"Ocean's Eight" star Awkwafina chats with us about her webseries "Tawk," diversity in media, and staying weird
Comedian-rapper Awkwafina (real name Nora Lum) is back with a new season of her hilariously awkward go90 webseries, Tawk. From the comfort of her local bodega, Awkwafina returns for a fourth season of interviews with a wonderfully eclectic range of guests — from legendary rappers, to comedians, to your favorite Nickelodeon stars growing up.
But if you haven’t yet been exposed to the comedic musical stylings of Awkwafina (and as a longtime fan, I highly suggest you familiarize yourself stat), you’re about to get to know her in a big way. Alongside Sandra Bullock, Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter, Cate Blanchett, Mindy Kaling, Anne Hathaway, Rihanna, and Sarah Paulson, the tongue-in-cheek comedian is starring in Ocean’s Eight— the all-female spinoff of Ocean’s Eleven.
And new fans will be lucky to delve into the songs, TV shows, and films on which Awkwafina has already left her completely unique mark. We were first introduced to Awkwafina the rapper in 2012, when she posted the absurd and catchy af “My Vag” to YouTube, hilariously proclaiming the epicness of her taboo body part. And after the music video went viral, Awkwafina continued to deliver. Her debut album, The Yellow Ranger, boasts tracks that talk about gentrification in her New York City neighborhood and embarrassing (read: relatable) female bodily functions. Along with Margaret Cho, she released “Green Tea,” a rap critiquing stereotypes of Asian women.
In addition to her music career, Awkwafina has appeared in MTV’s Girl Code, Neighbors 2, and in the documentary, Bad Rap, which follows four Asian-American rappers.
I got to talk to Awkwafina on the phone about Tawk‘s new season and her role in Ocean’s Eight. Our conversation covered everything from impostor syndrome, to her creative process, to being a woman with an unconventional artistic career.
HelloGiggles: I’m not sure what you can tell us yet about Oceans Eight, but we do know that your character is named Constance. Do we get to see any of your rapping skills in the film, or does Constance have a different vibe from your music and comedy?
Awkwafina: I can’t say much about the plot or character, but I can tell you that she is a true New Yorker, which I found really cool about the character because I am as well.
HG: The ensemble of women in Oceans Eight is a dream cast. How did you celebrate when you found out who you would be acting alongside?
A: I still to this day don’t believe that it actually happened. It’s almost kind of like an amazing acid trip. I still believe that one day someone is gonna shake me awake and I’m still gonna be working at a vegan bodega.
It was incredibly intimidating before I met them. I was having waking nightmares that I would say something awkward and I would be weird…So yeah, it was a little horrifying before the fact. And then we had a very intimate cast dinner before we started shooting. They’re incredibly — every single one of them — they’re amazing. They’re incredibly generous; they’re very warm. And as kind of a newcomer, they made me feel incredibly welcomed. Like a part of this little family. It was an amazing experience from start to finish.
HG: Now onto Tawk. You interview such a diverse range of subjects — from YouTube stars, to comedians like Pete Davidson, to rappers you admire like Jean Grae. Who has been one of your favorite people to interview?
A: I kind of organize the Tawk interview into different categories. The most fun that I personally have had — one of my favorite ones was with Asa Akira who is a porn star, but also wrote a book and is very involved in internet culture. She is amazing. That was one of my favorite interviews.
Then there are interviews that I think played really well to people, that they’re fun to watch. The Pete Davidson interview, that’s a very funny, fun one. But I think overall each interview is just very different.
And I realize looking back — that especially this season — it’s so diverse that I feel proud that…white people are maybe even a minority in this season. We’ve definitely put a lot of other Asian people, writers, up-and-coming people. There’s a wide range of that. And that’s cool because we didn’t do that on purpose, it just kind of panned out that way.
HG: Who are you excited to have interviewed this season?
A: Mamoudou Athie, who plays Grandmaster Flash in The Get Down, was the first guest. We have Akilah Hughes, I’m a huge fan of hers and she is also a friend. Everyone from DJ Kool Herc, who basically invented hip hop, to Josh Peck who I used to watch on TV, and Bobby Lee from Mad TV. We have Andy Milonakis…just an incredible range. The thing with Tawk is that we filmed each season in, like, a two week span. It was just an incredible effort for the whole team, for everyone that worked on it — 7 a.m.-7 p.m. days. It was a really quick shoot, but we have an incredible range of guests.
HG: Can you talk about all of the cool locations where Tawk is filmed?
A: Astronauts Wanted [the production company behind Tawk] is heavily involved with a lot of the stuff — they’re like the mom and dad of this whole operation. The producer, Shamikah Martinez, chose a lot of the locations. And then for the fourth and fifth season, that’s actually my local bodega.
The [bodega employees] actually didn’t know, like, what I did for a living. And then they were like, “Oh it’s you!” And I’m like “Yeah, it’s me!” They’ll come in and ask how my life is…it’s pretty cool. A lot of those locations are neighborhood haunts, they’re real…If you live in New York, you’ll get these locations.
HG: The show flows so naturally, and features such perfectly-timed, genuine awkward moments. I’m wondering how you prepare the questions for each episode. Is it improv? Do the guests have an idea of what you might ask?
