‘Shang Chi’s’ Awkwafina and ‘Eternals’ star Kumail Nanjiani trade notes on their MCU debuts

Kumail Nanjiani of "Eternals" and Awkwafina of "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings" are photographed in Los Angeles.
Kumail Nanjiani of “Eternals” and Awkwafina of “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” are photographed in Los Angeles, CA.
(Mariah Tauger/Los Angeles Times; lighting by Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)
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This fall, the most expansive mega-franchise in Hollywood gets even bigger. In one corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Awkwafina speeds through director Destin Daniel Cretton’s “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” (Sept. 3) as Katy, BFF to Simu Liu’s groundbreaking eponymous superhero, in the first Asian-led film in the series. Meanwhile, Kumail Nanjiani will walk the Earth as Kingo, an immortal hero moonlighting as a Bollywood star in “Eternals” (Nov. 5), helmed by “Nomadland” Oscar-winning director Chloé Zhao and featuring a star-studded international cast that includes Gemma Chan, Richard Madden, Lia McHugh, Brian Tyree Henry, Lauren Ridloff, Barry Keoghan, Don Lee, Gil Birmingham, Harish Patel, Kit Harington, Salma Hayek, and Angelina Jolie.

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In recent years both have helped crack the industry’s doors open for Asian American representation — Awkwafina (a.k.a. Nora Lum) in “Crazy Rich Asians,” “Raya and the Last Dragon” and her comedy series “Awkwafina Is Nora from Queens,” and Nanjiani leading studio films “Stuber” and “The Lovebirds,” with a role in the upcoming “Obi-Wan Kenobi” Disney+ series on the horizon.

And as their acting careers have skyrocketed, each multi-hyphenate has leapt from their shared comedy roots to awards acclaim: Nanjiani earned a best screenplay Oscar nod with Emily V. Gordon for their 2017 dramedy “The Big Sick,” while Awkwafina made history winning the best actress Golden Globe for her star turn in Lulu Wang’s 2019 film “The Farewell.”

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But what does the future hold now that they’re part of the MCU, helping usher in the most inclusive phase in Marvel history in two back-to-back films? The day after the Hollywood premiere of “Shang-Chi,” Nanjiani and Awkwafina met up over video chat to trade notes on their career-shifting Marvel debuts, carving uncharted paths in Hollywood and how to learn to stop worrying and let themselves have fun with it all.

Kumail Nanjiani: Are you still up from last night?

Awkwafina: Yes. As you can see, I still have mascara on and I have not washed my hair. It’s great. Really living life.

You both make your Marvel debuts this fall. For those who have followed your careers, it’s exciting to see you go from the comedy world to film to a Marvel stage. What does this moment mean to you personally?

Awkwafina: I think Marvel might be one of the unique places in the industry where you could find yourself in that universe from off the beaten path. And I really enjoy that people like Kumail are also in the universe, because I think that they’re really good at picking out people who are different.

Nanjiani: It doesn’t feel real to me. You had this big premiere yesterday; for us, our movie’s been delayed a year. When you’re shooting it, you feel like you’re in a Marvel movie, but now it’s a little over a year and people are like, “What’s it like being in the MCU?” And I’m like, “I don’t know! I haven’t seen the movie. I’m not in the MCU until the movie comes out!”

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ETERNALS
The superheroes of “Eternals,” left to right: Kingo (Kumail Nanjiani), Makkari (Lauren Ridloff), Gilgamesh (Don Lee), Thena (Angelina Jolie), Ikaris (Richard Madden), Ajak (Salma Hayek), Sersi (Gemma Chan), Sprite (Lia McHugh), Phastos (Brian Tyree Henry) and Druig (Barry Keoghan).
(Marvel Studios)

As Nora was saying, they really are taking a huge chance on people and the kinds of stories they want to tell. I remember when I was at the premiere for “Black Panther” and it felt like it was a real cultural moment. It was exciting. It felt like something was happening. I felt the same way when I went to the “Crazy Rich Asians” premiere. These big moments don’t come very often, and it is exciting that bigger studios are pushing them. I feel excited to be a small part of it.

Or are you a big part of it and we just don’t know because your movie hasn’t come out yet?

Nanjiani: I don’t know! Maybe I’ve been cut out of it. Maybe I’m not a part of it. Maybe this is the closest I get to Marvel, talking to Nora.

Your character Katy is the best friend to Simu Liu’s Shang-Chi, but she’s also searching for her own purpose. What would you like people to know about her going in?

