Talking with Tamlyn Tomita: The actress dishes on independent cinema and whitewashing

Tamlyn Tomita in "The Good Doctor." Photo by Liane Hentscher/ABC - © 2017 American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. All rights reserved.
"The door is widening because we have more Asian Americans demanding more stories be told." - Tamlyn Tomita

Talking with Tamlyn Tomita instantly brings back all the emotions I felt when I first watched The Joy Luck Club in 1993. She was the first Asian American—not Asian— woman in a strong leading role. I could relate to Waverly and her difficult relationship with her demanding mother, Lindo. The family issues reflected in the film were all too real at that point in my life. While I obsessed over the women of Joy Luck Club, many of my Asian American guy friends grew up crushing on her and her role as Kumiko in Karate Kid Part II (1986).

Born in Okinawa, Japan, Tomita’s career has spanned over 30 years and began with a beauty pageant. She attended UCLA and studied history, which deeply informed her approach to acting. She speaks with great passion about the need for more people of color to be cast in television and film roles in Hollywood. While she’s well aware of her contribution to expanding opportunities for other Asian and Asian American actors and actresses, she’s humble and hesitant to take any credit for participating in blazing a trail for Asian American performers. You can catch Tomita on ABC’s The Good Doctor as Allegra Aoki.

Tomita and I talked over the phone about how she got her start in acting, Hollywood whitewashing, and her latest projects.

—Dawn Lee Tu

The cast of "The Joy Luck Club." Tomita starred as Waverly.
The cast of “The Joy Luck Club.” Tomita starred as Waverly.

You’ve have a wonderfully diverse and interesting career that spans over two decades of television, film, stage, including independent Asian American films. How did you get started in acting?

It’s kind of a very fairy tale kind of start. If you’re familiar with the Cherry Blossom Festival in San Francisco, there’s the older sister version called the Nisei Week Japanese Festival in Los Angeles and in 1984 I participated in the Queen pageant. Through that, me and a bunch of other Japanese American girls were asked by Helen Funai, a former 1963 queen of the pageant and also a dancer, actress, singer, to audition for the role of Kumiko in Karate Kid Part 2 in 1985. So I was selected along with a bunch of other girls—and I have to emphasize here—that I managed to jump through the hoops successfully and I got the role of Kumiko. So that was basically the start. I was attending UCLA at the time and I promised my parents that I would finish school and see what this show business thing was all about. The thing I found in correlation with my studies as a history major was that experience taught me you have to figure out your background, where you come from, who you are, and what you want. All of that propelled me into following acting because I had to develop characters as well as develop characters’ history which is most important. I had to know where my character came from in order to go forward in the story.

I really loved the podcast you did with Phil Yu (Angry Asian Man) several years ago, in which you and he talked about your experiences being an Asian American actress in Hollywood. I was really struck by how thoughtful and intentional you’ve been about pushing the boundaries and opening doors for other Asian American performers. Why has this been so important to you?

Film and television are major vehicles for American storytelling and America is the biggest exporter and influencer in the world in terms of telling stories. These stories are mostly populated by white people—white males obviously—and because [the stories] are told by white males, we have this tradition of seeing stories as just populated by white men. They’re the heroes, the villains, the scientists, the bad guys, they’re the gangsters. But when you start to incorporate different people of color, different genders, these groups start to be introduced in not so savory ways. It’s only been recently that we’ve begun to see stories that are written by people of color, women, people who have a particular disorder. They get to see their faces represented and their stories humanized. They are beginning to become a part of a more diverse—which is a scary word right now! People are scared to use this word—realistic, more truthful, and honestly a more colorful and fun picture of what and how crazy wonderful this world is, in all its great hero-like and not so savory characteristics, it just presents a fuller, better, and wider picture.

What has carrying that responsibility been like for you over the years?

It hasn’t been easy. Not everybody’s journey is easy and it wouldn’t be worthwhile if you can’t see what you gained without realizing what kind of battles you’ve been through, what kind of scars you have. When you have scar you’re like, oh this is where I got that, because I went through this. Luckily, if I’m really truly honest about it, I’ve been really, truly blessed. Every opportunity I try to get, if it comes to the choices I want to make and the kind of projects I want to participate in, I need to make sure that the people who come from behind – the younger people – are going to have a better opportunity to come into these stories, write for these stories, or feel they have the right to audition for this story because it’s about an American girl and they’re an American girl who just happens to look like this and my background, my heritage, my upbringing is totally in line with what we like to stereotypically say are “American values.” We can look like a whole spectrum of people here as an “American” so that’s what I like to push forward and the battle scars are just a part of one-on-one conversations I’ve had in order to receive a little bit of wisdom that I think I’ve gained.

