In 2016, Lulu Wang wrote and narrated a story on This American Life called “In Defense of Ignorance.” The story focused on the decision her family had made to hide the truth about her Nai Nai’s (“grandmother” in Chinese) cancer diagnosis from her. Rather than tell the truth about why the family was convening — that is, to spend one last week with Nai Nai — they would use a wedding banquet as a pretext.
Three years later, the film based on that story, aptly titled The Farewell, is hitting theaters, with Awkwafina playing the role of Billi, a stand-in for Wang. It’s easily one of the best films of the year, handling the immigrant and first-generation experience with grace. On the day of the film’s premiere in New York, Wang sat down with Polygon to discuss making the film, and how the lie upon which the film is based still persists.
[Ed. note: Spoilers for The Farewell follow.]
Polygon: How did you end up casting Little Nai Nai (Hong Lu), Nai Nai’s sister, as herself?
Lulu Wang: I’ve always just loved that woman. She’s so funny, but in this really just lovely way, which is that she doesn’t ever want to put any of her grief onto other people. Whatever she’s feeling, she never puts it on you. She never wants to burden anybody, and so she’ll carry it herself. And when she’s around the family, she gives joy. She’s telling jokes, she’s always smiling.
In this particular situation, it was the same thing. She made the decision of telling the lie, and it’s because she was burdened with having to make the decision on her own because we were all abroad. So, in many ways, even though I really disagreed with the decision, I also just really love her, and so I didn’t want to go against her. Ultimately, going against the decision meant going against her. I felt like it would really ground the film by casting her in it because there’s no one else who could better represent what she went through in making this decision, and how difficult of a decision it was for her, and the pressure that she felt to make the decision and then to convince the rest of the family to go along with it.
Did you audition anyone else in your family to play themselves?
No, I didn’t audition anyone else in my family, but I auditioned Little Nai Nai to play Nai Nai [played by Zhao Shuzhen in the film], her sister. That didn’t work well, because she would just start laughing, giggling, because she was doing an imitation of her sister. So I realized it was impossible to get her to play somebody she knows so well, but she should play herself. If I could tap into getting her to revisit the emotional state that she was in when she actually went through this experience, it would lend a layer of authenticity to the film, but it would also help me to better understand what she went through, because I can’t just assume that I know. And in order to cast an actor, I would have to assume to know.
I read that you were initially skeptical when the producers suggested you cast Awkwafina; what was that initial conversation like?
Another producer mentioned Awkwafina to [Daniele Melia at the production company Big Beach], and she came to me. I know how respectful she is of the fact that I wanted to cast somebody who spoke Chinese and all of that, so first of all, I was like, “OK, like, is this coming out of a place of wanting her because she’s an influencer?” Because there’s that trend of saying, “Well, she’s an influencer; she’s going to bring all of these fans with her.” And my producer was like, “Absolutely not. We’re not pushing her on you; it’s just that idea.” I also thought she was Korean American and Danny was like, “No, I think she’s half and half [Awkwafina is of Chinese and Korean descent], because I did specifically ask if she speaks Mandarin.”
Once I knew that none of the producers were insisting on it for this other reason, that they were just wanting me to be open to the idea because you never know, then I met with Awkwafina — still with some skepticism, obviously, because her other work is so different from what I was looking for. But then once we met, she told me about her mother passing away, and being raised by her grandmother, and then she sent in a self-taped audition that just blew me away.
You mentioned one of the reasons you were uncertain is because you thought Awkwafina was of Korean American heritage; was it important to you to cast people who were specifically of Chinese heritage? I feel like, in Hollywood, when it comes to Asian characters, they don’t care what the actual ethnicity of the actors are.
Yeah. I don’t want to make a blanket statement of “every film needs to be cast this way,” but for my film, I needed people who authentically speak the language. If they were Asian American and their background had nothing to do with it, that would be a different story, but I wanted everyone to speak the authentic language the way they would in real life. That meant casting people who either live in China or are Chinese natives, or Chinese Americans, because I also wanted them to have natural accents.
There were actors that often get cast — they’re great Asian American actors, but they didn’t speak Chinese very well, and so they would have had to go and learn it. Which is fine for Awkwafina’s role because she’s so Americanized, she’s born and raised. But to play the role of the mother or the father, I didn’t want to cast somebody who was born and raised in the States and barely had a relationship to China, because I can feel that. For them to play Chinese is very different than somebody who actually just is.
Diana Lin [who plays Billi’s mother], for example, she’s not putting on that accent. She has that accent because she moved to Australia when she was around the same age as my mother, I think, later in life. That was definitely important.
The movie presents a snapshot of Billi’s emotional and physical distance from her extended family; what was your own relationship with them like in between when your family moved to America when you were 6, and when your grandmother’s diagnosis actually occurred?
