The actress and comedian Nora Lum — a.k.a. Awkwafina — made history at the Golden Globes on Sunday night when she won for her performance in The Farewell. She’s the first woman of Asian descent to win Best Actress in a Motion Picture — Musical or Comedy in Globes history.
That’s a huge deal for a few reasons. Until last year, no woman of Asian descent had ever been nominated in the category, a streak finally broken when Constance Wu nabbed a nomination for her performance in 2018’s Crazy Rich Asians. (Awkwafina stole the show in that film as well in the role of Peik Lin, a college friend of Wu’s character.)
It’s also a big deal because The Farewell represents a breakout dramatic performance for Awkwafina, who is primarily known as a comedic actor. (The Globes categorized the film as musical or comedy — a move that’s designed to maximize the film’s chances of winning awards — but it’s definitely not a comedy.)
When I interviewed the actress in July 2019, she talked about how much the role mattered to her:
When I got the script, I wanted ... I needed to do this movie. I didn’t care if it was drama, I didn’t care what it was — it felt like it just came to me in an auspicious way. So I studied really hard. Six-hour days of just drilling it in, getting the accent right. It meant that much to me. I really wanted to work for a character like that ...
I think I was scared about crying. I was scared about drama, but I think what I really was scared about was, I went through my own hardships, and I think I really shunned a lot of those feelings at a very young age. That’s why I’ve developed comedy as this kind of guard.
What Lulu taught me was that to not rely on that muscle means to be present, to be still, and also to be vulnerable. I think that’s one of the hardest things. It’s really easy to pop a water balloon in your face and get some laughs. That’s what I grew up doing. To really be vulnerable and confront these things in a way that I never really have — that was something that I grappled with as a performer. It was very real for me.
In her acceptance speech, Awkwafina thanked The Farewell’s director Lulu Wang for “the chance of a lifetime,” then thanked her family, including her mother, who passed away when she was a child. “And to my mother, Tia, who I always hoped was watching from somewhere above,” she said. “I hope that she’s watching now.”