Were there any major decisions you made in which you were exceptionally conscious about how a role you were going to play would impact Asian Americans?

I think my track record speaks for itself. I think you can assume because our pool of Asian Americans actresses or actors—men and women—is pretty small, that whatever project is out there I probably have been asked to audition or I probably chose to not go in it for various aspects. But I don’t like to speak about other actors’ decisions to audition because it’s work, bottom line. It’s work and if you get to exercise your tool in telling your story and even if that story happens to not be my cup of tea, that’s perfectly fine. That was the battle for Miss Saigon. (Groans) You see the trope-ish images in that musical, but then you see that it provided work for a number of years for so many Asian American musical theater artists. What is good versus bad? You have to weigh it. For me personally, every decision I go into I have to go, hmm, is this worth it, is this the story that I’m going to be proud that I participated in? I have to be very careful because it’s my own personal decision.

The stories are going to get out there but it’s just whether or not young people, through technology—Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, whatever—say I like this or I don’t like this. They get to react and respond thoughtfully and passionately about the stories they want to see or are seeing on TV and film.

Ralph Macchio and Tamlyn Tomita in "Karate Kid II."
Ralph Macchio and Tamlyn Tomita in “Karate Kid II.”

How have the opportunities changed for you as your career has progressed? In particular, for Asian American actresses, how do you think things have changed?

As I’ve always said, I’m only a point in this timeline of specifically Asian American actors, starting with Sessue Hayakawa and Anna May Wong at the turn of the 20th Century, I’m only a blip in this timeline. When I started in the 80s all you saw were guest stars on Kung Fu (1972-1975) or I grew up with The Courtship of Eddie’s Father (1969-1972). It was very, very rare to see representations of Asian American women on television. If they were on film, I don’t remember seeing anything except the ones that were depicted in The World of Suzie Wong (1960) and Flower Drum Song (1961). Those are the only two images I can think of film-wise. Television wise, because there’s so much more television, you get more of an opportunity to be presented in television stories. That’s why my mom was so adamant in making sure I saw Suzie Wong and Flower Drum Song because I think she just thought it was a wonderful thing to be able to see an Asian American woman up there on the big screen. Whenever there would be [an Asian American actor] on TV we would gather around, my brothers and father and I, we would just all watch it together.

The door is widening because we have more Asian Americans demanding more stories be told. We have more African Americans, we more Latinx, we have more Native Americans, we have more people who have a particular disability and/or disorder. They want their stories to be told because [they’r] part of the American fabric. [These stories] are part of coalescing and understanding and learning about each other and how we can present each other in a very realistic way because the chances are that there are many parts in America and in the world as well that the opportunities to see a person who is Native American is only going to be on TV or film. So let’s get the stories right. TV and film can be wonderful learning tools, obviously they are entertainment tools, but to see a realistic or humanistic depiction is like, wow, that’s what a Native American is like, that’s what a person with autism is like, and maybe if I have the chance or opportunity to meet one I won’t be so scared or afraid or I won’t be afraid of the unknown. We’re all just people.

On the topic of casting, you’ve been very, very outspoken about the whitewashing of Asian roles and most recently with the casting of Ni’ihau. What do you really think is going on with whitewashing?

It’s just people who have the wherewithal to ignore the issue of whitewashing and participate in a particular story they want to tell. That actor Zach McGowan, who happens to be a producer, saw this story and completely ignored it. The executive producers chose to ignore it with all the noise that was going on. They just cast a blind eye and closed their ears to the obvious slight. It’s just another example… it’s really demeaning. I just get super emotional and I don’t talk coherently about it. It’s just a damn shame that they can’t see how hurtful it is.

Ed Skrein, on the other hand, because of his experience being involved with a women of color and they have a child who is of mixed heritage, he’s in a family of mixed heritage and to have that understanding and appreciation of mixed heritage background is just eye opening. Your world is more expanded and your horizons are a little bit broader and a little bit wider and I think that’s why it came to his heart and his conscience that he chose to step down. I just hope there are more actors, writers, and creators who see that maybe we should strongly consider casting a person of color because they might be able to bring in other nuances, that Caucasian people have no idea what it feels like to be a person of color in America. It’s a complicated and complex issue but as long as the discussion is being carried forth, we have to understand there is a lot of anger. It’s been a century of this practice of casting white people in people of color roles so there is going to be a lot of pushback and seeing people of color demanding those kinds of opportunities and changes to participate in those roles that speak naturally to them.

In addition to actors such as Skrein rejecting whitewashing and Asian Americans fighting for the chance to auditions for roles, what do you think are other strategies or the best strategy to fight whitewashing?

