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How Awkwafina Went from Working in a Bodega to Starring in ‘Ocean’s 8’

"My whole career was people giving me a chance.”
Photo: STYLECASTER/Getty Images

It’s 10 in the morning and Awkwafina is hungry. “What should I have for dinner?” she asks earnestly, standing in a striped white skirt suit in the middle of a metallic photography studio where, an hour earlier, she gave superlatives to her seven “Ocean’s 8” cast members. (She voted the entire cast most likely to steal Helena Bonham Carter’s meats. There was no clarification.)

The room bursts into laughter and Awkwafina, born Nora Lum, cracks a smile. “No, seriously,” she says. After weeks of red-eye flights across the country and long, grueling press days (she had seven stops on that day alone), it’s understandable why Lum has built up an appetite. “There are green juices over there,” someone suggests. Lum scrunches her face into a sour expression. “Should I drink a green juice for dinner?” she says. “Green juices and Adderall?”

Since the announcement that she would join Sandra Bullock, Rihanna, and five other industry heavyweights in “Ocean’s 8” (in theaters now), an all-female reboot of the mid-2000s “Ocean’s” trilogy, Lum has heard endless comments about “what a big year” she’ll have. Actually, Lum—who also stars in August’s “Crazy Rich Asians” and recently released her new EP “In Fina We Trust”—has been hearing those comments for years now, since her 2012 rap song “My Vag” went viral. Does she ever believe it? The simple answer is no. But that doesn’t mean that she takes these opportunities for granted. “Fame and all of that is very subjective,” Lum says. “I think my whole career was people giving me a chance and then me wondering if I could fulfill that chance.”

Photo: Getty Images

Raised in Queens, New York, Lum, a second-generation Chinese-Korean American, grew up on ’90s rappers such as Shaggy and Gang Starr. After learning how to produce music at 16 years old, Lum wrote and recorded “My Vag,” a tongue-in-cheek song in which she raps about how her vag is “better than a penis.” (“There was an existing song called ‘My Dick,’ and I just thought there should be a ‘vag’ counterpart.” Lum says.) The song wouldn’t be released until years later, but it marked the early rumblings of Awkwafina, Lum’s stage name inspired by the feminization of brands (“You know? Like Neutrogena,” she told Fader) and her inherent awkwardness.

My whole career was people giving me a chance and then me wondering if I could fulfill that chance.

Still considering an entertainment career a far-fetched dream, Lum went to college, studying journalism and women’s studies. Years later, someone discovered the audio file for “My Vag” floating around the internet and approached Lum to make a music video for it. But by then she was in a stable job as a publicity assistant at a publishing house. After some serious convincing, Lum agreed to film the music video, under the condition that she wore glasses to disguise her face. “I was like, ‘Oh, that’ll work!’” Lum says.

Immediately, she was fired and forced to scour the city for minimum-wage jobs. It was tough, but looking back, Lum considers it the push she needed to pursue her passion of performing. “ I remember that night before we published it so clearly. I was in my apartment and was like, ‘There’s no going back,’” Lum says. “I do a lot of college talks, and I tell these kids, ‘The biggest step that you will ever take is hitting the publish button.’”

MORE: Awkwafina Assigns Superlatives to Her ‘Ocean’s 8’ Costars

After “My Vag” reached a million views in a year and Lum started filming more music videos for original songs such as “Queef” and “Green Tea,” (featuring comedian Margaret Cho), she earned enough financial independence to quit her job at a vegan bodega and commit to music full-time. “I think ‘My Vag’ left a lasting impression on people,” Lum says. “I think people clicked it because they’ve never seen an Asian woman in that context at that time. It just didn’t exist at all.”

Soon after, Lum was approached to become a co-host on MTV’s “Girl Code Live.” The opportunity led to her management asking if she wanted to act, something she had never thought of, considering the dearth of Asians in entertainment. “You need to see someone like you in order to feel like you could do that plausibly,” Lum says. “The positive of that was that there was this whole universe where it’s like, ‘No one is like me.’ Knowing that you carry something that no one has seen yet is inspiring. But how that materializes is something that I never was able to figure out.”