I think that it’s just throughout. I studied abroad there when I was in college, and it was always this negotiation of being not Chinese enough, not American enough. In many ways, throughout the course of the film, I encapsulate how I always feel — not just around this trip, but in conversations that I have endlessly every time I go back: comparing what’s better, China or America, and trying to prove myself to be more Chinese or more American depending on the circumstances and what better serves me. Like, if I don’t want to deal with something, I’ll just pretend I don’t speak Chinese at all. Other times, I’ll try to haggle and try to be really Chinese. It’s just this constant negotiation.
Has that feeling changed at all since finishing the movie?
I don’t think that I necessarily feel one way or the other, but I think because of the movie — I think in my 20s and younger, I was still trying to navigate my own identity. I wasn’t that comfortable in my own skin, and I was trying to prove myself, still, in so many different ways, both to my family, to my parents, and my career, like, in the world. Now, being in my 30s has solidified, “Oh, my identity is to be in between.” And, in fact, that part of embracing myself and being more confident is to just accept the fact that I’m in between, and not feel the pressure to choose.
That’s been so much a part of the dialogue of this movie, because in the very beginning — which was only two years ago — before I got the movie set up, and I was out pitching to other companies, that’s the question everybody would ask. “Is this film American or is it Chinese?” It felt very confrontational, because it felt like I was still being made to choose. I’m trying to find my voice and present my voice to the world, but the world just keeps going, “We don’t accept your voice. You have to go this way or that way.” I think that was the negotiation. Being able to make the film now and having people resonate with it has allowed me to be exactly who I am from the place that I am.
Who in your family has seen the movie, now?
Just my mom and dad — and my Aunt Gugu. She was in town with her family, so she saw it. Little Nai Nai is here for the premiere, so she’s going to see it tonight, which I’m excited about. I’m going to sit next to her and translate for her.
I read that Nai Nai still hasn’t seen the film and doesn’t know what it’s about. Has the conversation as to whether or not to tell her changed at all?
No, only with A24. They’re like, “You have to stop talking about that. It’s a spoiler.” I do think it’s just so lovely for people who don’t know to go into the movie not knowing, and then they see the movie, and it’s a really lovely surprise. People often ask me why I included it, because it does influence how I see the lie. I can’t judge this decision without the knowledge of how much longer she’s lived. But again, that’s a spoiler. Yeah, I don’t know. Ultimately, I’ve let go of the need to control it because I can’t control it. It’s not up to me to decide, anyway, how to deal with it. It’s ultimately, and always has been, my family’s decision.
How much time did you manage to spend with her while filming in Changchun?
She would come to visit set. After we finished shooting, I spent two days at her house, just, like, to eat and rest and hang out. They’re, like, heroes now, in their neighborhood, because everybody recognizes them. They’re like, “Oh, your granddaughter was shooting,” because everybody came out of stores and homes to watch us shoot.
And the neighbors don’t know the story of the movie, either?
Nobody knows. I told the crew that they couldn’t tell anybody.
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Flying to Park City today like....✨✈️✨✈️✨✨✨✨✨✨ #tbt While shooting in China, our camera house included these wheels in our camera package. I got so addicted to directing on this thing that I immediately got one when I returned to NY. This video was taken on the last day of our pickup shoot in lower east side. I was feeling very much in my element with the wheels and coffee. Am eternally grateful to the @__bigbeach team and so many others for providing the space for me to tell my story. Tomorrow is Day 1 of sharing it with the world. ( : @jmcohenny )#thefarewell #thefarewellmovie
This is unrelated, but I also wanted to talk about your preferred mode of transportation: the Segway hoverboard. How did you get into it?
[laughs] I was introduced to it in China when we were renting camera equipment in the camera house. A lot of people in China have them, and so the camera house had one and they taught me to ride it, and I had so much fun on it. They were saying that people use them for Steadicam as a dolly sometimes. You can just carry the camera, and you can ride it. It’s not the safest, but it’s China, so people do it anyway. But yeah, I had so much fun that they were like, “Oh, well, if you want, we can include it in the camera package.” So they sent it to Changchun. I directed the whole movie on it. And it was awesome.
It was so great, because sometimes we would just be outdoors and I would have to go around — like, the actors might be over there, and people would be in holding rooms. We would be spread out. It was so efficient. I would be like, “Alright, I’m going to go talk to the actors in the hotel.” I don’t need to get in a car, I’ll go bzzz! I’ll zip over.
I got so good on it that when I moved back to the States, we were in New York, I ended up buying one. I was like, “This thing is perfect for New York City.” During post-production, I would be able to go from my apartment to the office. Now I just have it all the time.
Do you have it with you now?
No, because I’m traveling all over. I don’t fly with it. But when I’m somewhere for a long period of time, I will pack it up and bring it. As long as I can ride it, I want to ride it on a movie set. It just makes it fun.
The Farewell is in theaters now.