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Awkwafina is Festival’s Shining Star: It’s all about family for Awkwafina

Now a rising star in Hollywood, the Asian American comedian, actress and rapper is Maui’s Shining Star

Awkwafina, whose real name is Norma Lum, poses for photographers Saturday at the Four Seasons Maui Resort at Wailea before taking the stage to accept the Maui Film Festival’s Shining Star Award. The Asian American comedian, actress and rapper is known for her roles in “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Oceans 8.” -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

This Father’s Day, Awkwafina has a message for all the Hawaii dads out there.

“Have your kids make you the loco moco, ’cause it’s your day to shine,” she told The Maui News. “Just hang out, fish, tell a dad joke.”

The Asian American comedian, actress and rapper, known for her roles in “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Oceans 8,” talked about her dad, multigenerational families and what makes her relatable during the Maui Film Festival on Saturday evening.

“My dad’s cool, man,” she said. “He’s super chill. He wasn’t that cool with Awkwafina in the beginning. He wanted me to be an air-traffic controller, meat inspector and sonogram technician — which I did try but you need to go to school for that obviously.”

Now a rising star among Hollywood’s elite, Awkwafina arrived on Maui earlier this week to accept the Maui Film Festival’s Shining Star Award on Saturday night in Wailea. A packed outdoor cinema crowd then screened her first lead role in a dramatic comedy, “The Farewell,” which is slated for the big screen debut on July 12.

Awkwafina answers questions during Saturday’s Maui Film Festival press line at the Four Seasons Maui Resort at Wailea. -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Honoring a “film artist who dares to dream big dreams and delivers brilliantly charismatic and revelatory performances every time that opportunity knocks,” the recognition has gone in previous years to young artists on the cusp of superstardom, including Adam Driver, Zac Efron, Andrew Garfield, Jake Gyllenhaal, Amber Heard, Freida Pinto, Emma Roberts and Olivia Wilde.

Awkwafina, 31, whose real name is Nora Lum, was born in Queens, N.Y., to a Chinese American father and South Korean immigrant mother. When Awkwafina was 4, her mom died due to an illness. Her grandmother helped raise her, along with her father, who would let her be a tomboy and watch “Howard Stern,” she said.

She started rapping at 16 under the stage name Awkwafina, which loosely translates to, “I’m very awkward, but it’s fine,” according to The Associated Press. Soon, Awkwafina generated a substantial fan base for YouTube rap videos and a web chat show named Tawk, both of which featured her grandmother Grammafina at times.

One particular video got Awkwafina fired from her publicity job in her early 20s, various media reports said. Little did she know that the video would skyrocket her to fame and get the attention of major players in the film industry.

In 2016, Awkwafina was cast in “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising, and in 2018, she exploded onto the scene with “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Ocean’s 8.”

“Crazy Rich Asians” did especially well in Hawaii, lasting for months in theaters. She played the hilarious scene-stealing Peik Lin Goh in a cast including Constance Wu, Michelle Yeoh, Henry Golding and Ken Jeong. The hit movie highlighted the first all-Westernized Asian cast and creator in a theatrical film release since Disney’s “The Joy Luck Club” in 1993, which earned $33 million, $57 million adjusted for inflation, according to The Hollywood Reporter. Crazy Rich Asians grossed $174.5 million in the U.S. and Canada and $64 million worldwide, becoming the most successful romantic comedy in a decade, according to Box Office Mojo.

Also, Awkwafina made a standout appearance hosting “Saturday Night Live” in 2018 and co-starred in Olivia Milch’s “Dude,” a dramatic comedy.

Upcoming projects include her Comedy Central show “Awkwafina” coming in 2020, and “Jumanji 2,” co-starring with Dwayne Johnson and 2017 Maui Film Festival honoree Karen Gillan, set for release in December. She will also co-star with Peter Dinklage in the vocal cast of “The Angry Birds Movie 2,” the sequel to the animated hit that had its press junket in Wailea in 2016. Next, the star is heading to Mississippi for director Tate Taylor’s drama-comedy, “Breaking News in Yuba County.”

On Saturday night, Maui film fest viewers had an early screening of Awkwafina’s “The Farewell,” a dramatic comedy about an extended Chinese family trying to keep a secret from their grandmother.

Multigenerational families, which are significant in Hawaii, play an important part in her current film as well as “Crazy Rich Asians.” Having a connection with family can be an important part of one’s identity, Awkwafina said.

“I think some people can build their own families, and for others, staying connected to your family gives you a sense of who you are, who your people are, where you came from, where your people came from,” she said. “I think that’s a really important reason why kids nowadays want to transcribe their grandma’s recipes, or they want to hear stories, the stories we grow up with, these are really stories about us.”

“I think it’s very important to have that sense of self,” she added.

While Awkwafina’s identity represents diversity in many senses of the word, the rising star remains relatable for audiences around the world. She attributes that to a quality shared by most humans beings.

“Everyone can relate to feeling out of place, feeling awkward, like you don’t have incredible physical control, over, like, motion. Sometimes I’ll just walk into a lamp,” she said. “I think people can identify with that. I think they can also identify with someone who is flawed and someone who embraces those flaws because what else are you going to do, you know?

“I think that if I were to inspire anyone, it would be those people.”

* Kehaulani Cerizo can be reached at kcerizo@mauinews.com.