Awkwafina: 'No Turning Back' Awkwafina, the breakout star of Ocean's 8 and Crazy Rich Asians, reflects on her can't-turn-back moment that led to viral success. Then, she recommends New York City's finest public restrooms.

Awkwafina: 'No Turning Back'

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OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:

The following interview contains a slang word that may be sensitive for some.

JONATHAN COULTON: This is ASK ME ANOTHER, NPR's hour of puzzles, word games and trivia. I'm Jonathan Coulton. Now here's your host, Ophira Eisenberg.

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: Thank you, Jonathan. It's time to welcome our special guest. She stars in "Ocean's 8" and "Crazy Rich Asians," in theaters now. It's Nora Lum, AKA Awkwafina, everybody.

(APPLAUSE)

AWKWAFINA: All right.

EISENBERG: Nice. Welcome ASK ME ANOTHER.

AWKWAFINA: Thank you. Yes.

EISENBERG: Yeah. Thanks.

AWKWAFINA: I'm here.

EISENBERG: Yeah. Nora Lum or Awkwafina.

AWKWAFINA: Yeah.

EISENBERG: When did - Awkwafina started when you were a teenager?

AWKWAFINA: Yeah, around then. Yeah.

EISENBERG: Your choice?

AWKWAFINA: Poor choice. Yeah.

EISENBERG: No, no, no. Good choice.

(LAUGHTER)

AWKWAFINA: Both. Yeah.

EISENBERG: No. I said your choice.

AWKWAFINA: It's a your-choice and a poor-choice situation.

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

AWKWAFINA: Didn't know that people would actually call me that, you know?

EISENBERG: Yeah. Yeah. And what does this persona provide for you?

AWKWAFINA: I think Awkwafina is the person - well, she induces the panic attacks, and Nora takes them. So it's a (laughter)...

(LAUGHTER)

AWKWAFINA: ...A kind of abject confidence that people, I think - you outgrow in adulthood. Yeah.

EISENBERG: OK. Grew up in Forest Hill, Queens.

AWKWAFINA: You did? Oh, great. So did I.

EISENBERG: No, you did. Yeah. Yeah.

AWKWAFINA: Oh, awesome. Great. Nice.

EISENBERG: No. My - I actually - my husband's aunt lives there now.

AWKWAFINA: Oh, great.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

AWKWAFINA: Yeah, everyone's - everyone has an aunt that lives in Forest - yes.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: Everyone has an aunt that lives in Forest Hills, Queens.

AWKWAFINA: Always an aunt.

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

AWKWAFINA: Kind of an angry aunt that lives in Forest Hills. Yeah. Yeah.

EISENBERG: (Laughter) Yeah, exactly. So what kind of kid were you?

AWKWAFINA: I was a weird kid, man. I was a weird kid.

EISENBERG: Really?

AWKWAFINA: Yeah. I wore AND1 sweatsuits all the time.

(LAUGHTER)

AWKWAFINA: Like, to every function - like, to weddings, until the - until I was, like, 24. And...

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: But now everyone knows you from "Ocean's 8." So you are cast in this movie with obviously huge names. You've got Helena Bonham Carter, Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Rihanna, Sarah Paulson, Mindy Kaling and you.

AWKWAFINA: And me. Yeah.

EISENBERG: And I was...

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: I read somewhere that...

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: ...Your part was written for you.

AWKWAFINA: Yep. Yeah.

EISENBERG: So did you flaunt that around the set?

AWKWAFINA: No.

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

AWKWAFINA: I don't know how one would do that. It's like, you see these pages, dude?

EISENBERG: Yeah.

AWKWAFINA: These are mine.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: Before you were attached, I was attached.

AWKWAFINA: These are my - yeah, exactly.

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

AWKWAFINA: See these lines? Mine. I had done a movie called "Dude" that was written and directed by Olivia Milch. She later went on to co-write and co-produce Ocean's. Gary Ross, the director, saw a rough cut of "Dude" and hired me on FaceTime. So that's how that happened.

