Awkwafina delivers one of this year’s best performances in The Farewell, but she is a part of a great ensemble that also craft memorable work in writer/director Lulu Wang’s emotionally resonant drama. I talked to Tzi Ma and Diana Lin, who play Billi’s (Awkwafina) parents in the feature, and my Q&A with the actors is below!
The Farewell centers on Billi (Awkwafina), an Asian American who travels to China after learning her grandmother (Shuzhen Zhao) is dying of cancer. The grandmother has no idea about her condition, as her family believes knowing the truth would only cause her unwanted amounts of pain.
Billie’s parents Haiyan (Tzi Ma) and Jian (Diana Lin) don’t want her to join them on their journey since they believe she may spill the beans to her grandmother (the pair have a very close relationship).
The Farewell is a well crafted, nuanced, and ultimately poignant look at a family’s perseverance through a difficult time, and writer/director Lulu Wang also injects a healthy amount of humor amidst the narrative’s unwavering humanity.
How did each of you prepare for your role in The Farewell?
Tzi Ma: No nothing like that. We didn’t have much rehearsal at all, but we have the distinct advantage of Lulu’s mom and dad being present. They were very accessible to us. We had the opportunity to spend time with them in a very meaningful way. They were always there to help us and answer the questions that needed to be answered.
The devil is in the details. The more detail you have the better you’re prepared to do the role. I think the second most important ingredient is Diana and I – I think we have really good chemistry. You can really see that in the parents and how they relate to one another and we were able to kind of capture the essence of that relationship. That’s how we prepared.
Diana Lin: I think the most important thing was the rehearsal – we really didn’t need it. All we need was to know more about our character and about this family. Especially when we’re digging up something really deep between the mother, the family, and the father. Actually we got a lot. We know them so much more than . . . actually we said, ‘Lulu, we know your parents more than you.’ They openly gave us anything we wanted to know about their life story, their relationships, and everything really.
Tzi, with so many acting credits in your career, was a part of your success building this interior journey for each of your characters? Or am I overthinking this and is a job just a job?
Tzi Ma: You’re right on all fronts. Every project is its own different animal, but I think you are very astute. The deeper you go the better – because a lot of times those things are picked up by the audience’s subconscious. That’s what I find the most interesting of being an actor is that whatever you are doing because of all the details that you put into the role that you may not see on the screen . . . but people do see with their subconscious.
So I think that’s when you are thinking that it’s something that is kind of ethereal you know? But it works and I truly believe in that type of acting.
Can you talk about what makes Lulu Wang a unique director and were you surprised by the final cut?
Diana Lin: As an actress, I have not been happy with my work, especially (with film). Because you do the film and whatever you liked is not in your control. (It’s in the control) of the director and the editor.
With this film, Lulu cut out (scenes) because it was too long. We had favorite scenes – like in the taxi we had lots more (scenes). I think that was my best acting (work). I was not happy but when the whole thing was finished, I was 100% happy. It never happened to me before. I am a very difficult to satisfy type of actor. This is the one I am so happy about.
I don’t feel sorry about (Lulu) cutting my scenes because the whole film is just amazing. She is a really very talented young director.
Tzi Ma: I think the vision is very clear. She knows the story. She wants to tell the story in a particular way and I think there are two things about Lulu that make her a good director: a sense of truth and steadfastness.
She’s not going to give up on her vision, no matter what you say. So in that sense because with her, the story is so personal and she had so much clarity about it that we as actors can only trust because ultimately we know we don’t have final say.
We don’t sit in the editing room and say ‘I want to pick this take’ as opposed to another take. I think I trust in her was well founded
Diana Lin: Some directors they don’t know what they’re doing (and) you only give them one choice. But Lulu is very smart, you can give her a few choices and you know she is going to pick the best.
Can both of you name one of your favorite movies and what is it that makes it unique for you?
Tzi Ma: “I would have to pick Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. I can watch that all day long and every day of the week. Every time I look at that epic, I find something new. There is so much going on and it’s such a masterful piece of filmmaking. The cast is just phenomenal. Particularly for men, we really don’t credit the Asian men – their performances as much as we value others. So in that sense, Seven Samurai is on the top of my list.”
Diana Lin: My favorite I will say is The Hours because the performance of the actresses was amazing. I keep watching it so many times. I love it.
My entire, unedited audio interview, wherein Tzi Ma and Diana Lin discuss what makes Awkwafina a unique actress, is available for CinemAddicts Patreon backers. Also discussed is a pivotal scene in the movie between Jian (Lin) and (Billi) Awkwafina.
The Farewell opens in theaters July 12. I also review the film on the latest episode of CinemAddicts. Take a listen below (my review starts at 51:23)!