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There comes a time when any actor asked by Walt Disney Studios to voice a legendary dragon for a major animated film would hit a creative snag.
For Awkwafina, 32, that moment came when she was asked to growl as Sisu in "Raya and the Last Dragon" (on Disney+ and digital platforms). The "Crazy Rich Asians" star has many skills, but dragon growl was not one of them. She warned directors Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada.
"I was a little bit nervous about that," Awkwafina says, speaking over Zoom from her New York City home. "It was like, 'Guys, I just want you to know before I do the growl, I don’t know what this is going to sound like. I’m just preparing you.' "
After a few game snarls, the filmmakers were impressed. "They were like, 'It wasn’t that bad.' " she recalls. Not that it was essential. The key to casting Awkwafina (born Nora Lum) for Disney's animated Southeast Asian adventure alongside princess Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) is that this blue fur-covered dragon turns out to be not so fearsome.
"The idea was to portray the legend that Sisu is this amazing, mythical super-dragon, and Raya finds this to be a little bit of an embellishment through the years," says Hall. "Instead, Sisu is a funny, self-deprecating dragon who sees herself as the perennial C-student."
The food-obsessed, clumsy dragon (born Sisudatu) even admits onscreen, "I'm not, like, the best dragon." That makes the Awkwafina casting pure genius, even if nailing the performance now requires the actress to kick her self-deprecation skills into overdrive.
More Awkwafina: She tells her 'crazy' origin story in 'Nora from Queens'
Awkwafina's movie success is an ever-expanding universe in the wake of her fan-favorite turn in "Crazy Rich Asians" and her dramatic breakthrough in 2019's "The Farewell." During the industry work stoppage of the COVID-19 pandemic alone, the Queens, New York-born rapper and actress, who broke out with the rowdy 2014 video "My Vag," performed her "Raya" voice role remotely and completed her unlikely entry into the Marvel Universe with the live-action "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings" (due out July 9).
The concept blows her mind.
"Being in the Marvel universe and voicing a Disney animated movie, that’s insane," she stammers. "And that's been a big part of my life this year."
Awkwafina felt like a certified big shot when "Raya" filmmakers sent her a special audio production tent for her home recording acoustics. Some would grumble about a six-foot-tall recording tent dominating their living room. She made it an adventure. A behind-the-scenes moment in the film's home release extra shows Awkwafina beaming about the décor monstrosity, announcing, "We got a tent in the living room!"
"I put a lamp in there. And I was like, I want to spend the rest of my days here in this tent. I want to retire in here," Awkwafina says. "I asked Disney afterwards, 'Hey can I keep it?' And it was like, "Absolutely not. We need that tent back immediately.' "
The intensive voice work continued when Awkwafina was quarantined in an Australian hotel last August, a required health measure to finish "Shang-Chi," which had halted production in March due to the pandemic.
Playing the best friend Katy in Marvel's first Asian-led superhero movie alongside Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), the actress tows the company line and keeps mum on specifics. But don't expect her to crush baddies in the style of Michelle Yeoh, who reunited with her "Crazy Rich Asians" co-star for the film – and continued to remind Awkwafina about her poor posture.
"Michelle Yeoh, still, to this day, is like, 'Nora, back straight.' And I can’t even do that right," says Awkwafina, who relents to "Shang-Chi" questioning with a Katy explanation of sorts, promising to come back with more. (She didn't.)
"I can say this, there was training. For sure. Was it as intense as everyone else? No," she says. "I was like, I’m not good, so they are not going to have me doing stuff like hanging off the side of a building. Cut to me hanging off the side of the building. So I was still doing things."
Her Sisu, too, has satisfying "Raya" battle moments requiring those roars. The strong water dragon swimming moments, however, are strictly a Sisu thing.
"I’m not a good swimmer at all, dude. I can do a little bit of a doggie paddle from one end of the hot tub to the other," she says, comically plugging up her nose. "When I do go underwater, I actually hold my nose like a child."
Yet the character perfectly captures her seemingly boundless enthusiasm and affection. Not to mention, a likeness. Awkwafina says it was an out-of-body experience seeing Sisu onscreen with her voice coming out.
"Disney borrows really, really subtle things from you. I saw there were parts of the eyes, and my teeth. It was like, man, I should go to a dentist," cracks Awkwafina.
Add on her voice role of seagull Scuttle in director Rob Marshall's live-action remake of "The Little Mermaid" (due out in November), the voice role made famous by Buddy Hackett in the animated original, and 2021 has the makings of a real-life Awkwafina Disney fantasy.
But the star is forced to stay grounded with constant regular life reminders, like when her extended family asked her for studio viewing links to see her Sisu role before the "Raya" release.
"They were hitting me up going, 'Can I just get one link?' " Awkwafina says. "And I’m like, 'Do you think Disney just gives me links to give to you guys?' I don’t even get those kind of links."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Raya and the Last Dragon': Awkwafina recorded in a living room tent