Awkwafina feels Asian pride being part of Raya And The Last Dragon
US actress-comedienne Awkwafina says new animated film Raya And The Last Dragon hits 'another realm in representation' for Asians
Awkwafina takes real pride in representing the Asian community with the new Disney animated adventure film Raya And The Last Dragon, calling it "extremely significant".
Out in cinemas and premiering on Disney+ today, the story is set in Kumandra, a mythical land splintered by human division and an evil threat.
Only one young woman, Raya (Kelly Marie Tran), has the ability to reunite the country - by finding and teaming up with Sisu (Awkwafina), the last dragon in existence which can also shape-shift into human form.
The US actress-comedienne, whose real name is Nora Lum and who was born in New York to a Chinese father and Korean mother, has become the go-to female Asian in Hollywood, having appeared in Ocean's 8, Crazy Rich Asians and Jumanji: The Next Level.
She won a Best Actress Golden Globe last year for her critically acclaimed performance in 2019's The Farewell.
The 32-year-old said in a Zoom interview from New York: "I have definitely been a part of projects that were seen as these kind of benchmarks in Asian American representation.
"And I think (Raya And The Last Dragon) is definitely another realm of representation to flow through, in this case South-east Asian representation, which is definitely an under-represented group.
"And so to see Kelly as our (first South-east Asian) Disney princess, it made me quite emotional. Seeing this movie that has these cultural themes, but also larger political and universal themes - I am just really, really proud to be a part of it."
Awkwafina is currently filming Season 2 of her Netflix sitcom Nora From Queens, and the Crazy Rich Asians sequel "is something that is also being talked about so that may be the next thing".
Her star will only get bigger with Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings, Marvel's first Asian superhero blockbuster coming out in July, which she shot for eight months in Australia.
She plays a friend of the titular martial arts hero (Simu Liu) who gets sucked into the dangers of his world.
Predictably, it is all very top secret, but she did say this: "I definitely am not an action star, I am not in shape for that at all. But yeah, that was a really amazing experience."
As for her breakout roles and rising fame, she is learning to handle it.
"It is weird because I do get recognised more than I was ever used to. I am as nervous as they are sometimes, and I don't know what to say. I feel really great that people know who I am. I also think that I have realised things about myself - I am growing older, I need to find peace with everything too because it can get chaotic, all this stuff coming at once."
As a child, Awkwafina grew up on Disney movies, which are "kind of embedded into our childhood and then in a way, our adulthood, our lives".
Her favourites were Beauty And The Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King and The Little Mermaid.
In fact, she has a voice role in the new live action version of The Little Mermaid as dim-witted diving bird Scuttle, which she said is "one of my favourite characters as a kid, the one that says dinglehopper".
The themes of Raya The Last Dragon resonated with her because the issues it deals with still exist.
"Trust over hatred, the idea of when we are fragmented, we can't come together, we can't do all this alone... without having some kind of belief in one another."
She has been feeling devastated and "disturbed" at the news about the attacks and hate crimes on the Asian American community in the US in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, where ignorant people have blamed them for what is derogatorily called the "China virus".
"The cool thing is it is now getting a lot of coverage, spotlight and awareness. It is good that it is receiving the attention," she said.
The US Covid-19 lockdown happened during production of Raya And The Last Dragon so the recording sessions were done in quarantine from the voice actors' homes.
Awkwafina said: "I thought I had pretty decent equipment, but I then found that there were horrible acoustics in my house and it didn't work out.
"(Disney) ended up sending like a giant production tent. It was in my living room because it was really big. I put a carpet down and then I put a little light in there.
"I was like, I could spend my days in here, I could make this my studio. And then they were like, we need that tent back immediately (when production ends)."
She added: "It is definitely a time warp being in there, because sometimes you can go from doing a really goofy comedy scene to one that is emotional. And so you can spend like seven hours in there and not even have noticed."
Lockdown for Awkwafina also kept her away from her paternal grandmother, whom she considers her best friend and who raised her after Awkwafina's mother died when she was four.
"I hadn't been able to see my grandma for the whole year and that was the most unfortunate part for me because it was the longest time I think I had spent away from her.
"And coming back to New York and making sure that obviously it was safe to come back into production, I was finally able to see her.
"She is currently delivering massive amounts of toilet paper and food to my house, so yeah, I reopened the gates, which is good," she said with a laugh.