There are other ways to combat the practice. Continue to write and create your own stories. Since I’ve been in this industry, there’s always been talk about a remake of Go For Broke (1951), about the 442nd, 100th Infantry Battalion. There’s also the stories that we’re going to see coming up very soon like Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan. Those are the stories that are coming out but Asian American actors should demand opportunity to audition for roles that aren’t specifically Asian or Asian American. Rather they’re just the girl or they’re just the guy in the next thing. Like, why wasn’t there an Asian American or a person of color in Bladerunner 2049? There are opportunities. You have to have a thick skin to be able to ask for opportunities and sometimes demand those opportunities because it’s simply the right thing to do. It is on the producers and the studio heads/executives to really reflect on what they see around them. If they are continually populating their pictures with only white people, I really need to see executives cast people of color because this is the start of really trying to reflect the world that we live in.

Tamlyn Tomita at SFIAAFF (now CAAMFest).
Tamlyn Tomita at SFIAAFF (now CAAMFest).

Independent Asian American films have been a place where writers and filmmakers have been able to tell create their own stories. I know you’re done some independent films. Do you like working on those independent projects more or mainstream projects?

—I absolutely do! Independent films are for young filmmakers, for new filmmakers to learn and to grow their stories. They learn their craft and they work with people who have a few more years under their belt to say this is how you do it, this is how it becomes harder once you climb up the ranks in filmmaking. Independent film is the true essence of stories starting to sprout and if they happen to catch the attention of studio heads, they’ll grab them, put them into a greenhouse, and they start to cultivate those films. Independent films are a fertile ground for storytelling. Whenever there is a young filmmaker who says I’d like to send you something, I say please do. I’ll send you an honest opinion and I really embrace the passion and the wide eyed-ness of independent filmmakers because all they’re doing is concentrating on telling their story in the best way they can. They’re not worried about money, they’re not worried about distribution, they’re not worried about fame, or any of the other trappings that come along with being in show business or the industry. They’re just truly interested in trying to get their story out. I think it’s a really wonderful chance.

You just wrapped up Season 1 of Berlin Station. I recently heard that you won’t be back on Berlin Station for Season 2. Why did you decide to not return to Berlin Station?

(Laughs) Oh I didn’t decide. The writers and creators decided not to continue. But if you watch the rest of the season, you’ll see why I don’t continue. Season 2 goes on with all my castmates from Season 1 but I didn’t get to work with my castmates from Season 2. It’s all good and done and that’s another chapter. I got to live in Berlin for six months of my life and it was a wonderful opportunity. But now I’m on a The Good Doctor.

Regarding The Good Doctor, tell us a little about that show and what can we expect from your character?

The Good Doctor is a show that centers on Dr. Shaun Murphy played by Freddie Highmore who has autism and savant syndrome. He’s employed at very prestigious hospital where he’s the surgical resident and I play Allegra Aoki, the Chairman of the Board. She is the person who handles the money that funds the hospital. Along with the team of young surgical residents and the teaching doctors we find out what it’s like to deal with a person who has savant syndrome and autism. It’s going to be interesting in how we regard the spectrum of human behavior. We will see really good writing done by David Shore who wrote House as well as see the interrelationships between all of the hospital residents and our good doctor. It’s based on the super popular Korean drama series called Good Doctor. We use the pilot of the original Korean drama series as our launching point but as we go on we diverge from the original. So far it’s been a really great ride. We’re filming episode 107 as we speak and we’ve been picked up for the full 22 episode order for the season. We’re really pleased and proud, but we understand we have a lot of work to do.

What’s on the horizon for you? Anything you’re working on personally or professionally you’re really looking forward to and want to share?

I think I have the permission to share that I’m also on The Man in the High Castle for Season 3. We’ll get to see what the alternative world with the Nazis and the Imperial Japanese running the world will turn out to be in 1962. So we’ll be seeing the world continually turning over in that show. We’re still filming that and I’m under locked lips (laughs) because it is apparently is a hugely popular series so I want to respect the role on that show. I’m having a great time with Cary Togawa, who I worked with in Picture Bride and a number of other tv projects. We’re reunited and having a lot of fun together.

What about you personally?

Personally, I can’t believe it’s October and it’s Christmas shopping season already! (laughs) Personally, I’m very much a homebody and I like to bask in the Los Angeles sunshine whenever I can.

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The interview is made possible by Comcast, and has been edited for length and clarity.

Dawn Lee Tu is a writer and works in higher education in the San Francisco Bay Area. Follow her on Twitter at @dawnleetu.