EISENBERG: Hired you off FaceTime? That's amazing.

AWKWAFINA: There's a lot of presh (ph) there because it's like, maybe he has no idea that I - you know, that I don't know what the hell I'm doing. So - you know. Yeah.

EISENBERG: But then you arrive on set.

AWKWAFINA: Arrived on set. Yes.

EISENBERG: Instantly embraced.

AWKWAFINA: Instantly embraced - yeah, I would...

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: Is that right?

AWKWAFINA: I would say that. Yeah. No. The first time I met any of them, I met - it was Helena Bonham Carter. I saw her sitting yonder. And I was like, oh, I got to tell her that I'm (incomprehensible)...

(LAUGHTER)

AWKWAFINA: ...(Incomprehensible) And so you know, I was staring at her. And she just went like, come here, give me a hug. Yeah. So that's how it went. You know, we're like a family. They're amazing. Yeah.

EISENBERG: And your role, of course, is as the pickpocket. And you trained with a magician.

AWKWAFINA: I did. I did train...

EISENBERG: Figure it out.

AWKWAFINA: ...With a magician.

EISENBERG: OK. So this fascinates me because this sounds very fun. Was it - did you enjoy it, or you're like, oh, God, I got to practice every day?

AWKWAFINA: He kind of - he ruined everything for me, dude.

(LAUGHTER)

AWKWAFINA: He really - no, he really did because then I'd be like, oh, you know David Blaine? He was like, yeah, he uses invisible ink.

(LAUGHTER)

AWKWAFINA: Sorry. So - no, it was cool. I - you know, three-card monte is what we - I was primarily (laughter) trained in. And I could fool people with it. Yeah.

EISENBERG: So you're in not one, but two blockbuster films. Also star in "Crazy Rich Asians," Kevin Kwan's...

(APPLAUSE)

AWKWAFINA: "Crazy Rich Asians."

EISENBERG: Yeah. This is the adaptation of Kevin Kwan's best-selling novel. It's a trilogy, but the first one by the same name, "Crazy Rich Asians." And it's a big deal, too, because it's an all-Asian cast - the first time this has happened in 25 years of filmmaking. So what was it like? Yes.

(APPLAUSE)

AWKWAFINA: Twenty-five years.

EISENBERG: You know, what did it mean to you to be part of this?

AWKWAFINA: It meant a lot. When we were filming it, I think I realized we were doing something there bigger than ourselves. And when it comes to representation, you don't understand how much you're lacking it until you see it. And when I saw the movie, man, it was so powerful. It was a powerful experience. I think that I was looking for this movie when I was a kid. And the way that it handles the Asian experience is like no other film I've ever seen. It's an epic rom-com, and it means a lot.

EISENBERG: You know, this is a huge success story - not that you didn't have great plans because, in high school, you were playing trumpet.

AWKWAFINA: Yeah, that would've been even better.

(LAUGHTER)

AWKWAFINA: I would have been in the pit, like, in "The Lion King" or something like that. Not even, not even - I'd be cleaning the pit in "The Lion King," yeah.

EISENBERG: When did you make the turn - high-school trumpet player to rapper?

AWKWAFINA: I just heard that back...

(LAUGHTER)

AWKWAFINA: ...Heard that back for the first time. Art is fluid.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: Art is fluid.

AWKWAFINA: I mean, I still love the trumpet. I love the trumpet.

EISENBERG: Do you play it still?

AWKWAFINA: No, not at all.

(LAUGHTER)

AWKWAFINA: You know what it's like? Wins you (ph).

EISENBERG: (Laughter)

AWKWAFINA: But, you know, I picked up GarageBand. When I was 16, I had my first Mac. That's where I started producing my first beats. And Awkwafina kind of was born out of that - and yeah, goodbye trumpet, right?

