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‘Shang-Chi’ star Awkwafina on action roles, the power of being seen

Updated September 3, 2021 - 3:59 pm

Nora Lum — aka Awkwafina — doesn’t mind playing crazy or rich on screen. Action heroine is another matter. The 33-year-old native of Queens learned a few things making Marvel’s new epic superhero film, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” in theaters this weekend.

“There is much to be said of voice acting,” said the actress/author/comedian/rapper over a Zoom call on a weekday morning. In a yellow jacket and black shirt with a river of long dark hair falling, she elaborated. “This was the most physically demanding of any of my roles. There is nothing quite like having your head slammed into the side of a bus.”

That didn’t happen in her biggest hit, “Crazy Rich Asians,” or even in indie darling “The Farewell.” Her filmography also includes “Ocean’s Eight,” “Jumanji: The Next Level” and voice work in “The Angry Birds Movie 2,” “The Simpsons” and “The SpongeBob Movie.” She also stars in the second season of her hit series “Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens,” debuting Wednesday on Comedy Central.

In “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” Disney’s first all-Asian Marvel fare, she plays Katy, whose best friend Shaun (Simu Liu) finds out that he’s linked to a secret ancient force. She helps him confront his past after being drawn into the mysterious Ten Rings organization. The film also stars Michelle Yeoh and Tony Leung.

Next up is the voice of Scuttle in “The Little Mermaid,” plus a rumored “Crazy Rich Asians” sequel.

Was the message of “Shang-Chi” the draw of the film for you?

It’s about potential and finding your original self — even if it’s tarnished. This film says you can and maybe should go on this amazing journey and find yourself again.

What was it like to have people shooting arrows at your head or slamming your body into walls?

The worst was the day when I was falling off of something really high. I was working with a team and … gravity. You can’t always trust gravity. I remember a moment when I felt my neck give out. So, that was interesting. I didn’t complain. I just called it out as a “me problem.” I just didn’t have the willpower to lift that neck.

You know … if only more people could blame themselves for things …

I just said, “This is where I’m at physically.” The truth is, it is about your body and how far you can push, which is really interesting in action scenes. It’s you building yourself up and then just going for it. With this movie, I also had to practice with bows and arrows. And then I went to a racetrack, too, and learned how to drive in a way that is not practical in any real-life traffic situation. No one has seen me be physical in a movie, so this was a chance to introduce something new.

Did you appreciate that some of the characters spoke Mandarin?

It’s beautiful how the characters speak Mandarin. What I really loved was when someone spoke it to me. I really loved those moments. We call it out in the movie. I speak American-born Chinese, as we call it out in the movie.

When did you first figure out that you were funny?

I was really young. Humor was really a defense mechanism that I developed after the passing of my mom. I wanted to be someone who was about joy and not sorry. By 6 I was telling jokes to crowds. The laughs felt really good and healing.

Tell us about your name. How did you come up with Awkwafina?

When I was 15 or 16, I thought the name Awkwafina was just hilarious. Say it a few times. I think it’s funny. I just didn’t think anyone would ever call me that name, and now everyone calls me by it.

“Crazy Rich Asians” was one of the first major Hollywood movies with an all-Asian cast and a box-office smash. What was the best moment of that experience?

I went to some early screening, and Asian kids walked out of there crying their eyes out. That’s the power of representation. You don’t realize that you’ve been missing it until you find it. Hollywood is going through a progressive shift now that’s encouraging. There are fresh, new roles that I’m seeing now.

What’s the goal now?

I want to tell human stories. I want to do characters that are deep and make you feel things. That’s what I look for when I go to the movies as an audience member. Make me feel something.

What is a great Sunday to you?

I’m an early bird even on the weekends. I like to start out Sundays with a good hot cup of tea. Matcha is my favorite. From there, I do have to change the same clothes from the day before and then get the other kind of tea, or the news of the day. I get out of the house quickly. If I’m in Queens, I’m walking around and eating great food. If I’m in L.A., I’m in or by some body of water. I love the sound of waves. We finish up the day with some great dinner in Korea Town.

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