The Partnership: Awkwafina and Zhao Shuzhen On Protecting A Shared Secret & Becoming An Onscreen Family In ‘The Farewell’

'The Farewell' stars Shuzhen Zhao and Awkwafina
Evan Mulling

Awkwafina and Zhao Shuzhen are the duo at the heart of Lulu Wang’s The Farewell. Awkwafina is Billi, an Asian-American New Yorker returning to China for one last chance to see Nai Nai, her terminally-ill grandmother, played by Shuzhen. But there’s a catch: the family have decided Nai Nai must not be told her diagnosis—a decision they call ‘the good lie’. It’s a story that could have been maudlin and morose, especially since it’s based on Wang’s own real-life situation with her grandmother. But instead, Awkwafina and Shuzhen form a strikingly nuanced study in words left unsaid, love intuited, and the simple joy we must find in the present moment. In conversation with Deadline, the actresses discuss their heartfelt responsibility toward the real Nai Nai, crossing a language barrier, and sacred familial ties.

DEADLINE: Awkwafina, you were raised by your Chinese grandmother, but was there a language issue?

Awkwafina in 'The Farewell'

AWKWAFINA: I really wish I could thank my grandma for teaching me more, but she really didn’t. I think the only leg-up I had was that growing up, I just heard it around me. I didn’t even really know how to say basic verbs or words until I went to China, when I was like 18 or 19 years old, for a language program. That’s when I learned very basic fundamentals. I found though, that when you were out there in Beijing at that time, there weren’t a lot of people that spoke a lot of English, and you had to speak some Chinese to get around. You learn it a little quicker because it’s more of a survival skill. I went to McDonald’s and I ordered a whole diatribe. I was very impressed with myself. When I was there at first, obviously, there was a language barrier with the script. 

DEADLINE: Zhao, what did Lulu tell you about this role when she first approached you?

ZHAO SHUZHEN (via translator): Initially, she was just telling me about her grandma. She told me about her actual grandma’s life and she told me stories. I could feel a real sense of love and sincerity that Lulu has for her family and for the story material. I knew that the sense of love, the sense of appreciation she has for her family, clearly just ran very deep. I was very moved and very touched, when she first communicated about the part and about the story to me.

DEADLINE: Awkwafina, when you were cast, Lulu had only seen your rap videos—it was pre-Crazy Rich Asians. What pushed you to really go for this role? Was it the personal element because of your own grandmother?

AWKWAFINA: It was just really that I saw myself in the role. It went beyond the relationship with my grandma, and my personal relationship, because it really was about finding identity between two worlds. I think that’s something that I really related to. I knew that I was very new to drama. I knew that this was in a different language. But I also knew that there was a part of me that almost could fathom speaking bad Chinese, because that’s literally how I’ve done it my whole life. Just getting by with the bare minimum. 

DEADLINE: Zhao, as a veteran of Chinese theater and screen, how did you feel about switching to this American world of filmmaking? Did you have any concerns? 

SHUZHEN: Yeah, I actually did hesitate a little bit because first of all, there’s a language barrier. I was afraid that I might not get along with the cast and crew because I could tell that half of the crew, they were either Americans—so to me they were foreigners—or they’re Asian-Americans. People might not be able to speak Chinese fluently, and I don’t speak English. I was worried that in terms of the sense of chemistry, or rapport with the team, it might not be very smooth. Actually, once I accepted and participated in the filming, and especially throughout the production process with Awkwafina, we just grew very close. It really felt like family because she is someone who, in between takes while she was on breaks, I saw her calling her grandma constantly. In fact, she even put me on video chat with her. It was very fun for me. At the time, I just could tell this is a child who clearly loves her family, and loves her grandma. And that really sparked a lot of warmth in me. I really felt like I could relate very well. That really was a turning point.

Awkwafina and Shuzhen Zhao in 'The Farewell'

The tagline for the film in China is about this idea of the grandma being someone who asks, how are you doing? Whether or not you’re cold, whether you have clothing, whether or not you’re lonely. And for me, that’s how I interact with my real grandchildren. I ask them, “Do you have a girlfriend yet? Do you have a boyfriend yet? How is everything going?” That’s how I treat my grandchildren.

For Nora [Awkwafina], I could tell that she related to her grandma in a very similar way. I approached this part and I approached the film as a grandma. And I could tell she really approached it almost like a granddaughter as well. The chemistry you see on screen, I think that came from a very real place, because there was a real sense of a bond between the two of us.

AWKWAFINA: There was.

SHUZHEN: That sense of love and respect. It really was like family, and that’s what ended up on screen, truly.

DEADLINE: The response to this film has been enormous. People come out of theaters crying.

AWKWAFINA: You should ask her because she saw yesterday for the first time.

SHUZHEN: I cried. I laughed, and I cried.

DEADLINE: And Zhao, this is also your first time in the States, and you’re been inundated by fans of the film. How has that felt? 

SHUZHEN: Very surprising.