EISENBERG: So the big viral video, the big hit...

AWKWAFINA: Are you going to say it?

EISENBERG: ..."My Vag."

AWKWAFINA: Oh, you said it.

EISENBERG: Oh yeah, "My Vag," of course.

(CHEERING)

AWKWAFINA: That was tight. I like that.

EISENBERG: This is a favorite song of your grandma's, right?

AWKWAFINA: Yes, she loves it.

EISENBERG: It's her favorite.

AWKWAFINA: She uses it to torture me, yeah, because she's like, this is, like, your best song. Like, why haven't any of your songs been as good?

(LAUGHTER)

AWKWAFINA: And then I, like, realized, like, what - like, the song that she's talking about. So, you know, yeah - she - you know, again with the meaning...

EISENBERG: Yeah, exactly. Trying to lift you up.

AWKWAFINA: ...But her favorite song - she loves it. She loves that song.

EISENBERG: So this goes viral. Two things happen, right? You throw this video out, which is a great video. I mean, low-budget because you didn't have a lot of money. And it's great.

AWKWAFINA: It was low-budget, for sure.

EISENBERG: And then people embrace it as, like, a feminist anthem.

AWKWAFINA: Yeah.

EISENBERG: You probably didn't intend that.

AWKWAFINA: No, not at all. I didn't intend it to get more than 30 views from, like, my entire family.

(LAUGHTER)

AWKWAFINA: The only comment is, like, my aunt. And she's like, good job, Nor.

(LAUGHTER)

AWKWAFINA: You know? I really thought that's where it would be, yeah. Yeah, no idea.

EISENBERG: Huge success from it. Also, at the same time, you get fired from your job. It leads directly to you being fired.

AWKWAFINA: It was part of it. Yeah, I was also terrible at my job.

EISENBERG: OK.

(LAUGHTER)

AWKWAFINA: I was a publicity assistant. I had no idea what I was doing. I would just mail things out. I'd be like - I'd just seal up envelopes and mail them out. That's all I would do. And I liked that life. You know what I mean? It wasn't bad. And then I made the video on my birthday. And, you know, my boss is lovely. She's a lovely woman. I think I was really bad at my job. But she was like, what did you do for your birthday? And I was like, well I shot a video. It was like, oh, I didn't know you do music. What is the video called? "My Vag." Oh, OK, um, you're fired.

(LAUGHTER)

AWKWAFINA: Yeah.

EISENBERG: Were you like, oh my God, I lost my job? Or did you think, this is fantastic?

AWKWAFINA: No, I was freaking out.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

AWKWAFINA: I was horrified. Yeah, I was - I didn't know what to do. You know what I mean? Like, for me, being an artist is a privilege. You know, it's not something that you can just say, well, I'm going to do this and not have any funds to float. A lot of people don't have that. I came to a point in my life where I had to make a choice. I knew that if I - once I press this published button, there was a chance that I could never, ever get a 9-to-5 job ever again because all it takes is one Google search, and then that comes up.

EISENBERG: Sure.

AWKWAFINA: And so I knew that there was no turning back, but I had nothing to lose. And that's when the best things happen...

EISENBERG: The great stuff happens.

AWKWAFINA: ...When you have nothing to lose. Yeah.

EISENBERG: Yep.

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: All right. So you've got an all-female heist movie role down. You've got an all-Asian-cast rom-com movie role down. Any other ground you would like to be breaking?

(LAUGHTER)

AWKWAFINA: Maybe like an all cross-eyed cast or something like that?

(LAUGHTER)

AWKWAFINA: I have a slight astigmatism. And I feel like we should do a movie with that. We can see in all directions. You know what I'm saying?

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: That's fantastic.

AWKWAFINA: I can see you.

(LAUGHTER)

AWKWAFINA: I see you, sir.

EISENBERG: All right. Are you ready for an ASK ME ANOTHER challenge?

