Seven years after graduating from the University at Albany with a degree in journalism and women’s studies, Nora Lum will be on cinema screens worldwide in one of the most anticipated movies of 2018.
The film is “Ocean’s 8,” a spinoff of the “Ocean’s Eleven” franchise of heist pictures. In this next installment, which will feature an all-female crew of thieves, Lum co-stars alongside a who’s-who of Hollywood notables, including Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Sandra Bullock and Helena Bonham Carter. Collectively, the cast has won five Academy Awards, and, adding in the honors for singer-actress Rihanna, seven Grammys.
Lum is known to a subset of music fans for her alter ego, the comedy rapper Awkwafina, who has had cult hits with a few of her cheeky music videos. Acting is relatively new for Lum: “Ocean’s 8” is just her third major movie role.
“I was cast early, thank God. I didn’t know who else was going to be in it,” says Lum, chatting on the phone early this year from New York City during a break in filming. “If I’d known, I would have been terrified.”
Lum was cast by “Ocean’s 8” director Gary Ross after he saw the unreleased indie film “Dude,” with Lum as one of a quartet of female friends who met in high school. “Dude” was written and directed by Olivia Milch, who shares screenwriting credit on “Ocean’s 8” with Ross.
“This is probably the biggest movie I’m ever going to be in,” says Lum, now 28. “When I saw the roster of who else was in it, it was mind-blowing. I’m a huge Cate Blanchett fan, and Rihanna, too. Actually, I was nervous about meeting all of them.”
She was star-struck by her co-stars until after a get-acquainted party to kick off filming last fall. “Everyone was super chill,” she recalls. “It went from me feeling like I was around these goddesses to me saying, ‘Hi, Sandi,’ ‘Hi, Annie.’”
As Awkwafina, Lum has been playing an exaggerated version of herself – a brash, self-assured, street-wise New York City kid – for years. Though precluded by contract from saying much about the plot of “Ocean’s 8” or her part in the action, she allows that her character is again similar to herself.
“I’m not playing Amelia Earhart or anything (crazy) like that,” she says. “I’m playing someone who was written for me, so I feel very comfortable.” Any lingering intimidation of appearing in scenes opposite veterans who have starred in Shakespeare, Dickens and the “Harry Potter” movies (Bonham Carter), or channeled Katharine Hepburn in “The Aviator” (Blanchett), further dwindled when Lum was able to deploy her comedy skills.
“I made them all laugh,” she says. “That made me feel good, feel like I wasn’t an imposter.”
Music was Lum’s first love and first success. She wrote raps and recorded beats in high school and while at UAlbany. Some friends knew of her secret identity as a comedy rapper, but it wasn’t anything she promoted. I taught Lum in four journalism courses and thought of her as an extraordinarily gifted young writer, one capable of packing moods, scenes, emotion, insight and intelligent wit into essays of four to five pages. When I saw her first hit video, “My Vag,” which parodies a popular 2006 rap tune by Mickey Avalon, it was at least a year after she’d graduated, and I was gape-jawed with flabbergasted delight that my serious, earnest student could be so hilariously bawdy.
After inauspicious academic performance in high school — “I think I took the earth-science Regents (exam) eight times,” she says — Lum found her misspent youth served her well in college.
“When I got to SUNY, I had all of that already out of my system. I had no interest in partying. I wanted to learn from all of these professors I was so intrigued by. I don’t think I would have been able to be Awkwafina if I didn’t go to SUNY.”
“My Vag,” which has more than 1.5 million views on YouTube, led to other music videos; a recurring stint as a cultural commentator on the MTV series “Girl Talk”; Awkwafina’s NYC, a book about walking tours in her hometown; her own Web series; and movie roles.
“I’m finding out whether this — this comedy-music-acting thing — is what I’m going to be doing for the rest of my life,” Lum says. “I used to make very soft, drippy, electronic, emo songs, but I always knew in the back of my head that if people were going to know me for anything, it would be for ‘My Vag.’”
Lum still lives in New York City. She is resisting moving to Los Angeles, though she admits, “it something feels like I’m flying out there 11 times a month.”
Her father, a lifelong government employee who used to urge her toward secure, public-sector jobs like meat inspector or air-traffic controller, has finally accepted her career and success.
“Now when we go out to dinner, when the check comes, he’ll just look at me like, ‘You got this, right?’ He’s definitely along for the ride,” Lum says.
Steve Barnes, a senior writer for the Times Union in Albany, has taught journalism courses at UAlbany since 2007.