AWKWAFINA: Did you see it with subtitles?

SHUZHEN: Yes, I saw the Chinese version. Truly, I was very impressed by it. I think everything, from the acting to the scene photography to the editing, to the whole packaging of the film is remarkable. I was very moved after seeing it. And again, going back to what I was saying earlier, I think it is because the movie reflects such genuine warmth and sincerity and love that Lulu has for the family. I think that’s really the essence of the film.

In the last couple of days, I’ve had opportunities to interact with fans here in the States. Many of them have come to me and said, “After seeing this film, I called my grandma, I called my family, my relatives.” The fact that people are reacting to it this way, that’s been astonishing and very moving for me. 

DEADLINE: Awkwafina, as Billi, you’re essentially playing Lulu herself. How did you prepare with her?

AWKWAFINA: One of the very specific things about this is that Lulu is never like, “I don’t do that.” I think at the same time, I did have to ask Lulu, “What is she feeling right now?” I think that oftentimes you have to remember that this did happen to Lulu. It’s like, “What is she really feeling?” And I think that that’s when she was very helpful for me, with various degrees of how she’s digesting all of this.

Awkwafina in 'The Farewell'

At the same time, Billi is a very neutral character that really represents anyone going into this experience. I think in that way she becomes very relatable. She has her own ways of thinking, but she’s open to other understandings as well. I think that’s what this whole journey is about. You have to understand that you have to go through it on your own.

DEADLINE: What about meeting Lulu’s Nai Nai? She was around during shooting, right? She hasn’t seen the film and she still doesn’t know her diagnosis. Was it important to have her around, to have her presence on the set?

AWKWAFINA: I think it did feel important because she was so warm and just so lovable and loving. I think she also was a beacon of like, “This is why we’re doing this movie.” When she would come on set, it became our responsibility as well. We couldn’t let her know. She’s extremely warm. She treats us like her own. It was really nice to get to know her. 

DEADLINE: It must be quite weird to politely conceal the subject of the film you’re making?

AWKWAFINA: It really could have been like a movie within a movie.

SHUZHEN: Whenever she was around, you could tell that she is just a very loving, very warm, very kind person, but also had a very strong, fierce and independent side to her as well. Whenever the topic did come up, basically, we just tried to talk about something else. I tried to distract her. We would just try to deviate away from the subject matter and focus on other things.

She really looked like a very healthy and very vital person. There was a lot of energy to her. And obviously, we knew that she is ill. The fact that she’s stayed as warm and as healthy, as vital, as energetic as she is, that’s very inspiring for me personally, and very moving as well.

DEADLINE: It’s very hard to watch those scenes where Nai Nai thinks everything’s fine and everybody’s trying to hide their tears because she’s so ill. Was that personally emotional for you?

AWKWAFINA: Yeah. It was very emotional for me at some points. I think Zhao just said it best. I was constantly calling my grandma because I am a grandma’s girl. [Shuzhen] is an incredible actress. Such a powerful actress. What she said, it really does come from a real place. My scenes with her, she really sparked a lot of that emotion, just feeling her energy, feeling her performance.

I think some of the things that were a little difficult for me were, emotionally, saying goodbye to her. It was a very difficult scene. Then, I think, that scene where I find that you are really getting into Billi’s head and understanding where a lot of this comes from. But she made it very easy to get in that spot. She’s incredible.

SHUZHEN: Initially I didn’t think it would be that difficult of a role to play because I started acting at the age of 16. I had been acting for 60-plus years, and I started acting with Harbin Theatre when I was 16. So, over the past 60 years, I’ve played all kinds of characters and different backgrounds. I’ve had solid experience, and usually, getting to the mindset of a character is not that difficult for me. But what was challenging was the fact that I was now playing a real person. I felt like I had a responsibility to really be this person, and take on the personality, the behavior, the traits, the tics of this particular person. I felt like it was very important for me to really spend time with the real grandma. To interact with her, to observe her. And also, for me to listen to Lulu’s direction, because all the time she would give me a very gentle reminder that it’s important to really think of the real grandma and what she’s like. 

DEADLINE: 60 years of acting. That’s incredible.

AWKWAFINA: Yeah. [On the Chinese shoot] there were a bunch of screaming fans and they came up to me and I was like [thinking they were for me], but then I was like, “Oh.” They recognized her. It was good [laughs].

Shuzhen Zhao in 'The Farewell'

SHUZHEN: [Laughs] Nora is such a funny person. She was just off and cracking jokes. She really warmed up and lightened things. The atmosphere was so funny. Nora was constantly doing that really. I think that drew us very close. A lot of the emotion, the humor, the rapport, the chemistry that you see on screen, a lot of it was really because Nora was going out of step. I want to say thanks to her.

AWKWAFINA: Thanks to you.

DEADLINE: What was important to you that viewers understand about Chinese culture through this film? What did you want them to take away?

