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Awkwafina on her first Golden Globes nomination and the power of ‘The Farewell’

Awkwafina stars in Lulu Wang’s ‘The Farewell,’ which is nominated for two Golden Globes.
Awkwafina stars in Lulu Wang’s ‘The Farewell,’ which is nominated for two Golden Globes.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

After a delicious Korean BBQ dinner last night, who can blame Awkwafina for sleeping through the predawn Golden Globes nominations? The star of “The Farewell” didn’t learn she was nominated for best actress until about four hours later, when she woke up at 9 a.m. to a flurry of text messages.

“You know, I didn’t know that they were today,” said the comedian and actress, who made her dramatic lead debut in Lulu Wang’s critically acclaimed dramedy as an American woman visiting her ailing grandmother in China, where a big family decision turns complicated. “I definitely would have set an alarm.”

The text that really woke her up didn’t come from her publicists but from the former manager at the video store where she used to work. “I was like, if he’s texting me then something must have happened!” said Awkwafina, aka Nora Lum, who also stars in this week’s “Jumanji: The Next Level” and premieres her autobiographical comedy series “Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens” in January. “That’s how I knew to wake up.”

How does it feel to receive your first Golden Globe nomination, especially for a film like “The Farewell” and for a dramatic role like Billi?

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It’s exciting and it’s awesome and surprising. When you think about it, anytime that you’re recognized, or something that you care about is recognized in this way, you think about that time. I thought about when we were shooting “The Farewell,” and I describe it as surreal — that’s how it feels. I would never have expected something like this to happen, especially when we were filming. We just wanted to tell the story. So to see that it’s getting recognition and to see the news today is really awesome.

Awkwafina and “The Farewell” director
Awkwafina, left, stars in “The Farewell,” based on director Lulu Wang’s own experience about an American woman who joins a family trip to China to visit her beloved grandmother.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Your relationship with “The Farewell” has taken many turns since you flew to China to shoot it with Lulu Wang last year, then premiered it at Sundance. You’ve now seen so many disparate audiences connect with it across the world. What has that journey meant to you?

I was thinking about when it came to me, when I first read the script. When I read it I felt that I’d never read anything like this. I’d never heard a story like this. Yet there’s something so relatable to this situation, and I felt that really strongly. Fast-forward to Sundance and I remember sitting with Lulu and Diana [Lin] and Tzi [Ma], it was the first time we had been together in months, and I think there at Sundance we felt for the first time just how audiences relate to it. ... It has taken a lot of turns and it’s taken off, and so many people have come up to me so moved by it. That reception has been incredible.

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How do you feel about “The Farewell” being categorized as a foreign-language film at the Golden Globes, rather than just as American a story as any other in the main categories?

I don’t know a lot about how those different things are categorized, but it definitely is in a lot of Chinese. I think my Chinese would be considered foreign to anybody because it’s so bad! But I did see that today.

You were at the Globes last year as part of the cast of the groundbreaking “Crazy Rich Asians.” Did that experience prepare you at all for this journey through awards season with “The Farewell”?

You’re never really prepared for this kind of thing. But “Crazy Rich Asians” definitely shed a light on representation in our society and how we react to it, how there was an audience for it, and how it moved people, especially younger generations.

la-et-mn-the-farewell-movie
Awkwafina, right, and Zhao Shuzhen in a scene from the A24 movie “The Farewell.”
(A24)

You’re now the second Asian American woman in two years to be nominated for best actress in a film category, after your “Crazy Rich Asians” co-star Constance Wu.

That was very inspiring to see. I think all of that, Constance’s nomination, Sandra Oh’s win, it all tied into this larger reality that there hasn’t really been a lot. And also on the brighter side, that it’s changing. Especially for me, when I was watching the Golden Globes growing up, which I did every year. I do realize that if I would have seen someone like me up there it would have been different.

You’ve got the new “Jumanji” film heading to theaters and your own series premiering in January, plus huge films like “The Little Mermaid” and Marvel’s “Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” coming up. And today, the Globes nomination. How are you wrapping your head around this moment in your career?

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We just released the [show’s] trailer, and I’m going to the “Jumanji 2" premiere tonight, and we got this news. … It’s just crazy, and it’s an awesome time, and I’m really grateful for it. When you first start in this business you can only really dream about a time like this. So to know that it’s happening … I have to remind myself: Enjoy the moment and be present, because you have to know that it’s a special time.

Awkwafina discusses her personal connection to the drama "The Farewell" at the L.A. Times Studio at Chase Sapphire on Main. Plus: Director Lulu Wang opens up about the real-life inspiration for the movie and the “Crazy Rich Asians” star’s “raw” audi


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