The Reigning Queen of Asian American Hollywood
Pacific Citizen, News report, Lynda Lin, Assistant Editor Posted: Feb 21, 2009
Tamlyn Tomita throws her hands in the air and confesses that the last few years have been a transitional time in her career. The actress, 43, who famously launched countless boyhood crushes as Ralph Macchio's love interest in "The Karate Kid, Part II," is starting to move into mom roles.
"I've been mom how many times this year or last year. Wow!" she exclaims with a laugh.
Let's see, there's the popular ABC series "Heroes," where last year she played Masi Oka's onscreen mother and George Takei's wife — despite in real life only being nine years older than Oka and 28 years younger than Takei. If there ever was any doubt that Hollywood is cruel, remove it now.
Because while sitting in the lobby of the Miyako Hotel in Los Angeles' Little Tokyo and talking community and history with the Pacific Citizen, she's still every inch as lovely as her "Karate Kid" Kumiko character and sophisticated as Waverly in "The Joy Luck Club." Occasionally flashes of spunky Kana, her 1994 role as the Japanese Hawaiian plantation worker in "Picture Bride" bubbles to the surface too.
"It's just a natural part of life," says Tamlyn, a Sansei who was born in Okinawa. "I won't be able to go up against actresses who are in their 20s anymore."
But she doesn't mind.
"It's just a matter of really taking delight in the roles that are out there and saying 'Oh my God! I'm a mother? No way!'"
And with over 20 years in Hollywood, while many other former young actors have fizzled (Hello, have you seen VH1's "Confessions of a Teen Idol"?), Tomita has been a steady force with a lengthy IMDB.com Web page to prove it.
In the last few months, television projects have been popping up non-stop: "The Mentalist," "Eureka" and maybe even "Heroes" again ("You never know!").
She names the projects between snaps of fingers and pauses to reflect. "I've been very, very lucky."
'Karate Kid': 23 Years Later
After all this time, people still recognize Tamlyn in the role that launched her career. She could be walking down the street and hardened businessmen in suits would just melt remembering scenes from the film where Kumiko coyly dances in her kimono. They usually say, "You're that girl!" and maybe even start thinking about the chorus of Peter Cetera's "Glory of Love."
"It's cute, very sweet."
Before sharing screen time with other Japanese American legends like Pat Morita and Nobu McCarthy, Tamlyn was a history major at the University of California, Los Angeles and Little Tokyo's Nisei Week queen in 1984. From the beginning, her career and the community have always intersected.
The idea for Tamlyn to audition for the "Karate Kid" came from Helen Funai, another former Nisei Week queen. When she landed the role, Tamlyn's father, the late Shiro Tomita, said Funai had to be her manager.
"She basically mothered me through the first few years of my career. I wasn't alone."
Shiro, who was interned at Manzanar during World War II, was a Los Angeles Police Department officer who helped to form the nation's first Asian task force.
"I remember growing up and feeling that sense of community here in Little Tokyo."
Tamlyn's mother Asako, who is half Okinawan and half Filipina, experienced the other side of WWII. "With English being her third language it was very difficult for her to tell her kids about what it was like growing up in the war on that side."
In the fourth grade when Tamlyn finally read a very abbreviated version of the U.S. internment of JAs in her schoolbook, she rushed home and asked, "Dad, did this happen to you?" In response, Shiro gave his daughter a copy of Estelle Ishigo's book, "Lone Heart Mountain."
It's partly her parents' influence that she says drives her to be an active community leader. She's been a Nisei Week host for the past eight years and a constant presence at community functions.
"It's that sense of trying to retain that sense of history and to pass along these ideas of what it means to be Japanese American."
This year during Nisei Week, Tamlyn brought her uncle as part of her "entourage" and had him sit in the thick of ondo dancers.
I said, "'Yeah, that's right. This is all our people.'"
"I think with actors unless we're super successful — like a Tom Hanks or a Julia Roberts — we're always itinerant workers. It's from job to job."
It's the kind of lifestyle that even after so many years makes Asako worry about her daughter. Even with the big budget splashy movies like "The Day After Tomorrow," Asako would ask, "Okay, what are you going to do next?"
In Wayne Wang's 1993 film "The Joy Luck Club," Tamlyn made history as part of the Asian Pacific American cast in the first APA film to be released into mainstream America. She still gets recognized as Waverly Jong, the grown up chess champion. Since then, Tamlyn has seen Hollywood evolve to include some more roles for APA actors.
"It does feel like it's opening up, but the bottom line to me still is that change is occurring slowly," she said. "There are more opportunities for roles that are not ethnic specific, but they're not leading roles."
Once in awhile, APA actors pop up in the peripherals of new films and television shows, provide some comic relief or added drama and then just disappear.
"We're just the seasoning. We're just the flavor still."
That's why she doesn't shirk from the label of community leader.
"You have to take it with the sense that by the fact that we're of a non-white face, it's a political statement. We're here to play. I'm going to sit at this table representing a whole group of people behind me. And I know there are people who would love to have the opportunity to speak and say something ... I happen to be very, very fortunate to have the opportunity to say what I need to say in order to propel our community and say, 'Hey, we're here! Count us!'"
In the recent politically charged presidential elections, whenever Tamlyn would hear pundits talk about "black and brown" ethnic communities, she would want to shout out "yellow!"
She leans forward and smiles. "Actually, I like to say 'golden.'"
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