Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a bi-weekly column exploring the art behind some of cinema’s best roles. In this entry, we examine Awkwafina’s Golden Globe-winning performance in The Farewell.
The entertainment industry likes to place actors into neat little boxes. This actor does drama, this one does comedy, this person is known for horror, this one for rom-coms.
You could argue that actors inadvertently place themselves into these categories simply by being good at what they do. But this doesn’t account for the audience’s role in typecasting an actor. The more we come to associate someone with one type of performance, the more we should recognize how our desires can pigeonhole their careers. If audiences weren’t thirsty for Idris Elba, Hollywood wouldn’t keep casting him as thirsty characters. I mean, how else can you explain his role in Cats?!
That’s why I love the path to celebrity that so many young stars are taking. They’re coming from a viral landscape of their own making, producing short films and music videos for TikTok or YouTube that leverage their innate talent in such a way that they catapult themselves into an entertainment career. Even if we initially associate them with the social platforms they debuted on, these artists defy classification because we come to see them as individuals rather than merely the roles they play or the work they produce.
Even then it can be difficult to shake that first impression we have of a performer unless they’re given the chance to create something diametrically opposed to what made them famous. Case in point: Awkwafina’s poignant performance in The Farewell (2019) — Lulu Wang’s semi-autobiographical film about a Chinese family surreptitiously paying final respects to their dying grandmother.
Before starring in The Farewell, Awkwafina (whose real name is Nora Lum) was best known as a comic rapper and on-air personality. She first caught the world’s attention with the music video for her bawdy song “My Vag,” which ruffled enough feathers to get her fired from a post-college internship at a publishing company.
It’s not hyperbolic to say that Awkwafina had a meteoric rise in the wake of the song. Two years after its release, she joined the cast of MTV’s Girl Code, a panel show where female celebrities and personalities discuss different topics relating to women. After that, she booked her first major film role in Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising plus the coming-of-age comedy Dudes, which was written and directed by Olivia Milch, who would work with Awkwafina two years later on Oceans 8. The same year as that Ocean’s spinoff was released, Awkwafina landed her highest-profile gig yet with Jon M. Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians, where she plays the larger-than-life best friend of Constance Wu’s lead character.
Already the industry was beginning to typecast Awkwafina. These early supporting roles relied almost exclusively on her natural magnetism as an acerbic comedienne. That’s exactly why her work in The Farewell feels so revelatory: she defied our expectations. We were so familiar with the Awkwafina of “My Vag” that to see her deliver a restrained, emotionally devastating performance as Billi in Wang’s film took audiences completely by surprise. Awkwafina’s trademark big personality and esoteric humor were replaced with quiet contemplation and a tool that every actor needs: great listening skills.
My favorite adage on performing — and the best advice any actor can receive — is that acting is reacting. Often, young actors can get so wrapped up in their own lines that they completely tune out, however unintentionally, all other dialogue. They get so locked into the performance they practiced in their bathroom mirror that they don’t allow themselves to be impacted by the throughline of a scene. This causes a disconnect, not just between the actor and their scene partner, but between themselves and their character.
Not listening is a trap many young actors fall into, but in The Farewell, Awkwafina effortlessly side-steps this by having a steady hand on her character’s focus. After Billi learns about her grandmother’s diagnosis and flies to China to see her, she stays glued to her hip for most of the film. Billi wants to soak up as much time with her as possible, and she does so by listening with the intent of a child enamored by a grandparent. In these moments Awkwafina is not anticipating her next line. She’s allowing Billi’s experience of hanging on her grandmother’s every word to inform her body language and the way she speaks.
The way Billi communicates with her family is an important theme in The Farewell. While Lulu Wang is fluent in Mandarin Chinese, Awkwafina only spoke English. Her lack of fluency was written into the film, but it still required Awkwafina to do immense preparation to have the conversational understanding of Mandarin that the role required. We come to realize that another reason Awkwafina’s Billi is such an intent listener is that she’s masking the insecurities she holds over her lack of fluency in her family’s native language.
Billi’s fluency is a major reason why Asian Americans, especially children of immigrants, relate to Awkwafina’s performance. Many understand Billi’s struggle with language as paralleling their own internal struggles of cross-cultural identity. When Billi goes to China, rather than feeling surrounded by heritage, her differences are magnified and she feels like an outsider. As Awkwafina told Vox, “She’s a vessel for the Asian-American experience, and she’s very neutral. I think that that makes her relatable.”
This neutrality she mentions is why I believe everyone can identify with Billi. Awkwafina plays her as a blank slate so audiences can place their own fears about death or melancholic memories of their grandparents on her character. As she told Refinery29, “I’ve had people come to me and they’re trembling, holding back tears, sobbing. They just buried their grandma last year, this summer. The core of it is everyone has a grandma.”
With The Farewell, Awkwafina showed the world that she has a hell of a range. Not only can she crack us up with ribald humor, but she can deliver a quietly beautiful performance — breaking the mold that was being formed around her. It took many years for other famous comics, such as Jim Carrey, to get a shot at drama, but thankfully Awkwafina had the chance to prove herself so early in her career.
When Awkwafina won the Golden Globe for Best Actress in 2019, it wasn’t in the drama category. It was in the musical/comedy category. Yes, that highlights yet another failure of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, but it also speaks back to the way the industry likes to box in actors. Sure, Awkwafina was known for her comedy, and The Farewell has dark humor coursing throughout, but to call her performance a comedic one is to discount the dramatic impact she makes on the audience.
Awkwafina bravely opened up her heart to the world, and while she was honored for that bravery, it just underscores the importance of not classifying actors into types. Awkwafina isn’t just a rapper, or a comic, or an internet personality; she’s an artist who defies classification. And frankly, I can’t wait to see what she surprises us with next.