This 'Nora From Queens' star was almost fired from her first job—but a change of attitude helped her land the leading role

BD Wong, Awkwafina, Lori Tan Chinn, and Bowen Yang attend Comedy Central's "Awkwafina is Nora From Queens" Premiere Party at Valentine DTLAon January 15, 2020 in Los Angeles, California.
Frazer Harrison | Getty Images for Comedy Central

Lori Tan Chinn doesn't believe in accidents, except for the one that brought her to the set of "Awkwafina is Nora From Queens."

In "Nora From Queens," a new Comedy Central show based on the life of breakout star Awkwafina (whose real name is Nora Lum), Chinn is the sharp-tongued grandma who simultaneously pushes Nora to grow up but also offers heartfelt support to the 20-something slacker in her quest to figure out what she wants to do with her life.

But before Chinn took on the part, where she often steals the scene with her own improvised lines, she almost quit acting altogether.

"This came by accident, because I was going to quit," Chinn tells CNBC Make It.

Chinn, a self-trained dancer, made her Broadway debut in 1970 in the show "Lovely Ladies, Kind Gentlemen." She originally joined as part of the chorus, but soon realized she wasn't able to adapt her own background of modern dance to the style of choreography being used in the show.

"Usually they put the shortest person in the front so you can see them, but they put me in the back," Chinn says. "I was worried I was going to get fired." Instead of letting the fear limit her dancing, Chinn harnessed that energy and gave a defiant, no-holds-barred performance. If she was going to be fired, it wouldn't be for lack of giving it her all.

"So I started making faces in the back where I thought they couldn't see me," she adds. "And I thought, 'They're going to fire me? Go ahead!'"

The approach ended up working in her favor. When the lead actor ended up parting ways with the production, the casting director, impressed by Chinn's energetic chorus performance, pulled her up to play the female comic lead and gave her a 5-minute dance solo.

Chinn spent several years in theater before making the transition to film and TV, including her recent portrayal of Mei Chang in the Netflix series "Orange is the New Black."

Opportunities for Asian-American actors have historically been limited. Just 1.4% of lead characters in films released in 2014 were Asian, despite making up 5.4% of the U.S. population, according to a report from the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. And even when characters of Asian descent are written into storylines, it's not always a guarantee the role will go to an Asian actor at all.

Although Chinn recently considered quitting acting because she couldn't find more compelling roles, she says the production of "Nora From Queens" drew her back in.

"It's a new generation," Chinn says of Asian Americans pushing for more well-rounded representations in media. She also recognizes Awkwafina's rising star power and credits the young actor's willingness to use it to tell a new narratives. "She has a lot of say about the product and the voice," Chinn adds.

Chinn has spent her career working with organizations, such as the Actors' Equity Association, to support negotiations for fair wages, safe working conditions and health and retirement benefits for the theater community. Through her work, she has also pushed for wider representation of entertainers of color.

"It's changed the course of how I thought of my responsibility to be a positive image for Asian Americans," Chinn says.

Recent momentum around Asian-American representation in media, including Awkwafina's role in "Crazy Rich Asians" and her historic Golden Globes win for her performance in "The Farewell," are a testament to progress being made in the industry — though Chinn stresses there's more work to be done.

Awkwafina writes for and executive produces the half-hour comedy, which also has a team of all-women writers.

"This is a show about being raised by my grandma and dad in Queens, living at home and finding purpose," the star tweeted. "No show tunes, all female writers room, an ode to Queens and the cultural BUFFET of people that helped shape me into the human I am."

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