Awkwafina Talks New Role in 'Crazy Rich Asians' and Her Desire to Evolve Musically

Sanja Bucko/Warner Bros. Entertainment
Awkwafina as Peik Lin in Crazy Rich Asians. 

It's hard to imagine another performer having as much of an impact within pop culture as Awkwafina has this year. The Queens-born rapper began the summer by pairing a much buzzed-about role as a member of the all-female crew of crooks in Ocean's 8 with the release of her latest album, In Fina We Trust. Now, her performance in Crazy Rich Asians has truly catapulted her to the forefront of entertainers enjoying a career-breaking year.

The Warner Bros. romantic comedy opened to an estimated $26.5 million at the domestic box office this weekend, exceeding industry expectations. It's a moment that many fans of the novel of the same name by Kevin Kwan had wondered would ever come. The filmmakers even turned down an offer from Netflix in order to better the film's chances at a theatrical platform, notifying those in Hollywood that this was a little more historically significant than the average rom-com, as this marked the first major studio release since The Joy Luck Club 25 years ago to be anchored by a predominantly Asian-American cast.

When Billboard points out that 25 year gap to Awkwafina, she repeats the number back to herself. "That's a full adult life since Asian-Americans received adequate representation [onscreen]," she says incredulously. "It's just crazy."

Billboard spoke to the rapper about becoming America's new favorite onscreen best friend, and her plans to capitalize on that success as a musician.

What was the auditioning process for Crazy Rich Asians like?

I know there had been open casting calls. I had picked up the book years ago inside an airport Hudson News, and just remember thinking, "What is this?" It was a huge sensation, so when I found out that they were doing a film adaptation, I knew then and there that it was a huge deal that they were [making the movie]. Months later, my agent and manager contacted me to let me know that [the filmmakers] wanted me to come in and see me for the role of Peik Lin Goh. I was like, "Oh, God, this is crazy," because it's not only my favorite character in the book, but the one I could see myself the closest to playing.

I flew out to Los Angeles, auditioned in front of the director [Jon Chu] and producer [Nina Jacobson], and Jon asked me to deliver some lines in Chinese. I thought at the time he was being a trickster, but I realized it was because he really wanted his actors to be as authentic as possible, so I spoke a little Mandarin. I didn't hear from them for a while, but just a few weeks before the production flew out to Singapore, I got the call offering me the part. It was a long process, but I think Jon really knew what he wanted, and I think he was just making sure that the characters were cast with the right actors.

In Fina We Trust dropped on June 8 of this year, the same date as your film Ocean's 8 was released...

Yeah, that was coincidental, actually.

Really? Because I was going to congratulate you on the marketing strategy.

No, we just kept running into days that wouldn't really work for me, until it finally got pushed down to June 8. My manager suggested the date, and I said that it worked for me, and then I ended up calling him back after realizing what day that was and said, "Oh, My God!" So, yeah, that just worked out.

Have you found that making your name as a hip-hop artist first has benefited your acting career?

Totally. Look, I've been making music since I was eleven years old, and was producing music on Garage Band when I was sixteen. Music is ingrained in me, but I think being an artist -- being creative with the music and acting and comedy -- they're all connected by a common thread. For me, that common thread goes through everything I do. For me, I think the biggest issue is time management, because I really have to decide at any given moment which one I'm going to concentrate on more.

In my eyes, acting is a blessing, one where I can't really control which or how many movies I'll be doing in the next year, but I can control music. That music comes from me, it's what I personally put out into the universe, while the acting is something that is a blessing for when the right project comes along. Time-wise, it is hard when I'm onset to carve out time to get into the recording studio, but music is something that I'll be doing until no one wants to listen to it anymore. It's just what I do. 

With two films (the fantasy Paradise Hills, and animated feature The Angry Birds Movie 2) you're starring in scheduled for release in 2019, are you hoping to release more new music any time soon?

I think so, yeah. I think my first album (2014's Yellow Ranger), when I listen to it, I hear originality evolving that I'll never be able to attain again. Back then, Yellow Ranger...it's not that I hate it, it's just a progression. Even In Fina We Trust, some of those songs I had been working on for two or three years, so it doesn't feel rushed in the same way Yellow Ranger sounds. In Fina We Trust, even those songs I listen to and just think about how I want to do more [on the next project]. So I think a new album in a year, maybe even less, could definitely be a thing.