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Success doesn’t come easy. The ‘Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens’ cast has some advice

A woman reclining in a luxurious cinema seat
Awkwafina stars in “Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens.”
(Zach Dilgard / Comedy Central)

Nearly 18 months since it premiered on Comedy Central, “Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens,” co-created by actor-rapper Awkwafina and based in part on her own life, returns Wednesday for Season 2 — and while it features the absurd moments and quirky humor of the first, it’s also a story of self-discovery. This season, both Nora (Awkwafina) and her cousin Edmund (Bowen Yang) are learning that “growing up” isn’t linear and there’s no such thing as “having it all.”

As she navigates life as an Asian American woman in her late 20s while living with family in Queens, N.Y., Nora must overcome her self-doubts while navigating relationships with family and friends. And her journey isn’t always an easy one. Nora idealizes Edmund’s “perfect” life — attending an elite school, working at high-paying tech jobs, living away from home — without realizing that he’s as unhappy as she is.

Now, both characters are struggling — except this time, it’s in the process of forging their own versions of fulfillment. It’s a reminder that everyone has their own definition of “success,” and it might not be what we — or they — expect.

Before the premiere of Season 2, “Nora From Queens” cast members Awkwafina, Yang, Lori Tan Chinn (who plays Nora’s grandmother), BD Wong (Wally, Nora’s father) and Jennifer Esposito (Brenda, Wally’s girlfriend) spoke to The Times about the experiences that have informed their characters on the show and shaped their own journeys.

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What are some specific life experiences that you drew on to portray your character in Season 2?

Awkwafina: I think in Season 2, I drew more from my perspective. I also addressed a couple of things, like, for instance, the absence of my mom.

Chinn: I have used basically two women in my lifetime as role models and I have played mainly these women. I come from a background of the first Chinese that came to America — gold mining, [building] the railroads and everything — from near the Pearl River Delta. I’m born here, but plenty of influences from those women, from that era and that region. They’re loud, boisterous and don’t hold anything back, and [I drew from] my auntie basically for this role.

All of us, all of our parents and my generation, were match-married. That’s a big difference. Somebody like BD, a decade later on, maybe his parents met each other and got married the usual way, “Let me propose” and all this. But my parents didn’t have that chance. My dad had a choice of two women, and he chose the prettiest one. So, my influence is that, I know their walk, I know their breathing, I know their personalities. They’ve helped me through many roles that I’ve played.

Wong: I’ve always felt so lucky to have been able to become a parent, and that has drawn a great deal on my relationship with Nora and with Awkwafina. So, I think that’s the mainstay that I feel, while Wally starts dating again. He’s dating Brenda, who we met in Season 1, and as that relationship gets deeper, it threatens to influence Wally’s relationship with Nora.

Some very complicated things happen as a result of that and also some very hilarious things. So, the thing that I would say draws from my own personal life is the fact that I’m actually a parent and I can actually say, “Oh, I understand how he feels.” I know there is a moment when I actually — I’m not a widower but I did have a separation and a new relationship. So, that’s very similar to what Wally has experienced.

Be a fly on the wall as the two performers settle into a revealing chat.

The way that I looked to my son for approval of the people I was dating, I really relate to that. I mean, I get very emotional thinking about it because I know now, as I’m telling you this, that’s what I was drawing from in my relationship onscreen with Nora, is my own personal feelings about how deeply invested I was that my son accepted the people that I dated, [and] in fact the person that I ended up with, most importantly.

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Yang: In Season 2, Edmund makes this big aspirational shift and he is taking this big risk and plunging into the world of acting and starting from square one with no connections. In fact, he does not want the connections, even though he has specific resources that might expedite his way into this weird sector of show business that he wants to be a part of. I very much experienced the same thing not that long ago.

I had graduated college, [and] I was on this path to going to med[ical] school. I was determined to follow through on it. Then there was just a moment of true reflection that made me realize, “Maybe [acting] is the right thing.” So I relate to Edmund deeply on that level of just thinking, “I don’t think my value system in life up until this point has been necessarily correct. Maybe this is my last chance to change that.” I really think that’s interesting because there is this potentially weird sense of urgency about going for what you want.

I think Edmund’s having all these things taken away from him, whether it’s status or his education or his money, [and] he is just able to assess in a moment of crisis what’s important to him and whether or not he’s being honest about what’s important to him. At least he’s able to vocalize that it’s acting. And I definitely experienced that as well.

A young woman, an old woman and a middle-aged man in loungewear in their living room, watching TV.
Awkwafina, Lori Tan Chinn and BD Wong in “Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens.”
(Zach Dilgard / Comedy Central)
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If you could, what advice would you give younger Nora?

Awkwafina: I would tell my younger self to not worry as much. I think there’s a world where I wouldn’t tell her anything. I think that everything that happened in my life, when I started to figure out who I was and what made me genuinely happy, what fulfilled me, made the things that I used to really not like about my life a little bit easier to digest. That maybe everything happens for a reason.

I guess I would tell her a combination of, like, “It might suck for a little bit, but just bear with me.”

Yang: For younger Nora, I would say, “Try to evaluate what you are dealing with day to day — evaluate what it means and how you feel about still living with your dad or your grandma. And if you’re happy, then great. If not, then why?” That’s obviously a heavy thing to tell a child.

You should try to have some benchmark moments of self-definition as you get older — that will only help you recalibrate your inner compass.

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Wong: My advice for young Nora is not that different from the advice that older Nora gave younger Nora, because the show is called “Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens.” Those of us watching the show know what is going to happen to her.

I mean, we don’t know what’s really going to happen to Nora on the show, but we do know the Nora who became Awkwafina — a magical, incredible influencer, fashion icon, award-winning actor, someone who has every right to be proud of herself, very proud of her journey and the work that she’s done.

So, I’d say, “It’s going to be OK, honey. It’s going to be OK, and you don’t have to worry. Don’t be so hard on yourself.”

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Chinn: Oh, my gosh, I would probably give her the same, “Be good,” and that’s all. I’m thinking [from the place of] two generations [older] — not her mother’s generation but [her] grandmother’s. I would say, “ Make sure you don’t binge on the food, honor your friends and be truthful.”

[As the character] I don’t know she goes and smokes pot or any of that stuff, I can only guess. So, yeah, that would be the advice from a grandmother. Make sure that you call your grandparents and your parents — you know, the usual thing. Because you’ll be sorry when they’re gone.

Esposito: I don’t know, because Brenda, to me, she’s wise, but then she’s completely kooky, which I love. She’s so completely off the wall, which is so interesting to me. I think she’s a lot like Nora, actually. They have a lot more in common than they don’t because [Brenda’s]'s very much her own person, especially what we see in Season 2.

There’s a commonality in her and Nora in that aspect. So, I think she would tell her, “Keep going, keep doing what [you’re] doing and be weird.” I mean, Brenda makes spoon art, so I don’t know how much advice she’s going to give her as far as, like, a relationship or getting a job. And, “Messy is actually where you learn, where you grow, where you find love for yourself, for others. It’s completely the place you want to be.”

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‘Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens’


Where: Comedy Central

When: 10 p.m. Wednesday

Rating: TV-14-L (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with an advisory for coarse language)


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