Awkwafina's First Job Was at a Video Store – and She Didn't Think Life Could Get Any Better

Money Talks, and so should we. Here, powerful women get real about their spending and saving habits.

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Before Nora Lum, better known by her moniker Awkwafina, became a bona fide movie star in Ocean’s 8 and Crazy Rich Asians, the closest she’d gotten to Hollywood was a job as a video store clerk in New York’s West Village when she was 16.

“I loved it,” she tells InStyle. “I really did not believe that my life would get any better.”

Of course, we all know that wasn’t the case. In a few days Awkwafina will be onstage at the Academy Awards as a presenter, having stolen the show in Crazy Rich Asians, which — were it based on fan appreciation alone — would be up for a few awards itself.

Earlier this month, Lum attended the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah to promote not one, but two projects: The Farewell, a heartfelt drama about a family matriarch diagnosed with a terminal illness, and Paradise Hills, a sci-fi fantasy about a group of misfits at a high-class treatment facility. We’re here to discuss the latter, as well as the money lessons she learned before, during, and after working on that film all about people with a ton of it.

“I’ve been following Sundance since I was a teenager,” Lum says. “I remember fantasizing about what it would be like to go. There’s a real community here, and a built-in understanding for independent film.”

For her latest role, alongside a stellar cast that includes Emma Roberts, Milla Jovovich, and Danielle Macdonald, Lum plays Yu, a timid, soft-spoken patient prone to panic attacks who’s sent to the mysterious institution by her aunt and uncle. The story begins when a well-to-do young woman named Uma (Roberts) wakes up on an isolated Mediterranean island, where she’s been sent by her mother to be reformed via etiquette lessons, yoga classes, and Hunger Games-style makeovers. But there’s a secret! The Duchess (Jovovich), Paradise Hills’s HBIC, is secretly cloning the girls at night while they are drugged to sleep, with the help of her male underlings.

“Something our characters all have in common is that we all feel like rejects,” Lum says. “A lot of young girls feel like they’re inadequate, like they’re not enough, like they’re broken. This film questions who says we’re flawed and who says we need to be fixed.”

Here, Lum talks more about the surreal new movie, gender norms, and turning 30.

Awkwafina Crazy Rich Asians
Warner Brothers

On her grandma’s money smarts… “I come from a lower-middle class family. I was raised by my grandma, who worked a series of odd jobs. She lost her restaurant when I was a kid and our house got seized. She instilled in me the idea that banks are not to be trusted. She literally hides her money in a picture frame. She was like, ‘When I go, you gotta go get that money.’ I’m like, ‘Grandma, it’s thirty dollars. What am I supposed to do with that?’”

On the best advice she’s ever received… “Money doesn’t stay — it’s not something that’s constantly coming in, so when you have it, you have to be responsible with it. Also, my grandma taught me to be kind and believe in myself — the quirks, the weirdness. She helped me embrace a lot of the things that other girls are embarrassed about, because she knew that those were the things that set me apart.”

On life post-Crazy Rich Asians “I’m really good at blending in because I dress like someone who has never dressed themselves before. I always look like a hot mess — somewhere in between pajamas and athleisure. Like, athleisure but not doing it hotly. Athleisure for a dog, or something.”

On splurging… “I don’t shop for clothes a lot. I refuse to spend $500 on myself but I’ll drop $1,000 on a night of karaoke with my friends. I’ll pretend I’m going to the bathroom and go up and pay the check. I need to control my Amazon binges, too. I go on there and I’m like, ‘Uh, duh I need a mini fridge.’”

On the gender pay gap… “I haven’t experienced it. I was fortunate enough to enter the industry during the no-bullshit era, where people know how to behave. Both women and Asian-American actors had to endure a lot to get us to this point, so whatever happens now that’s positive we have to think about the people who came before us.”

On working with Emma Roberts and Milla Jovovich… “Emma and I became fast friends. We text regularly. Milla is super down-to-earth and really supports young women — she has a daughter herself. I’d always tell her whatever was on my mind, and she was a great sounding board.”

On turning 30… “In your twenties, you have a lot of unfulfilled wants and dreams. I wasn’t a happy person in my early-twenties; I was grinding. I just had silverfish crawling all over my body in my rent-controlled apartment in Brooklyn. I’m looking forward to feeling more like an adult in this next decade. And I’ve gotten really into essential oils, too.”

On what’s next… “Right now, we’re forming the writer’s room of my show on Comedy Central, and we have some amazing people on board. Then I’m going to do Jumanji. I’m still recording music — that’s my first love. I do it all night, every night.”

On her retirement plan… “To not have any regrets and live in a cottage somewhere in solitude. I’ll never stop doing what I do. The world can stop me from doing it, but I won’t stop. And if all else fails, I still have my apartment in Brooklyn.”

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