As I dialed the comedian and actress known as Awkwafina, I anticipated a hilarious exchange. Knee-deep in the pandemic and suffering from a case of the quarantine crazies myself, I was desperately seeking some comic relief. Yet it was the Queens-born Nora Lum who answered and offered me instead exactly what I needed—a completely unfiltered and raw dose of realness. There was no PR polish to her responses. She was not here to entertain. She was here to just be Nora.
“Oh, man. I’m barely hanging in,” Lum responds when I ask how she is faring in quarantine. “I’ve gone a little crazy. I’m playing The Settlers of Catan by myself,” she says, referring to the multiplayer board game. When questioned about the tools she is using to cope, she delivers a classically Nora answer: “Animal Crossing has been an obsession. I’ve been putting off meditating—but I feel like that’s on my list.” Same, girl, same.
It is this perfectly imperfect, tell-it-like-it-is authenticity for which Lum owes her rapid rise. The actress-comedian-writer-producer first rose to fame as a rapper in 2012 when her decidedly uncensored song titled “My Vag” went viral on YouTube. Albums and an MTV comedy series (Girl Code) followed. Lum’s work and tremendous range recently expanded from steal-the-screen comedic standout roles in Crazy Rich Asians, Ocean’s 8 and Jumanji: The Next Level to her best actress Golden Globe-winning lead in The Farewell. As the first woman of Asian descent to win a Golden Globe in any lead actress film category, Lum’s debut dramatic performance illuminated the brilliance of how her genuine delivery can do more than tickle our funny bone.
In her new Comedy Central series, Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens, Lum co-created, writes and executive produces the semi-autobiographical series that centers on the thinly fictionalized follies of Nora Lim. Lim and Lum were both raised in Queens by her dad and grandmother. That shift of one vowel in the last name gives a knowing nod to Nora as an earnest and brave self-portrait.
On screen and off, Lum delivers the kind of heartbreakingly honest and simple sentiments that clearly resonate. “I hope that we all start to think about the things that used to matter to us before… and letting go,” she says when asked how she hopes the pandemic will shape society. “I think embracing a bigger feeling of togetherness, and a larger responsibility for something that’s bigger than you. I think for me it was a wake-up call in some ways, this whole thing.” Indeed.
When asked how her other Nora would be handling the pandemic, Lum’s answer speaks to how both are faring. “Nora from Queens would be like how I am now, which is just getting stoned and hanging out watching Ozark, you know? I think that she would be just hanging in,” she admits. “I think getting to know yourself more and how horrible you are—I think that becomes more apparent when you’re forced to just be with yourself all the time,” Lum continues. “I think there are some absurdities to being stuck with yourself, you know? It’s sad and funny at the same time when you’re having to stay at home with yourself.”
“Just hanging in” is perhaps the most accurate and authentic answer I have heard to date for how we are all really doing given our current reality. Amid an overload of bread-baking, closet-organizing pandemic perfectionists, Lum is perhaps just the kind of deeply earnest and humble hero the world needs now.
Photography by: Photos by Jeaneen Lund/Contour Getty Images