Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell” may have premiered at the Sundance Film Festival almost 10 months ago and arrived in theaters in the U.S. this past summer, but one of its breakout stars somehow didn’t catch her own critically acclaimed performance until very recently. Granted, Zhao Shuzhen, who plays the central character of Nai Nai, insists she was busy with other projects. All she heard was the constant buzz her friends in America were conveying to her across the Pacific about how it was resonating within the Chinese American community.
“I only saw it yesterday, so the fact that it came out the way it did, that was really a surprise to me,” Shuzhen says through a translator. “Now, I’m finally interacting with my fans in America for the first time. The reception that I’ve received, that’s been a real shock to me. I really had no idea. For me, this was just a nice movie that I did a year ago. So, to be here in person, to receive their affection and admiration, to hear their stories, that’s been just nothing I could have ever imagined or expected.”
A veteran of the Chinese stage as well as local television programs such as “Love in the Family” and “Left Hand Family, Right Hand Love,” Shuzhen has seemingly found international fame at the young age of 76. In “The Farewell” she plays the grandmother to Billi, a 30-something Chinese American immigrant played by Awkwafina who has not seen her beloved Nai Nai in years. Billi surprises her parents by returning with them to China to attend a cousin’s wedding ceremony which is doubling for a family reunion.
The “wedding” is a chance for the entire extended family to be with her together, potentially one last time. Unknown to Nai Nai, her lingering illness has been diagnosed as lung cancer and she has only months to live. Billi, who was raised in the U.S., has to come to grips with her family’s decision to follow the Chinese custom of keeping such news from their ill loved ones. The film is based on Wang’s own grandmother who, miraculously, is still alive years after her own terminal diagnosis.
“You know here it’s considered very unusual that there would be this lie, this deception put on by the family,” Shuzhen remarks. “If you do this kind of story in China, that’s just so commonplace. People wouldn’t think there’s anything too extraordinary about the story. That’s why I personally didn’t realize it would make such a big impact.”
Wang went through a long search to find the right person to play Nai Nai and had even considered using a nonprofessional actress. When she saw Shuzhen’s work, however, she had a gut feeling that she was “the one.” She notes, “Her energy was that perfect balance of strength and warmth that I was looking for.”
Unfortunately, it initially appeared that the independent production couldn’t afford her. According to Wang, there is no real equivalent to SAG indie waivers for Chinese actors. It’s simply not commonplace. Since Shuzhen was Wang’s first choice, the writer-director decided to try to convince her to do the film for less.
“I called her directly and basically begged her and explained the situation of our budget [and] that I absolutely would not do the film without her,” Wang says. “It was based on my real grandmother and she was the only one. And so, she said, ‘How can I say no? I have grandchildren of my own, and you’re a young female director and it’s so personal for you.’ And so, she did it.”
Shuzhen met the real Nai Nai during filming, but Wang’s grandmother was unaware of which role the actress was playing. That casual interaction was a benefit to Shuzhen as their personalities off-screen turned out to be quite dissimilar.
“In real life, I’m a softer person. You know, I’m very easygoing,” Shuzhen says. “But Lulu’s grandma, she can be very approachable, very accessible, very happy, but she can also turn on her fierce side. And when she’s fierce, it’s like she’s super assertive. It’s either my way or the highway. Very decisive, bosses people around. She has that side to her.”
She adds, “I would say in that respect, it was just not as easy as I initially thought the role would be. I had to really study her, and make sure that I’m portraying her authentically and realistically.”
A few days into her trip to Los Angeles, the awards prospects of her performance are becoming abundantly clear. And despite the insistence of such chatter from those around her over the last few months, including Wang’s own great aunt who plays a role in the film, she never thought any sort of accolades were remotely possible.
“My reaction is the Oscar, the Academy Award? That’s just way out there,” Shuzhen says. “That’s way above my pay grade, so to speak. That’s almost like a sacred temple for a lot of actors. So, I think all I could say is I guess as an actor, you know, one longs for it. I long for it. I think about it, I dream about it. Maybe, who knows?”