Simu Liu might be playing the title role in Marvel’s latest Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, but he’s not fighting alone – throughout the film he’s accompanied by childhood friend Katy, played by rapper-turned actor Awkwafina in just the latest of her massive Hollywood roles (including Ocean’s 8, Jumanji: The Next Level and Raya and the Last Dragon).
More than just a sidekick, Katy is more or less the second lead of the movie and looks to have a big future in the Marvel Cinematic Universe – and recently we caught up with Awkwafina to find out how she established such a strong bond with her co-stars, and what’s next for Katy and Shang as Marvel’s Phase Four continues.
Note: this interview has been edited and condensed.
So, first off – it’s evening here. I watched the film earlier this morning. Really loved it. I’ve got to say, you and Simu have great chemistry as friends in the movie. Did you guys know each other before, or was that all in the process?
I did meet Simu before. I actually met him at the chemistry read. We got on great, and I had him on my show [Nora from Queens]. And he was really, really good in the episode of my show. So we definitely got to know each other then. And then out in Australia, we hung out a lot. So we genuinely were friends, yeah. He’s a great guy.
It’s really the heart of the film, this platonic friendship between Katy and Shang. I thought that was quite interesting, because I feel like another version of this film maybe would have had her as a love interest.
You know, I definitely think that at the core of their relationship, they really are friends, right? And I think that their friendship is one that goes deep. So I could definitely see what you’re talking about – there’s an alternate reality.
But I think, you know, he has a lot of things afoot in this movie. I feel like adding on a girlfriend might be a lot, for the context of the times. But who knows?
He’s a very good-looking guy, so it’s foreseeable.
Considering a lot of the things that happen in the film, it’s not the wildest thing that could happen.
[laughs] No, it’s not that crazy.
Katy kind of feels like she was written for you. Was that the case, or did you just really work to kind of inhabit it like that?
You know what? It was. And that’s a testament, really, to Dave Callaham and Destin, that they really shaped Katy. And Destin had said: “This is what I’d imagined you’d say, but if this isn’t what it is…” So there was a lot of, also, improv and stuff.
I would read Katy’s lines in the morning. Sometimes they’d come out fresh, where we’d change a scene, and I’d always crack up. So I loved what was already written for Katy, and I really do feel like they did make her a little bit different. So it’s cool.
Katy is kind of a grounding force in the film. She occasionally punctuates the tension, and she’s that sort of link to the real world, as it were. What was it like balancing that, and the comedy elements, with the more serious moments, especially those really emotional beats towards the end?
I think that Katy, throughout all of it, has a kind of unspoken understanding, or at least an unspoken, non-judgement of what [Shang’s] dark past is. And she finds it out fairly late. So there is an element of: sure, she should feel betrayed by it. But at the same time, she completely gets it.
I always went into the character with this level of understanding that he has a lot of stuff that he has to kind of deal with. And she just wants to be there to support him.
Dealing with comedic elements in this world is really fun, actually, because there is a lot of serious subject matter there. So when you’re able to come into certain things a little bit light, it’s actually really fun. So I enjoyed that.
But, yeah, it’s really important also that she doesn’t lose that element of understanding of where he’s coming from.
People might think you’re just the best friend character, but you have some action. Did you know you’d be doing that from the start?
You know what? I didn’t know. I didn’t know the extent of how much I would actually be doing. We had an amazing stunt team on this movie. Like, incredible. These guys are more than capable of doing whatever. But more often than not, I did actually find myself falling backwards on a pole or something, which was really fun.
But it also was really fun to kind of step back and watch all of these things happen in the scene, and also just on the side-lines on set. So it was very rewarding. But I did find myself doing some stunts – mostly falling. Which is harder than it seems.
Falling with style.
Without giving anything away, the film is a fairly self-contained story, but there’s a hint at the end of where Shang and Katy could be moving in the wider Marvel universe. Would you like to see them at the centre of that world, maybe interacting with those other characters?
I mean, I think it would be so cool to just be able to step into that world. Without giving away too much, I think there’s an integral character that kind of links all that. It’s really, really cool that we got to work with him, too. I think with that character, there’s so much possibility for the exploration of other things, and also kind of the rules of Shang-Chi’s world, and how it kind of fits into the larger universe. Yeah, it’s very cool.
Obviously I have to ask, [Marvel fans] are saying: “What’s next?” Is there talk of a sequel? Any ideas being thrown around? Or is it too early to say?
I mean… I’ve heard stuff about that! But I think we’re going to see how this one is. I would love to do a sequel, if it happens, yeah. But we’ll see what happens.
If there was a sequel, how would you like to see Katy’s story develop? Where do you think she should go next?
I don’t know, actually. Maybe that’s the same perspective Katy would have going into what’s afoot. I don’t know. I think it would be cool to see if she develops any interests in anything. But I think, really, I want to see where her and Shang’s relationship goes.
I’m going to slightly put you on the spot I’m afraid – if you had to sum up the film in three words, what words would you use?
Fierce. Frolicking. Four. [laughs] It could have a “u” or an “e” in it.
That’s true. You didn’t need to alliterate them, but I like that you did.
Oh, thank you. But if you think about it – like, stew on it, on those three words – it’ll make sense.
It’ll all tie together.
I pre-planned it, yeah.
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is in cinemas now. To see how it fits into the wider Marvel world, check out our guide to how to watch the Marvel movies in order, our dedicated Movies page or our full TV Guide.