RAYA AND THE LAST DRAGON Filmmakers Talk About Awkwafina's Show-Stopping, Genie-Esque Performance As Sisu
Raya and the Last Dragon features one of the best vocal performances in recent memory as Awkwafina breathes life into Sisu, and we recently caught up with the filmmakers to get more insight on her casting.
Robin Williams as the Genie in Aladdin is a vocal performance for the ages and one that is likely never to be topped, but after watching Raya and the Last Dragon, Awkwafina comes pretty damn close to matching the late actor's energy and enthusiasm in an instantly iconic role that's sure to resonate with fans of all ages for generations to come.
While co-star Kelly Marie Tran joined the production relatively late in the process, Awkwafina was actually cast long before her scene-stealing appearances in Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean's 8, with the Disney brass seemingly impressed with her performances in some of her earlier projects - something that may have ultimately led to the talented comedienne being cast in Marvel Studios' upcoming Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.
Producer Osnat Shurer tells us, "We actually cast her before Crazy Rich Asians and before Ocean’s 8 came out, just after a half-hour meeting and based on some of the earlier stuff she’d done that nobody had heard of because something clicked. It was what we wanted in the dragon, we wanted the dragon to somehow be unexpected and have its own quirky sense of humor as well as then to connect deeply because you know the people who are funniest are the people that are actually connecting to something emotional and have the courage to do that. So, we fell in love with her voice and she very much informed the growth of the character."
Co-writer Adele Lim adds, "Yeah, it was exciting. When I rolled into the Disney Animation story room the first day, they had this picture of Sisu on the wall and I was like ‘That looks like Awkwafina!” because they were so inspired by her and her energy. So, I had her voice in my head from Crazy Rich, but the challenge for this, it wasn’t only that she was incredibly vivacious and incredibly engaging - the Naga in Southeast Asia, it is a deity, this aspirational, mythological figure, so the humor wasn’t just for the sake of being funny, even though that’s fantastic, but wanting to ground that humor in something deeper.
Sisu is not the savior that Raya expects, but it’s the savior that Raya and the world needs. A creature that can see the spark in you, that can see that spark in other people as well, so that’s where her humor comes from. Underneath all the jokes and the fun times, there’s a deeper wisdom to Sisu that isn’t apparent to Raya or the audience at the beginning, but is slowly unpacked as we go on this journey with her."
Qui Nguyen, who co-wrote the script with Lim, also spoke on what it was like writing for a mystical character like Sisu and elaborated further on what it really meant to him and the entire team to put this absolutely wonderful film together.
"I can only speak for the writing of it all, but it’s definitely a collaboration. That’s kind of the secret magic of Disney, which is very different from making a movie almost anywhere else, whether you’re making a live-action screenplay or a TV show, you kind of write the script and hand it off and the directors run off with it, but in this, you’re kind of in that process all the way through from beginning to end, but that includes the actors too. They’re part of that process, it’s kind of this feedback loop that you’re apart of, you put pages out, you listen to their humor, they have input, but it’s all working towards the same thing.
What’s so great about making Raya and the Last Dragon, we all knew what the mission was. We all knew what we wanted the characters to say, what we wanted them to be and what kind of message we wanted to say. That was to give to the world the bravery of trust. I think we were all very passionate about putting that together."
Speaking on the actual designs of the dragons, which are sure to sell millions of toys across the globe, the Raya team looked to the Nāga of India as well as the dragons from ancient Chinese culture for inspiration. Shurer explains,
"One of our character designers started digging into what that could be and we started doing research in the region. Part of the deep, deep inspiration came both from the Naga, which are from Southeast Asia, and as you may know, it’s origins are India and the dragon, which is a form that is closer to the Chinese. They’re both very similar, they’re water deities, they’re water beings, and we’re in animation, so to us, that takes all the way translated into they actually are water.
So, we started working with our cultural anthropology doctor to bring in the right Southeast Asian influence, so for example, the single crest, that’s completely Southeast Asian, the very snake-like body, very Southeast Asian. She has limbs, which are very much more like the dragon, but everything about her is connected to water and being a water-related being, a water deity and so, it was a long process of design because then we started moving her in animation and once you’ve designed her, created her, rigged it, then we fed that right back into the design because you want the movement to be appealing as well because what we are designing is the other lead. The central relationship in the movie is between Raya and Sisu, so it’s not a small part that character plays and there was nothing to compare it to in terms of structure, in terms of a skeleton system, in terms of rigs. It was something we spent a lot of time on, a lot of experimentation. At some point, we decided she would have the fur of a seal, like a water creature would have, so when you see her up close, you can almost touch it."
As for the villains of the piece, the team went in a very different direction to depict the faceless Druun, a mindless plague that turns everyone it touches into stone, essentially representing fear and mistrust throughout society. While it seems their ideas on what the Druun would look like evolved over the course of production, they ultimately settled on the current design as they realized the central conflict in the film isn't between Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) and the Druun, it's between Raya and Namaari (Gemma Chan).
"Yeah, we thought about that a lot and they evolved a lot actually, but they were always somewhat faceless, that was part of what we wanted. We would use ideas from different movies, but they were sentient and they did have a plan and you could fight them and Raya had her sword that magically could take them apart. There were different versions of them, but the more we developed the story, the more we realized that we wanted the conflict to be about the human conflict.
The true conflict is between Raya and Namaari, between the lands. Raya & Namaari are like two sides of the same coin and there’s this really interesting, when you start peeling the layers, really interesting conflict between them, but the big threat feels like a more natural disaster. They don’t carry your political affiliation or where you’re from, they’re just looking to multiply and honestly, if you think about it, this year just gives you chills, but if you think about it, the only way to survive that is somehow figuring out how to come together and so that became the message of the movie."
Check out both of our full video interviews below and please don't forget to like and subscribe!
Walt Disney Animation Studios’ “Raya and the Last Dragon” travels to the fantasy world of Kumandra, where humans and dragons lived together long ago in harmony. But when an evil force threatened the land, the dragons sacrificed themselves to save humanity. Now, 500 years later, that same evil has returned and it’s up to a lone warrior, Raya, to track down the legendary last dragon to restore the fractured land and its divided people. However, along her journey, she’ll learn that it’ll take more than a dragon to save the world—it’s going to take trust and teamwork as well.