It had been three weeks between the time when I'd seen Lulu Wang's new film, The Farewell, and when I sat down with its star, Awkwafina, to talk about her quietly stunning portrayal of Billi, a Chinese-American artist who goes with her family to China to say goodbye to her dying grandmother. But still, upon seeing the actress, my eyes instantly started filling with a familiar prickly heat and I couldn't help but tell her how powerful her performance had been, how her final appearance on screen led me to burst into tears in the theater, and how I'd been recently visiting my own 98-year-old grandmother, and how much that relationship meant to me.
Awkwafina—real name, Nora Lum; and she introduces herself as Nora—immediately made me feel at ease for getting so emotional, telling me that this has been what's happened to her with practically everyone who's seen the film. And while she must be used to fans approaching her following breakout performances in huge hits like Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean's 8, Awkwafina is now, thanks to The Farewell, getting recognized for something totally different: her first lead dramatic role, one simultaneously vulnerable and strong, and deeply meaningful.
The Farewell, which is based on Wang's own life, is a story of duality, and balance. Billi, who was born in China but grew up in America, must navigate the two cultures that have informed her life, but that often have vastly different belief systems. Never is this more apparent than when Nai Nai, Billi's grandmother, is diagnosed with terminal cancer, and Billi's whole family convenes upon Nai Nai's house in China.
But, the family isn't going to grieve over Nai Nai's sickbed. Rather, they're going to celebrate the impromptu wedding of Billi's cousin. This is a celebration; there will be no mention of dying at all, not least because Nai Nai doesn't know she's dying—the family is keeping this secret from her, taking on the burden of knowing death is imminent and protecting her from it. Billi is taken aback by this, it contradicts her American sensibilities of what's right to do in a situation like this, and it becomes one more duality with which she must grapple.
And much like Nai Nai's family tries to cheat grief by throwing a party, The Farewell subverts any ideas you might have of what a drama about a dying grandmother should be like: Yes, there are scenes that will leave you in tears, but there's also an abundant amount of laughter, petty drama, and joy. It's a family affair at its heart, and as full of complexities and nuances that are specific to every family, and thus recognizable by us all.
At its center, though, is the sensitive portrayal of Billi by Awkwafina, who perfectly captures the feelings of alienation and longing so common to, as she puts it as we talk, "dash-Americans." Below, we talk about what drew her to the film, how it made her reconsider her own relationship with her family (Awkwafina's mother died when she was a young child, and she was raised by her own Nai Nai), and what her grandmother thought of the film.
How did you wind up playing Billi?
It was a little after I finished Ocean's 8. It was a time where I really didn't know what was next—I wasn't getting a lot of scripts. We got [The Farewell] and my manager, who usually gives me a breakdown, was like, "Just read it." I open it up, and it's called "Nai Nai," which means grandma. My manager knows that I have a very intense relationship with my grandma. I was raised by my grandma since the age of six. I have this bond. I read the script, and I was blown away by it. I was like, "How could someone think of this?"
I cried, and then I found out it was a This American Life episode. I listened to that—it wrecked me. I was blown away by the fact that it was that specific to something that I could've related to... I'd never seen anything like it. But I've come to find it's something that a lot of people can relate to also.
It really does offer that experience that the best stories, the best art, really does, which is to take something incredibly specific that can then can be completely universalized. And it's such a fascinating example of so many different kinds of stories, the ones we construct to understand who we are, the ones we tell to protect others; it's all about a double-consciousness that's rooted in these narrative constructions where we're navigating who we are in a changing world. But some stories that we tell are, you know, more like lies. What do you think the difference is between telling most stories and the kind of story—a lie—that's at the center of this film?
What you're saying with the constant negotiation, that's literally what any dash-American has to do every day of their life. They go home to something, they eat food there; they go out to the mall, they eat food there. It's a constant thing. I think that when it comes down to this lie, specifically, it's purely cultural. What Billi goes through, the period of growth where she begins to understand that your ideals are not always dogma, it's not only a constant negotiation, but a need to understand why this is happening and why she thinks the way she does.
I think that, as an American, I didn't know about the lie. I was very put off by it, because I would never do it, and I would never understand. I very much had the Billi way of thinking. It wasn't until I read the script and it wasn't until the scene with my uncle—where it was literally an actor delivering lines to me—that I really understood what that lie meant. It's a way that, culturally, they show love. It's not [Nai Nai's] burden to take. This is a burden that her family was going to take on her behalf. I think that when you understand it that way, whether or not you were grown to think that's right, you understand it.