AWKWAFINA: OK.

EISENBERG: OK, so Awkwafina, a few years ago, you wrote a travel guide to New York City. One of the biggest challenges that most New Yorkers face is figuring out where to go to the bathroom.

AWKWAFINA: Yes.

EISENBERG: So in this game, I'm going to read you an excerpt from your list of the 10 most pleasurable public restrooms in Manhattan.

AWKWAFINA: Pleasurable? Is that how I wrote it? The most pleasurable?

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: Yeah. Based on you not remembering the title, I'm not sure how well you'll do in this game.

(LAUGHTER)

AWKWAFINA: OK, great. OK. Let's do it.

EISENBERG: And you just have to remember, of course, what bathroom you were writing about. If you do well enough, listener Ezel Marquez (ph) from Tucson, Ariz., will win an ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cube.

AWKWAFINA: Oh, get it. Get it.

EISENBERG: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: Here is your first review. The best part of taking care of business here is that it's open 24 hours a day.

AWKWAFINA: Oh, man. Bryant Park? Oh, no.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: No. Bryant Park is not open...

AWKWAFINA: A police precinct?

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: These are all other great answers.

AWKWAFINA: Oh, no.

EISENBERG: All right. Here's a hint. You don't have to be a genius.

AWKWAFINA: What?

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: You can also charge your phone and get free Wi-Fi.

AWKWAFINA: The Apple store. The Apple store.

EISENBERG: Yeah, the Apple store.

AWKWAFINA: Twenty-four hours, huh?

EISENBERG: (Laughter) Yeah, 24 hours.

AWKWAFINA: It's pretty good.

EISENBERG: That is pretty good. All right, we got two more. You're doing great.

AWKWAFINA: No, I'm not. But it's fine. It's OK.

EISENBERG: If you catch it before it turns into a Dressbarn, please make sure you poop in it.

(LAUGHTER)

AWKWAFINA: Bryant Park.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: I mean, this is actually so funny 'cause, probably, when you wrote this, there was more of these. But it's like, yeah, there's only a couple of these left in the city.

AWKWAFINA: A Woolworth (ph)?

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: Is there a Woolworth?

AWKWAFINA: I don't know. Is there? Sears? A Sears, Roebuck? IBM?

EISENBERG: Bookstore.

AWKWAFINA: Barnes and Noble.

EISENBERG: Yeah. Barnes and Noble.

AWKWAFINA: Nailed it. I really did write the book, y'all.

EISENBERG: By the way, just - side note from my - Barnes and Noble bathrooms - I got married at city hall. I changed into my wedding dress in the Barnes and Noble bathroom.

(LAUGHTER, APPLAUSE)

AWKWAFINA: That's nice. That's cool. I like that.

EISENBERG: All right. This is your last clue.

AWKWAFINA: OK, great.

EISENBERG: I feel really great about this. This bathroom is in the middle of a busy tourist area in midtown - an avenue east of Times Square, a few blocks south of Rockefeller Center and almost always has an attendant.

(LAUGHTER)

AWKWAFINA: Do I get a lifeline?

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: Yes, you do.

AWKWAFINA: I do?

EISENBERG: Yeah. What's the answer that you thought it was the entire time? And I keep saying no, it's not that. No, it's not that.

AWKWAFINA: Oh, Bryant Park.

EISENBERG: Bryant Park.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

EISENBERG: Congratulations, Awkwafina.

AWKWAFINA: Thank you.

EISENBERG: You and listener Ezel Marquez both won ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cubes.

AWKWAFINA: Oh, great. Awesome.

EISENBERG: Yeah, congratulations.

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: Awkwafina stars in "Crazy Rich Asians" - in theaters now.

AWKWAFINA: Go see "Crazy Rich Asians."

EISENBERG: Give it up for Awkwafina, everybody.

AWKWAFINA: Love you guys.

(APPLAUSE)

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