it.

MC: Your acting in this movie is amazing. You’ve got to win an Oscar! What’s it been like attending all the awards shows and red carpets?

A: I grew up never really feeling pretty or like a girly girl. I was uncomfortable in my skin when it came to that stuff. I had been dressed up for events and had gotten glam before, but at the Crazy Rich Asians premiere I looked in the mirror and it felt different. It sounds clichéd, but I felt like a princess.

MC: I loved your pink gown. It reminded me of what Gwyneth Paltrow wore when she won her Oscar for Shakespeare in Love. It was like, “Okay, she has arrived”— the perfect entrée into superstardom. Then you hosted Saturday Night Live last fall, which was very moving for me. We had actually talked about that, like “We’ve got to do ‘Green Tea’ as the musical guest! You’ve got to host! Let’s meditate on it.” And then it happened!


A: I remember that! “Green Tea” was a really fun video. I was like, “I can’t believe I’m here with Margaret Cho!” Meeting up with you to do that video and being able to talk to you was really awesome for me. It was one of the highlights of my career.


MC: Oh, you’re the best! Well, I’m such a fan. You also have a show coming out on Comedy Central set in your hometown of Queens. How did growing up there influence you?



A: When you’re in the outer boroughs, it’s a very specific experience because you’re in the shadow of a city that to you represents success and where you want to be. The outsider feeling really drives you.


MC: How do you navigate your personal life and self-care these days?


A: Working in this industry, you have to cultivate stability in other areas of your life. I was in a long-term relationship, and now I’m in another one, so that’s been a very stable thing for me. And I talk to my grandma every day.

This article originally appears in the August 2019 issue of Harper's BAZAAR, available on newsstands July 23.