Recently I spoke with the wonderful and delightful Tamlyn Tomita, most recently known for her work on ABC’s The Good Doctor and for her iconic debut role in The Karate Kid Part II. Tamlyn possesses a wonderful aura about her and I was so pleased to discuss her journey as an Asian-American actress and how she has made a place for herself in the industry. She has beat the odds and continues to be an advocate for her community through her work, passion, and strong voice. Check out our conversation below as we discuss her projects, and her journey into the world of acting.
For the last three decades you have been a diverse part of television, film, and stage productions. How did you get into acting and was this something you ever imagined you’d do?
Working backwards with the question, no, I never imagined acting or doing anything like this. What I was interested in was becoming a history teacher – specifically history, to find out what happened to a people, to a culture, to a community, to a neighborhood, to individuals. So that’s what I was interested in teaching, specifically junior high school or middle school kids. Because that’s where a lot of people decide what direction they want to go in.
I came into acting with Karate Kid 2, in a very fairytale kind of way. I was involved with a Japanese-American festival called Nisei week. It takes place in Los Angeles, and is the longest running ethnic American festival in the nation since 1934. I was asked to run as Queen in 1984 by a woman who was a former queen in 1963. When 1984 came around, I won that, and in 1985 the casting director for Karate Kid 2 started looking for Asian-American girls to audition for the movie. She found Nisei week and the former Queen who asked a bunch of girls from Nisei week to audition. I went in and it was the summer of ‘85, and for some reason I got it.
Karate Kid 2 takes place in Okinawa where my mother’s side of the family is from and I was born there on a U.S Army base. I realized that acting, a big part of acting, is you have to build the history of the character you’re involved in.
You have made great strides in making your place in Hollywood as an Asian-American actress. What has that journey been like for you and how has that factored into the types of roles you play?
Being very cognizant of having a face like mine in America in 1985, I knew that because growing up, it’s very different for kids right now. And it’s constantly changing and progressing and evolving in a good manner. It does feel like we take ten steps forward and nine steps back sometimes, but that’s human nature and people are resistant to change. I remember that were not that many roles, and I didn’t want to be on TV shows where I had to play a maid with an accent, or a hooker who is the bad guy, or as a woman playing a sex toy. We called it ‘gooks, gangsters, and geishas’ back then and we had a group of actors who bonded around together and started speaking out against those kinds of roles, and we demanded a little more opportunity and access to roles that didn’t have to make a statement or prejudicial portrayal of ethnic Americans.
If I played a role that played an antagonist, I had to make sure that were was an Asian American playing a good guy, so that there would be a balance somewhere in the show. I think I’ve always encouraged other actors to do the same but that is their prerogative and artistic choice. But to make sure they go beyond stereotypical or racist portrayal, and that’s where we find ourselves today, fighting the fight. But the fight has gotten easier with the advent of social media and the intelligent voices we’re hearing because of it. We are able to learn a little bit more democratically and I think we’re seeing with white washing and racist roles that we have voices that speak against it and that is where we find ourselves today. We are celebrating shows like on ABC and NBC and in films with faces who are not white, blond, and blue-eyed. It is a collective exercise to make sure there is equal portrayal.
Last year, you spoke out against the film Ni’ihau (ny-aii-haa) in regards to the casting and the whitewashing of Asian roles. What did you learn from the experience and what action(s) do you believe can be taken to fight whitewashing?
I find it exciting and it really is crystallized in the #NeverAgain movement of the kids of Parkland, how intelligent they are and how they are changing the world and the fact they are so adept in speaking and speaking out on social media – those are two different gifts. The collective voices that we hear pertaining to any issue, but particularly whitewashing is alive and on fire in social media. When there is a project or something comes up you see a lot of voices speaking out with valid, articulate reasons as to why it is wrong. This is the 21st century fight in social activism, and I’m happy to be a small part of it. I’m not adept at social media, but when I do get a chance I love to share my experiences.
I have fallen head over heels with The Good Doctor and it was one of my personal new favorites this season. What has the experience been like for you on this show with playing Allegra Aoki/working with the cast and how is this character similar/different than others you’ve played in the past?
First of all, I can’t say enough about Freddie Highmore. If you love Dr. Shaun Murphy, then you will love Freddie Highmore. He is the most remarkable number one I’ve ever worked with. He works so hard, his work ethic, attitude, skill set, and his respect for everyone on the cast and crew. He is just this wonderful statesmen in this 25-year old young man. If I had a magic wand I would cast him in everything. He is so thoughtful, and he never plays a false note to me and he is very authentic. I am in awe of him and so proud to be on his show.
The character of Allegra Aoki, David Shore came up to me and said she’s really calm and cool and collected. And she doesn’t speak much but when she does speak everybody listens because her word is law – whatever she decides. And the questions she has are questions for a reason. I was gifted with somebody who is very present, even though she is not present in every scene, because there are decisions made in the hospital that affect its reputation and Allegra represents that. She is different because she is very mature and very respected. Those are traits I have played around with in previous projects, but right now she is very special because she is on a very special show.