Awkwafina: Katy is what I would love to be as a friend, which is loyal. I think she really trusts Shang-Chi. At the same time, in a world where he is wary about who he lets into his life, she doesn’t really judge him for his past and trusts him. She’s a really good friend, and also useless — I think there might be some luck involved in certain aspects of her life. So it’s fun that she gets to tag along. She gets some action. There is a pole scene … well, it’s scaffolding. You know, we’re not in the club.

Portrait of actor Awkwafina (Nora Lum)
Golden Globe-winning actor Awkwafina plays Katy, who discovers that her best friend Shang-Chi has a secret past in Marvel’s “Shang-Chi.”
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

It’s impossible to represent an entire group of people. ... Hopefully people will find something relatable about that .. a little bit more personal. We’re building roads.

Awkwafina, “Shang-Chi”


Kumail, on the other side of this Marvel universe, what’s Kingo up to?

Nanjiani: He’s an Eternal so he’s been here for thousands of years. He has these super powers and he’s become a Bollywood movie star. All the Eternals have been in human society to different degrees, but he’s the one who really immersed himself and falls in love with the trappings of modernity. And he loves being rich. He loves being famous. He loves being an Eternal. I’ve been in this industry for about a decade and I looked at the usual opportunities that the brown dudes get. We get to be nerdy. I wanted him to be the opposite of that — I wanted him to be cool. With nerdy goes “weakling,” and I wanted him to be the opposite of that and to be strong physically. Or we get to be terrorists, and I wanted him to be the opposite of that. I wanted him to be this character full of joy. In working with Chloé, we were like, let’s take every single thing that I haven’t gotten to do and make a character who’s the exact opposite of the way a lot of American pop culture see people from Pakistan or the Middle East.

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Awkwafina: I didn’t know that. That’s so cool.

Nanjiani: I was very lucky that Chloé was really on board with that. Because when you have like 10 characters, you’re trying to set yourself apart from the other characters and find your own shadings. You’re not going to get a ton of real estate. So you want it to come from a very specific place. I decided going in, I’m going to have fun during this process. Sometimes I get too nervous, or I get too anxious. Does this happen to you? For me, if I get an exciting job I’m happy for 30 seconds. And then I’m like, “Oh, God. What am I supposed to do?”

(L-R): Katy (Awkwafina), Jon Jon (Ronny Chieng) and Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) in SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS.
In “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” left to right, Awkwafina, Ronny Chieng and Simu Liu as Shang-Chi.
(Jasin Boland/Marvel Studios)

Awkwafina: Here’s the doom! It’s like, oh — what an opportunity to fail!

Nanjiani: I know! I’ve never failed on a scale this grand before!

Awkwafina: But I also think that you need that, right? It’s for the most part served me in in a positive way because I’m never impressed with myself. Then if people like it, it’s like, “Oh! That’s awesome.” And in other ways it really can sabotage how you approach something by overthinking.

Nanjiani: I know exactly what you mean. I’m trying to find a balance — how do I keep doing this and not have it take a pound of flesh every time? Because we are getting to live our dream, right? How exciting that we get to do this. To stress and worry and be anxious about it. … I read this thing that David Lynch said: Making movies should be fun. And his movies aren’t light. They’re very dark movies! But he was like, “I just have fun making them.” And that’s the goal. I want to try and actually have fun doing this.

Given that, was it a hard decision to accept these roles?

Nanjiani: Easiest decision I’ve ever made!

Awkwafina: The decision’s easy. It’s just how we feel, right? There’s something about being really grateful about being here that is linked to wanting to do a good job. And when joy and cool things happen, we often just want to question it. I feel it from even an Asian perspective, that there is something wrapped up in the way my grandma instilled guilt, to be aware when things seem good.

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Did either of you workshop any parts of your characters or dialogue, tapping into your comedy backgrounds?

Awkwafina: Working with a director who allows you to improv, if not encourages it, is perfect. And Simu has a comedy background so it was really fun to play off of him when we get into, like, a bickering zone where we go back and forth. I really like to make the cameramen laugh. When you’ve done a joke so many times, the cameraman is going to stop laughing. And that hurts my feelings! Did you improvise as well?

Nanjiani: Obviously with exposition scenes and the more dramatic stuff you stick to the lines, but there were a lot of scenes where Chloé was like, “I want you to say something different every time or say it differently every time.” And weirdly, it is a challenge.

Awkwafina: And it’s like, challenge accepted! I love you for it.

