Queens native Awkwafina (aka Nora Lum) is everywhere these days as she charges her way through a banner year. This summer she lights up the multiplex with a slot on Sandra Bullock’s squad of all-female thieves in heist sequel “Ocean’s 8” (June 8), followed by a breakout turn in the highly anticipated literary adaptation “Crazy Rich Asians” (Aug. 17), both from Warner Bros.
Phoning from Barcelona, Spain, the rapper, comedian and actress reflected on her streak of projects, including the Netflix comedy “Dude” and a just-inked Comedy Central deal for a scripted series based on her life.
“I’ve been having this dream where I wake up from the dream that is my actual life,” said Awkwafina, in Spain filming the sci-fi thriller “Paradise Hills” with Emma Roberts, Eiza Gonzales and Danielle MacDonald. “I have that dream maybe three times a week where I wake up and I’m just back in the vegan bodega or at the book company. I can’t believe that it’s real, and I don’t think I ever will.”
Happily, she no longer has to hustle those day jobs now that Hollywood has taken notice.
Awkwafina, 29, brings the same swagger to the screen that made her rap career explode in 2012 when her deadpan feminist single “My Vag” announced the arrival of a fierce new talent equally unafraid to stunt in her lyrics and explode stereotypes and taboos.
Leaning into acting, she scored a small role in “Neighbors 2,” but landing a coveted spot in the all-female “Ocean’s 8” lineup in a cast led by Bullock, Cate Blanchett and Anne Hathaway gave her Hollywood career a next-level bump.
“Constance is a person I’ve never seen on-screen before, ever,” she said of the “Oceans” role that director Gary Ross and co-writer Olivia Milch tailored to her. “ ‘Asian’ is not part of her character — she just is. She’s a kind of New Yorker, this modernized, outer-borough, fast-talking three-card-monte character, but she’s real.”
Another perk of being part of the “Ocean’s 8” ensemble, which also includes Helena Bonham Carter, Mindy Kaling, Sarah Paulson and Rihanna? “We might have a group text,” she teased. “Yes, there is a group text. It’s hilarious. Constant laughter, always a joy. A lot of GIFs. I’m very talented at GIFs, I will say that. I’ll find a GIF for any occasion.”
Knack for improv
In “Crazy Rich Asians,” director Jon M. Chu’s slick adaptation of Ken Kwan’s 2013 bestseller of the same name, Awkwafina brings the Singaporean new-money character of Peik Lin to life as a brash, blond-bewigged, human adrenaline shot draped in designer silk pajamas.
Peik Lin bridges the stark worlds of the film’s Asian-American heroine Rachel (Constance Wu) and the entitled, interconnected and snooty 1-percenters descended from dynastic generations on the wealthy island.
“I think that a lot of Americans don’t understand the new-money class that is coming up in Asia,” Awkwafina said. “These are kids — kids! — that have five Lamborghinis, they shop at Supreme, they go to Louis Vuitton! In malls here, we have Orange Julius. In their malls, they have Prada and Goyard and Gucci and Chanel.”
She added, “It’s really cool when Asian people get to tell stories, because then instead of seeing one Asian character, you get to see a world of Asian characters, and they become just characters at that point.”
Chu cast Awkwafina and tweaked the character with inspiration from outré Asian fashion bloggers and Instagram celebrities. On set, Awkwafina’s knack for improvisation made Peik Lin pop even more.
“She’s so creative,” he raved. “You can write a line, but you really don’t know how she’ll deliver it until she does it. We let her riff a lot, and it raised everybody’s game that she could be bold, and herself, and it could fit within this world.”
Comedy and improvisation have always come easy to Awkwafina.
And with a new EP on the horizon — one not mixed in her bedroom, like 2014’s “Yellow Ranger” — music fans will soon see Awkwafina return to her rap roots.
“I think it’s pretty dope that I don’t have to file for unemployment,” she quipped in her signature self-deprecating style.
“The hustle will never end for me, and I’ll want to see what’s coming next. I’m really grateful for what’s happened. I would have never thought that it would.”