It’s a show that embraces diversity and prides itself on inclusion and learning how to take care of each other. We are literally in a hospital and doctors are taking care of their patients. But because we are centering on Dr. Shaun Murphy, we have to learn how to communicate with each other, because he is an autistic savant. People look at him as very different and perhaps a weirdo in mean words. But he is human and the story David Shore and the staff of our gifted writers show that he is communicating the best he can and that is what we are all trying to do but he does it in atypical way and it’s upon us to learn how to be better people because of him.
I hear that you will be appearing in season three of The Man In The High Castle. What can you tell us about your character and how she fits into the third season?
I don’t know when Amazon is releasing it! We are entering season three with the show and wow, I am involved in the Imperial Japanese states. I will be involved in the storyline with the Trade Minister, Tagomi, who is played by Cary Tagawa. And you’ll see story elements developing in season three and I can’t say anymore because i don’t want to give it away! You’ll have to be patient a little bit more. It will take you for a ride again, so you’ll have to buckle in!
Your first role ever was in Karate Kid II! How was that experience for you and how did shape the actress you went on to become?
John Avildsen, the director, who just passed last year, used to say “acting is reacting.” You have to react naturally and rely on what you’re hearing and listening to because they’re two different things. I was very nervous and he and Ralph Macchio worked together with me for that last round of auditions and we developed a working chemistry. And it felt weird as a young woman to be looking at the Karate Kid, who was already famous.
John Avildsen also told me trust your cameramen and that they are your friends. He said not to worry about the camera or look at the camera and just relate to the friend behind you. He’s there watching you and making sure you look good. Pat Morita, who played Mr. Miyagi, he told me know your lines, know your light, know your mark. I had no idea what he meant by your light and mark, but he literally showed me what a mark is, which is a piece of tape where you land especially if you walk into a position where they need to set focus on you and light are those night lights they set for you even in the sunlight so no shadows fall on your face. And he was just so awesome and kind and funny along with Ralph who just told me to relax and have a good time.
The actress who played my auntie, Nobu McCarthy, showed me what it meant to be a woman on set and working with a bunch of dudes having fun. She held a certain kind of court as a womanly, powerful, and strong figure and I deeply respect and admire her for giving me those pieces of advice.
In Real Artists, you play a studio head of an film studio who reveals the truth about the creative process to a newly hired animator. Can you talk a little bit about this project and how you came to be a part of it?
Very interesting project. It was a short film that was written, directed, and produced by Cameo Woods, but it is based on a short story by Ken Liu. It really is a discussion as to what art is. To break it down even more what show business is. It is not an animation studio but it is a film studio. It’s about show business and how those lines blur between those two words, the art the show – the art of storytelling, of acting, and production design and business – financing, marketing, etc. Those two words and the re-iteration of those words and how they’re put together. What is art, what is entertainment, and how do we make sure we gain our profits.
Those are big questions that I’m not articulating but in a short film they put together a movie that provokes that discussion. The conflicts our main character is presented with are questions a lot of filmmakers have to be deal with every day when they go in to a finance situation, when they’re asking for money. If it’s art, how do you make money from that art? I’m so very proud because Cameo consciously tried to cast and hire women and people of color deliberately to really present a project which shows the diversity of America and that we have quality work because of these people.
Given the variety of roles you’ve done over the course of your career, what has been your favorite one to play and why?
I can’t answer that question because I conscientiously make everything I do important – I try to learn something from it and I try to take something special from it. There are special qualities for each project but the first one, because of the way I was blessed with the role, it’s pretty much the obvious answer. I learned so much from everyone on that set so the obvious answer is Karate Kid 2.
If you had the opportunity to pick your ideal role, what would it be and why?
Wow, um. Well probably because it just popped into my head I was watching Wonder Woman. But Wonder Woman, come on! I’d love to be one of those Themysciran Wonder Women. I don’t have to be Wonder Woman but any of the Wonder Women–to ride a horse and shoot an arrow at the same time. I want to be one of the Hobbits because I was watching Fellowship of the Ring and the only women were Cate Blanchett and Liv Tyler. I wish there were more women in the story, but it is a classic story, so obviously we can’t change what was written. But I just want to be one of the Hobbits facing the Orcs.
What is something you would like your fans to know about you?
Pertaining to The Good Doctor because Allegra is professional and sophisticated, I am a real dork, I am so dorky. It takes a lot of work to be Allegra, and I’m glad people believe me – and I’m pulling the wool over their eyes. I’m sitting around with one sock on and one sock off and I’m just a big dork. If they come over to my house i can make them a mean cup of cappucino.
Besides the ones we’ve talked about today, what are some future projects we can look forward to seeing you in?
Wow, not as of yet. It’s such a quick turnaround for The Good Doctor. We ended first season at the end of March and we are back in July so there is not a lot of time. You know about Real Artists and I have another project called Ningyo which is a short that will hopefully go into feature film because those two creators are spectacular and have so much respect in their visual effects world and are impressing people with their short. I have another short film called First World Problems by X. Dean Limb which is a series about having first world problems, whatever you think that might mean. That is about it for now!
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