One morning earlier this month, Nora Lum — aka Awkwafina — was in a limo on the way to the screening of “Ocean’s 8,” the upcoming all-female spinoff of the popular heist movie franchise, when she spotted her old stomping grounds: LaGuardia High School.
“It’s a crazy feeling,” Lum said, describing the moment. A Queens native, she took the train to school every day as a teenager. “Otherworldly.”
“Crazy” is one word to sum up her fast-moving career. Four years ago, Lum was a YouTuber who went viral rapping about her lady parts. Today, she’s a part of an ensemble cast that includes Hollywood heavyweights like Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Mindy Kaling and Helena Bonham Carter, and due to star in the first Asian American-led major studio film in more than two decades, “Crazy Rich Asians,” later this summer.
“‘Ocean’s’ is something that I never imagined I would ever be a part of, let alone it being such a dream cast. It’s been amazing,” she said. “It’s just been a whirlwind year. I literally can’t believe my life is here at this point.”
She grew up idolizing some of her co-stars. The first day on set, she said, felt like the first day of school. “It’s not a bad nervousness, but there is that self-doubt. What will happen, in a room with movie stars?”
“Ocean’s 8” (Warner Bros.)
Lum didn’t have much to worry about. She became quick friends with the rest of the cast. “They were completely warm and welcoming to the point where they convinced me I was their equal. It’s a little family,” she said.
The movie, directed by Gary Ross and co-written by Olivia Milch (before working on “Ocean’s,” Lum starred in Milch’s “Dude,” which was released on Netflix last month), follows Frank Ocean’s sister Debbie (Bullock) after her release from five years in prison as she gathers a like-minded group of experts to plot the the theft of a hefty diamond necklace worth $150 million from the Met Gala. In the film, Lum plays a pickpocket named Constance who is scouted off the streets by the team.
“Coming from Queens, being a native New Yorker, seeing someone like Constance portrayed on screen is sick,” Lum said. “I tend to take roles that are dynamic and unique. One thing you don’t see about Constance is her Asianness. That doesn’t define her. That really stood out to me about her. She’s a native New Yorker, she’s a product of that environment. So is Awkwafina.”
Passing by her old high school reminded Lum of another surreal moment she experienced, this one on the set of “Ocean’s.” After wrapping a scene with Rihanna on a “beautiful fall New York night,” she found herself passing by her old office building where she’d been fired, years ago, after her boss found out she’d made a video called “My Vag.”
The moment took her back even further, to when, as a young girl, she imagined herself on TV, or in the movies, or on iTunes — but didn’t think it was ever really possible.
The last two years has changed her perspective. “What I’ve been shown is that there are no limits you can put on yourself because you couldn’t even imagine what you could do,” she said. “Boundaries for Asian Americans, boundaries for women, I’m seeing now that those boundaries are lessening. They still exist, but there are young girls out there that can dream, and they can come true.”