You need to see someone like you in order to feel like you could do that plausibly.

Though Lum was adamant from the start not to audition for stereotypical Asian roles, a few slipped through the cracks. “There was one or two instances where they suddenly changed the audition from an American accent to an Asian accent. I just walked out of those. I was like, ‘I don’t have time for that,’” Lum says. “Asian-Americans need to be distinguished from Asian immigrants. The whole point of being an Asian-American is that we’re not all K-pop stars. We were born and raised here. We’re very much a part of this culture. We don’t need to put on accents to feel American or be in American movies.”

Ocean's 8
Photo: Warner Bros

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However, Lum acknowledges that not all Asian actors have the privilege of turning down stereotypical roles like she does. Though she understands why many Asian actors take these roles to boost their careers, she believes the problem lies in the industry. “It’s really easy for me to be like, ‘I’m going to walk out of those auditions. I’m not going to take those parts.’ But there are struggling Asian actors who might need to take those parts,” Lum says. “But that’s not their call. It’s really the call of the industry to not put them in those situations where they feel like they have to because it’s their one big break.”

We don’t need to put on accents to feel American or be in American movies.

Since she began acting three years ago, Lum’s career moved quickly. After booking her first-ever film role in 2016’s “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising,” Lum was cast in Olivia Milch’s 2018 indie comedy “Dude.” Milch, a co-writer on “Ocean’s 8,” showed an early cut of “Dude” to “Ocean’s 8” director Gary Ross, who fell in love with Lum and came up with the character of Constance, a money-hustling Queens-born pickpocketer, with her in mind. When her team told her she was being considered for an “Ocean’s 8” reboot, she refused to believe it. “You can’t believe it. Because if you believe it, you’re going to get all messed up if it doesn’t happen,” Lum says. “For a while, I was like, ‘I’ll believe it when I see it.’”

That moment came when Ross called her himself and explained the idea behind Constance. Lum didn’t have the role yet, but she knew immediately that she wanted it. “She was the most authentically New York character I’ve ever seen. She’s from Queens. She’s New York to the bone,” Lum says. “I studied with a coach, and one of the ‘gets’ of Constance was ‘What would you do to get out of Queens?’ That resonated so much with the character, but also with Awkwafina as well.”

Soon after, her agent, manager, and lawyers called her, making her role as one of eight heist members in “Ocean’s 8” official. “I was in my bedroom, and I kind of stood there after the call and was like, ‘Oh my God,’” Lum says. Not too long later, Lum met all seven of her “Ocean’s 8” cast members. The first was Carter whom she saw across the room at a get-together before filming. “I was like, ‘Oh my God. It’s Helena Bonham Carter,’” Lum says, mumbling. “She was like, ‘Come here and give me a hug!’ That first hug set this extremely warm tone that existed on set with everyone. There were rumors that we fought, which is so far from truth. My cast members were so good to me. I’ll love them forever.”

What Asian-American entertainers need to realize is that you will be a role model by default.

Since her breakthrough role in “Ocean’s 8,” Lum has been hailed as a role model for the Asian-American community. It was something she was adamantly against at first. It wasn’t until recently when Lum performed a show at Sarah Lawrence College and had a young Asian-American woman, who looked exactly like her when she was in college, come up to her did Lum realize her place as an Asian-American role model. “She was like, ‘Thank you for doing this because I didn’t think it was possible,’” Lum says. “That really changed my outlook on how people see me.”

Ocean's 8
Photo: Warner Bros

Lum has only been acting for a few years, but she has already seen the industry change tremendously. She no longer receives scripts for stereotypical roles (“I don’t know if it’s because they don’t send them to me because I won’t fucking do them.”) and she’s been seeing more and more writers of color populating writers’ rooms. As for her own role in Hollywood’s diversity movement, Lum is starting to embrace that as well.

“No one wants to sign up for being the Asian-American role model. It’s like this unbelievable burden that you don’t know if you’ll be able to live up to,” Lum says. “But what Asian-American entertainers need to realize is that you will be a role model or a representative by default. They’ll count on you when you do good. But they’ll also be really pissed when you do bad. Whenever you put yourself out there, you have to know that you’re representing your community as well.”

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