“Crazy Rich Asians” star Awkwafina, or Nora Lum, opened up about Asian American representation on screen, speaking out and seeing girls like her lead the way, in a MTV News video. Now she’s the one with a chance to carry the torch and blaze the trail.
Born to a Chinese American father and a South Korean immigrant mother in New York City, Lum has spoken on how she values being in touch with her culture and now embraces her heritage on the silver screen.
Lum shared with The Slant how she was raised by her grandmother after her mother died, and she absorbed the rich artistic influences of the cosmopolitan city around her through its hip hop community, which helped to carve her path as a budding artist and entertainer. Recording songs in the confines of her bedroom walls meant only for her ears at the time, she was kept awake in the night by a burning desire to create and the relentless traffic, according to her interview with The Slant.
And in Queens, New York, she further nurtured her talent and was able to attend LaGuardia High School, a performing arts school with alumni including luminaries Nicki Minaj, Ansel Elgort, and Timothée Chalamet. Her creative spirit never died, leading her to the University at Albany, where she majored in journalism and women’s studies, according to the New York State Writer’s Institute.
Her artistic talents gained recognition and she became an almost overnight success after posting a daring music video which amassed millions of views and catapulted her from budding musician to viral rap phenomenon. She has come far since then, booking roles in numerous films including the recent “Oceans 8″ alongside Rihanna, Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway and others.
Lum, now a multi-hyphenate talent as a versatile actress, author, television star and rapper, brings Asian stories to a tremendous audience, allowing many to see themselves represented and reflected on screen as well as in Hollywood and entertainment and the audience to learn about Asian culture and see Asian Americans in diverse roles. Henry Golding, Gemma Chan, Constance Wu and many more star opposite Lum, poised for superstardom in what could be a breakthrough role.
Boldly and with hilarious honesty and wit, Lum shared her story, one that ranges from self-deprecation and staying grounded to lighting the way so that other Asian and Asian American actors may stand beside her. From being inspired by Asians on screen, she is now the inspiration, as she shared in a one-on-one interview with MTV News.
“When I first saw Margaret Jo growing up, I think I was like 7-years-old and I’d never seen anything like it, you know,” Lum said to MTV News. “And in that way she stood, she was was a spectacle to me. If you don’t have someone there as an initial inspiration, you really don’t think anything’s possible.”
Representation is incredibly meaningful to Lum.
“And that’s why I think that it’s extremely important for the younger generations of Asian Americans to see people that look like them on screen because it’ll make it seem possible for them,” Lum said to MTV News. “$16.5 million in each of your bank accounts five weeks from now, that’s a lot as an actress. And you know, one with kind of a limited resume at this point, like I never expected I would shoot a movie in New York, let alone that I would be playing a native New Yorker.”
She and cast-mate Constance Wu connected instantly, both having grown up in Queens.
“And a couple of things really resonated with me,” Lum told MTV News. “With Constance [Constance Wu], she’s from Queens. She was picked or plucked from that park which I used to go to when I was a young kid. Also it’s like, you know, that whole mentality like, ‘What would you do to get out of Queens? Like what would you do?’”
Though she never expected what would come, acting and music have always been a core part of who she is.
“I never knew that I would go into acting, let alone that my music would ever be a career,’ Lum said to MTV News. “It wasn’t really until I was actually doing ‘Girl Code.’ Then I got an audition for “Neighbors” and that was like my first time going on camera. And from there I think I noticed that, you know, comedy had always played a really big role in everything that I did in my music. And I always knew that I was a part of it and acting tapped into that in a different way.”
Lum learns how to handle the highs and lows and keeps looking up.
“I don’t think I internalized the, ‘Oh, this is the best year of your life.’ I think it’s also definitely the stereotypical Asian way of taking compliments, which I can’t. But you know, it [causes] a little bit of anxiety. I don’t want this to be the best year of my life. I want another best year of my life at some point,” Lum told MTV News. “But I mean as of yet, probably this best year of my life. And I also think that fame in itself, like moments, are subjective. People have been saying I’ve had a moment since my page had, you know, five hundred views. So it’s like it’s all very subjective.”
She stays grounded and retains immense modesty and humility throughout, underscored by her self-deprecating humor.
“And I really hope that throughout this, I can retain a grounded sense of self,” Lum said in the MTV News video. “I don’t think that I’m going to be blown up. But I think that I’m really good at having an out-of-body experience looking down and being like, ‘Oh, you actually do suck. Your life is actually pretty funny.’ And I think that I can make fun of myself in such a way. I think that’s what really feels, this kind of intense self deprecation that will never leave me.”
Lum feels privileged to have the career and opportunities she does today.
“So that’s why I’m in these dope movies. I still am [me]… Don’t worry about it, you know,” Lum told MTV News. “Oddly the acting in music [is] kind of like oil and water. They tend to become very separate and I think with movies, every movie I do as a blessing. So every movie that I can be a part of, like, ‘Let’s do it. I’m down. I’m going to lend myself to it this.’ It’s a collaboration whereas music is what I do, you know, in my underwear at night. Every night I’ll never stop. So it’s like I’ll make music until no one wants to listen to it anymore. That’s just what I’ve always done. That’s like my passion, my hobby and something that I’m very privileged to be able to do.”
Ad she is never afraid to speak out when she knows what she is doing is right.
“But also with acting, it’s just different, that’s a different thing. So I’ll do both as long as I can. In terms of filtering myself or censoring myself, as long as what I’m saying is right and it’s standing up for what’s right, I’ll say it,” Lum said to MTV News. “But if what I’m saying is detrimental to people, if it just insults people for no reason, which I used to do a lot on Twitter online… Twitter was just a garbage pile. Now I think I am more wary of that. But in that way, I think it’s taught me to grow up a little bit and just see [what] issues I should fight for, what I should stand up for.”
Though being a role model was not her initial goal, Lum carries her status with great responsibility and strives to offer positive representation.
“And I think the the role model thing, it’s something that I didn’t want to accept when I first came out,” Lum told MTV News. “It’s something that like, ‘Who wants that burden?’ It’s like being Batman. Like who wants to be Batman? I was only for Asian Americans, but what I learned very quickly is that I will be by default. I will influence that, I will impact my community and so that’s just what’s going to happen. And what you do with that is you have to understand that they’re going be with you when you’re doing well and they’re unfortunately going to be a part of you when you’re doing bad. So you have to be wary of that.”
And she continues to champion visibility and advocate for Asians and Asian Americans as well as underrepresented minorities on screen and for the opportunity to share their stories.
“What I want out of this is [that] I want to inspire people because I want there to be more of us,” Lum said to MTV News. “I don’t want to be the one, you know. I want there to be so many that I don’t know.”