A: There are a lot of creative meetings…Tawk was me walking into Astronauts Wanted and them kind of being like, “This is your show, and we’re gonna let you do whatever you want do.” So with the help of a brilliant creative team that has worked on every episode from season one, we go through a series of creative meetings — which is pretty much them being like, “OK we need your questions by this time,” and then I forget. And then they’re like “Okay seriously we need the questions.” So then I’ll send them the questions, and the sketches we’ll kind of write out. But everything else — all the conversations and a lot of the follow-up questions — those are on the spot…I really just go in with a list of questions…it’s a loose kind of operation. But like you said, it kinda comes together just as these really awkward moments. It’s a good kind of awkward, I guess.
HG: Can Awkwafina fans expect new music soon?
A: So right now, I am in the process of creating an album that I think will have a summer release. [Call drops momentarily] Didn’t pay my phone bill yet, apologies for that. (laughs) But yes to answer your question, they can expect more music.
HG: I know in interviews you’ve talked about not wanting to be labeled as just a comedian, just a musician, or just an actress. Now that you have a starring role in this huge movie, what do you want to happen next in your career?
A: I think it’s pretty weird…I went from YouTube, to MTV, to a webseries, to movies. It’s really super weird. I’ve said this before — Uber drivers will sometimes ask me what I do, and I’ll tell them I work at, like, IKEA because it’s too annoying for me to talk about what I actually I do. It’s like, “I’m a producer-DJ.” (laughs)
I think the people who have known me since day one, the people that go to my shows — I think they’re always gonna acknowledge the fact that I’m gonna do movies, and I’m gonna go do TV shows, but they’ll appreciate the music. But then I also think I’m gonna get this whole new audience that’s gonna watch “My Vag” later and be like, “What the hell is that?” (laughs). I don’t know — I hope it all works out and people eventually connect the dots.
HG: For the new audience that Oceans Eight will bring you, can you talk about how you went from this raunchy YouTube rap to everything you are doing now?
A: The way that “My Vag” came about — I made that song on GarageBand, in my bedroom, in my parents’ house at age 19. And from there, I went to college. I was a Women’s Studies and Journalism major. Graduated, got a real job as a publicist — I was a terrible publicist. And [when] I was 24… a friend heard “My Vag” years later, and was like, “Please make a video.” And I was like, “We can’t do a video ’cause I’m on Linkedin…” but then I was like, whatever. (laughs) “My Vag” came out, my boss found out about it, and passive aggressively laid me off two weeks later. So I was working at a vegan bodega and “My Vag” wasn’t doing that well — obviously that’s a funny sentence — it had like 8,000 hits. It wasn’t viral yet. So I expected it go one of two ways: It will just stay at a couple thousand hits and then disappear into the YouTube garbage pile. Or two, it would be this really awkward thing where people hear it later and go, “Oh my God, I can’t believe that’s her. Yikes.”
I was nervous more about my music ability. I had started music when I was 11, first with the trumpet. I didn’t start producing ’til I was 16 or 17, rapping when I was 13…I felt like musically, there was a path for people to attack me. But the comedy stuff, that was something I learned at an incredibly young age. I used to literally do, like, sets for my family when I was 7 years old. Everything that I did after “My Vag” that had to do with comedy — I never felt like I was an impostor, or in the firing range for all these critics to come at me. Whereas with music, I am extremely vulnerable to that.
With comedy, one of the main reasons why I think that I didn’t have a breakdown on any of the movie sets I’ve been on is because I know that was the one authentic thing to my personality. I was different because I am this awkward person who takes awkward pauses, and I was the weird kid in high school and all that. And I felt like having that kind of confidence in being weird helped me after that.
I don’t think I could teach a class on how to do things. I think that what happened to me was a culmination of everything that happened in my life since I was a very young girl. I think everything that happens in anyone’s career is a culmination of the choices they make and the things that they do. I’m just glad that I was brave enough to put the video on YouTube. I think that was the best decision I ever made — because it was a risk. I knew that once that went public, I would never be able to go back into the sanitized, 9-5 world that all of my friends were in, that I felt like I couldn’t really be in.
HG: It’s Women’s History Month, and for our young women readers who may be interested in an unconventional career in the arts like you have, can you share any advice?
My advice for young women is to dream big, but also not be delusional. I think we millennials have the tendency to be idealistic to the point that we forget — especially as minorities, or blank-Americans — we forget that our parents suffered so much for us to be in this country. So I think it’s important to remember that in any dream that you have. We’re very lucky. And if women were to ever unconventionally be in the arts, it would be now. It would be this generation of people.
I think its also really important to take your eccentricities, your flaws, your quirks, the “flaws” that girls and every woman feels insecure about — and to remember that those are what make us human. And in the branding perspective, that’s what makes us stand out. If you are that weird kid, you’re gonna do better being weird than trying to be the mold of what you think Hollywood wants.
Being a carbon copy is going to severely damage any kind of dream you have. So if there is an originality within you, grab onto that. Just fucking ride that thing into the sunset.
Watch the new season of “Tawk” here!