AWKWAFINA: I wanted them to look at the lie with an open mind, and, in the same way that a lot of Asian-American children apparently have to every day, I wanted them to see that basically there is a group mentality. There’s a fierce reverence for your elders. That, I think, is a really big staple of what all Asian-American home life is like. We have a sincere reverence.

I also wanted them—this is something more obscure that I really wanted—I think that there is a universal quality to all of this. To what grandmas represent to us, and to how loss devastates us; how loss devastates the unit of a family. I also wanted them to understand the journey that takes place between America and China. 

SHUZHEN: How I personally view it is, this notion of the good lie, or benign lie, this is something I feel like this movie communicates well to the audience. For me, it comes down to, what is the purpose of telling a good lie? I know that there’s a general understanding perhaps in the West, perhaps in America, where people think, “Oh, they shouldn’t have done this, the family should have told her the truth.” And I think that maybe it’s an act that could even be considered illegal in an American context.

When you observe in the movie, and also, I know this from my personal life and from the people around me, oftentimes what’s happening in China is that a benign or a good lie like that often yields positive results. I’ve had friends who had been diagnosed with illness, but because they didn’t know what was going on, they were happy. They were not burdened psychologically with thoughts of death or mortality. They actually ended up living a happier life; in some cases, a longer life. The illness did not exacerbate, or did not get any worse.

Sometimes miracles like that do happen. Sometimes, when people in China, when they do find out the reality or what’s actually happened to their body, when they do find out that they’re ill, oftentimes they just fall apart. So, for me, this benign lie, the lie that we see in the movie, is something that I can accept. It’s something that I could see the purpose for.

DEADLINE: In a lot of your scenes, the love and the connection between you two is communicated without words. There’s a lot of silence. Not many actors can handle that well. Lulu has said she cast you, Awkwafina, because you could silently show feeling in your face.

AWKWAFINA: That’s cool. Honestly, it’s something that almost felt like something I’ve done before. I think that it’s the expression of wanting to say so much, but not being able to, right? I think that in my life, I’ve had to do that a lot. I think that the added impact of knowing she is an incredible actress, it’s like you really do believe that she doesn’t know it, and then at the same time, you feel that love.

Awkwafina and Shuzhen Zhao in 'The Farewell'

I’ve had to meet with family members where I couldn’t communicate with them in a language sense, but I felt the love and I had to give them that love. I think that’s really interesting that you said that, but yeah.

DEADLINE: It’s a familiar place for you really?

AWKWAFINA: Yeah. Like wanting to be able to say so much, but literally not being able to. But knowing that they love you, and knowing that there are things they wish they could say to you too. It was awesome to do with her. I haven’t seen her since we wrapped. It’s a long time. Over a year ago.

SHUZHEN: I felt Nora just did such a wonderful job holding that in. Because as an actor, you know we often talk about the fact that being silent, that’s actually very difficult. There are things with your facial expression, with your eye movement, your little things, those things that communicate your interior state of being. We [as actors] often talk about the idea of still having interior dialogue with yourself. You’ve got to know what is going on inside.

DEADLINE: When Nai Nai is showing Billi her daily exercise routine, it looked like you were genuinely having fun together.

AWKWAFINA: That was our first scene together. I remember meeting her and being a little nervous, because obviously, approaching this whole project, and then, also, that she is just like this incredible actress, and the language.

I was like, “You know what? I can feel a warmth from her. I can feel that there’s a warm soul when we do these exercise scenes. I’m going to try and make her laugh, and if she laughs then we’re good.” And she did. And it was really natural. I think it just set the tone for our real-life relationship, and our relationship in the movie.

DEADLINE: What’s up next for you both? In what way did this experience inform your work going forward?

AWKWAFINA: Next up, I’m heading to do Marvel [Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings]. My show (Awkwafina Is Nora from Queens) is going to come out as well, and Jumanji will come out around December, January. I think that my mind will always be open to whatever, but what I learned on The Farewell informs my performances. There’s always a part of it in me.

SHUZHEN: I do a lot of TV drama. In fact, I’m in the middle of shooting something right now in Sichuan, which is another province in China. As soon as I get back to China, I’m going to jump right back into that production and start acting again.

This movie certainly has been very helpful in terms of my career because even just recently, there were American production companies that were reaching out to me, and asking whether or not I would be available.

Also, Diana Lin, who plays Awkafina’s mother in the film, also has this American project that she’s approached me with, where she would play the daughter, and I would play the mother. That’s another possibility. I feel like I’m a professional grandma a lot. That’s what I do. But I’m just very grateful for the fact that this group has been so influential. Because movies ultimately, they have a farther reach than TV, and this movie is really remarkable, because it has such elegance and simplicity and beauty about it. It is not a movie that overdoes anything, it’s a movie that’s just very even-keeled. Within that there’s a real sense of beauty and elegance, and warmth and love to it, and I feel like it’s very rare to see a movie like that these days. I’m just grateful to have been a part of it.

This article was printed from