PARK CITY, Utah — Awkwafina’s dramatic turn in “The Farewell” has quickly become one of the must-sees at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. After rising to household name status last summer with breakout comedic roles in “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Ocean’s 8,” audiences in Park City, Utah, have been raving over the discovery that she’s got the chops to make you cry, and not just from laughter.
Still, the 30-year-old New York native wasn’t entirely sure she could even pull it off.
“I didn’t think that I would be able to cry. I just didn’t think that I would ever be able to harness that. But with this movie, I would cry like even when we were blocking a scene,” she said. “I guess I discovered a whole other side of something that I never knew existed. But it all really stemmed from thinking about my grandma. That’s really what it was. So it’s very real. It was a very real role for me.”
The title card says the film is “based on an actual lie.” The lie would be writer and director Lulu Wang’s who along with her family decided not to tell her grandmother that she’d been diagnosed with terminal cancer with only three months to live.
“My mother was the one who called me and said that in China, they don’t tell the patient. They tell the family members,” Wang said. “I said immediately, ‘I have to go back. I have to see her right away.’ And she’s like, ‘Well, slow down. Actually, because you can’t tell her if you go back. If you’re too emotional, that will give it away.”‘
So Wang’s father constructed a plan to have her only cousin get married in two weeks, which would provide a reasonable excuse for the whole family to travel to China to see her grandmother one last time. If it sounds familiar it’s likely because her story was also featured on an episode of “This American Life.”
“The Farewell,” which is competing in the U.S. Dramatic Competition of the festival and does not yet have a distributor, follows this same structure with Awkwafina playing Billi, the stand-in for the director. It’s an intimate, emotional and often quite funny portrait of family, culture-clashes as Billi and her Chinese-American family venture to mainland China to put on a real fake wedding and try to say goodbye without ever letting on that that’s what they’re doing.
Awkwafina said the film also captures the “struggle of going back to China.”
“It’s hard to describe. Because you’re made to feel like you’re not American in America. But you go to China and …you’re a stranger there as well,” Awkwafina said. “It really hit that on the head.”
AP Entertainment Reporter Ryan Pearson contributed from Park City.