This is not your story, but it also bears a resemblance to aspects of your life. Did playing Billi make you reconsider your relationship with your family?
Playing a character that is so similar to you in terms of everything she's going through in terms with her life, it's weird. As an actress, I had to confront losing my grandma, which in turn forced me to know that one day I'll go through that, and also, like, how to deal with loved ones in the face of this event.
For me, it's always a very personal journey to go back to China. It's your history, but it's also a culture that you felt like you were placed in your whole life, but you have no real, meaningful footstep in. There's always that bit of loss and a connection that's so vague now, it doesn't make any sense. But you also have loved ones there that care about you, that are related to you by blood, but you might not be able to communicate with them.
This film is a lot about dual realities, where do those appear in your life?
[I've been] involved in comedy from a young age, and used it as a defense mechanism of sorts, because I didn't want to be an emblem of sorrow after my mother's death. I think what Lulu taught me was that was my way to keep things light, but I was also using it is a way to not be vulnerable. I think that as a performer and as a person, that's what I've been putting off, and that's something that [The Farewell] brought out of me. It was very real.
For fans of yours, this role is going to feel like a departure, but it's one that feels so right, even inevitable. Is this the kind of role you're going to keep seeking out?
I've been asked an iteration of that, like, "Did you just do this because you want to do drama?" An actress doesn't just wake up and say, "I wanna do drama." But, I think that I wanted to do this because it made me less scared of the prospect. I was really insecure about what my performance was like, because I didn't know what it was like to confront a character like that in a realistic way. I learned a lot about her life for this role, and I think that any insecurities that I had may have been linked to the care that I wanted to take with this story, because it is so important.
You're part of an incredible ensemble cast in this film, who make up the extended family in the film. But Billi is also something of an outsider—even within her own family. How was it to straddle those two realities?
It kind of reminded me—and I guess it's how I ended up playing everything—of meeting my relatives abroad, who I can't really communicate with; I can't really make them laugh, but I can, in these certain ways. You can't communicate that love, but you have love. That was almost like meeting my family out there.
Also, like, in a larger perspective, in any family when you go to these meetings, you realize that you only see people for [big events] like this. How well do you know these people, and where does that love come from? Is it bound by blood? Are we all just tied to grief in big events? It gives you a real sense of family and a larger unit, which is really how Chinese culture functions. We always defer to the elders. There's an immense respect. There's also a group mentality in everything that they do as a culture. We're taught that. We do everything for the group. In America, what Billi's mom is trying to tell her is that it's an individual journey, where it's like, This is my dream. Even in the in the Asian-American dream, there is a very big aspect of paying respect to who brought you there. That comes into play with Billi's character as well. She's not fully American in her pursuits. She knows what respect is.
There are a lot of scenes in which Billi is really vulnerable, really raw. How was it accessing that pain?
The three scenes where I cry, those were the realest tears I'll ever cry. I think that saying goodbye to grandma really hit me. There's a crowd that gathered because we had a camera, and at first, they were heckling us, and then there was a silence as I got more into the scene, and I looked around and everyone was crying. The hecklers were crying. It really was like I was saying goodbye to grandma. That was very, very hard. And then there was another scene that was hard in a different way because I felt the pain that wasn't my own pain, it was Billi's or Lulu's pain. When she was breaking down about when her grandpa died and how they didn't tell her about it till after the funeral. That was a pain that I felt that was not mine, but that was very present.
How do you decompress after a day of filming like that?
I was an emotional wreck, man! I would come home and call my grandma crying every night. Just telling her, "I love you so much, and I'm so glad I have you, and I'm so glad that you're here." It makes you really appreciate having the people around you, because you don't want to have to wait for an event like that to see the people that you love.
Has your grandma seen the movie?
Yes. She's an old lady. She can't travel a lot, so I sent a screener. She was sitting here [gestures to her left], and my El Salvadorian aunt is sitting here [gestures to her right]. My aunt obviously was like, "They do this?" My grandma was like, "Duh." They had a cute little exchange that happened. Then, my grandma got up and started cooking in the middle, and I was like, "Grandma?!" She's like, "My butt hurts." [laughs] She laughed, she found it humorous which I thought was really cool. She laughed at certain points where it was cool that she understood that.
It is really funny too.
It is! And that means you're seeing it the right way. You have to see it in the bigger picture sense, because there is always that underlying tone of humor with the sadness.
The Farewell opens in theaters on July 12.