Nanjiani: There were a couple of scenes where it felt like jumping out of a plane without a parachute. But I find I’m at my best when I start talking and I don’t know fully what’s going to happen. That can be really exciting. You get your two or three alts, but we’re doing 15, 20 takes sometimes. And it’s like, “Let’s see what happens this time.” You were talking about the cameraman — that’s great. This is not a good goal, but I try and make my scene partner laugh and to ruin the take. I was always trying to make Barry Keoghan laugh. I love him so much but he always plays these really intense characters. I was like, “Oh man, I’m going to get you this time.”

Portrait of actor Kumail Nanjiani
Oscar-nominated for co-writing 2017’s “The Big Sick,” which he also starred in, Kumail Nanjiani makes his Marvel debut in “Eternals” this November.
(Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times)

People are like, “What’s it like being in the MCU?” And I’m like, “I don’t know! I haven’t seen the movie.

Kumail Nanjiani, “Eternals”

How did you both celebrate the moment you landed these roles?
Nanjiani: I honestly don’t remember! I remember walking out of the meeting and first calling Emily, my wife, and being like, “Hey ... I’m going to be in a Marvel movie.” Everything after that until we started rolling cameras is a blur. One thing that Emily is always telling me that we are trying to work on, and Nora probably could relate to, is I don’t find myself ever celebrating or enjoying moments.

Awkwafina: No!

Nanjiani: You have to take those moments when you can and really try and enjoy it. And it’s very difficult for me. But that’s certainly something I want to work on — taking a moment to be like, “I’m going to be in a Marvel movie. That’s right. That’s f—ing exciting.” But I don’t think I did that. Did you?

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Awkwafina: It was a similar thing where I was like, “Whoa, that’s cool.” Then learning more details about it makes you more invested in it, and you almost don’t want to celebrate because that’s going to jinx it.

Nanjiani: Oh, my God. I completely agree. “If I celebrate now, it’s gonna suck.”

Awkwafina: “If I celebrate now, it’s meant to fail!”

Reaching even this level of inclusivity in the MCU is something that didn’t seem possible when it began. Did you think that you would get the chance to play superhero or superhero-adjacent heroes in this kind of franchise?

Awkwafina: No. Not at all. I couldn’t. It is a progression, and the way that it’s evolved is really cool. You couldn’t have predicted it.

Nanjiani: I could not imagine that at all, even though it was a few years ago that I thought, “I want to play a Marvel superhero.” I mean, I didn’t know how to go about doing it. I don’t know if you do this, but I sort of pick big goals in my head where I’m like, all right — that’s something I want to do. It’s not achievable right now, but that’s the finish line. You do that?

Awkwafina: Yeah. It’s always different, when I realize what those goals are. That’s a goal? Oh, cool! That, to me, is like achieving the achievement.

Nanjiani: There are two sides to it, because when there hasn’t been a lot of representation, getting to be the first group of people who get to represent can come with a lot of pressure. If you carry that it can be really tough. It’s two things that you have to hold together: I know I’m representing a thing that people haven’t seen and it might mean a lot to people [who were] like kids like me. On the other hand, you can’t really think of it because then you get flattened under the pressure. So you have to think of yourself as an individual while still understanding that it’s a massive responsibility.

 Kumail Nanjiani and Awkwafina
New Marvel stars Kumail Nanjiani and Awkwafina photographed in Los Angeles.
(Mariah Tauger/Los Angeles Times)
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Awkwafina: We have to have a sense of self throughout it, because it’s impossible to represent an entire group of people. What you’re actually doing is representing yourself, and hopefully people will find something relatable about that — if not just the image of it, maybe something a little bit more personal. When I first started this career, there were certain things like, “What does this mean in a general [meeting]?” You can’t Google anything about this job, even basic things. You have to figure it out for yourself. Especially being the first group, like the pioneers, we’re building roads. How are you going to start? You create roads for the horse and carriage to drive on and eventually they get automobiles, and I think it progresses from there. But how do you go on doing something that you have no model of?

Nanjiani: That’s a very good way to put it. What you have to have is a sense of self. I’m just going to represent this story and this character. That’s all I can do. For me, the first time that I thought there was hope in this industry was “Harold & Kumar go to White Castle.” I’d never seen a brown guy who was a slacker. We were always either nerds or terrorists. Kal [Penn] was this slacker and I was like, that is progress.

Awkwafina: And just the combination of [Penn and co-star John Cho] — how it was not an “Asian movie.” It was just a stoner movie! And it was so good.

So ... when will we see you share scenes in the MCU?

Nanjiani: I really hope it happens! I would love for it to happen. I honestly don’t even know. I know nothing! I don’t know if my character’s going to come back. I have no idea what’s going on!