Next up on Tamlyn Tomita, leading lady of AAPIs in Hollywood

Tamlyn TomitaErin and I are taking September off from doing interviews for, our series of live conversations with leading Asian American Pacific Islanders. But we’re kicking off October with a star: Tamlyn Tomita, whose inspirational career as an actor spans movies, television and the stage, and whose leadership and activism spans the Japanese American and Asian American Pacific Islander communities.

Our conversation with Tamlyn Tomita will be on Tuesday, October 6 at 6 pm Pacific Time (7 pm MT, 8 pm CT and 9 pm ET) is archived as an MP3 and is available for download for a limited time.

When we thought of starting, Tamlyn was the first person we thought of to interview, because of her prominence and passion, and because we’d met her on the set of “Only the Brave,” Lane Nishikawa’s powerful movie about the Japanese American soldiers of the 100th Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team.

She was funny, approachable, salty and very real. I have a very vivid memory of her during the filming, taking a break between scenes by sitting in her pickup truck (this was a low-budget production — no trailers for the stars). She was yelling and screaming and so animated we thought something was wrong. It turned out she’s a huge LA Lakers fan, and was listening to the playoff game in progress.

Last year, we saw her again at the Democratic National Convention, when I was one of the emcees at an APIA Vote Gala along with Tomita and Joie Chen, formerly of CNN. She’s a passionate, exciting and entertaining public speaker, and I’ve since seen her on video (just search YouTube) giving lots of speeches and serving as an emcee on many Japanese American and Asian American community events.

Tomita, who’s one-quarter Filipina (her mother is half Japanese, half Filipina), was born in Okinawa, and raised in Southern California. Her first taste of fame came when she was crowned Queen of the Miss Nisei Week Pageant in LA’s Little Tokyo.

That led to Tomita’s first screen role, as Kumiko in “The Karate Kid, Part II” with Ralph Macchio and Pat “Noriyuki” Morita.

She’s probably best-known for her role as Waverly in Wayne Wang’s hit movie adaptation of “The Joy Luck Club” (a wonderfully bitchy role on the surface, with a buckling emotionality underneath), but I’ve seen several times when people recognized her immediately for “Karate Kid II,” in which she plays Macchio’s feisty young Okinawan love interest.

She’s also played other roles that may be less known to mainstream movie goers: As Kana, a Hawai’ian plantation worker in the early 1900’s in Kayo Hatta’s “Picture Bride,” and as the JA wife of Dennis Quaid’s character in Alan Parker’s “Come See the Paradise,” a film exploring the lives of a Japanese-American family and the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Both films are excellent, and educational (“Paradise” comes packaged with a fine documentary about internment, “Rabbit in the Moon,” as a DVD extra).

She most recently appeared in “The Eye” opposite Jessica Alba and in “Two Sisters” opposite Yun Jin Kim and directed by Margaret Cho. Her list of film credits include Roland Emmerich’s “The Day After Tomorrow”; Greg Pak’s indie fave “Robot Stories”; Robert Rodriguez’s “Four Rooms” opposite Antonio Banderas; Richard La Gravenese’s “Living Out Loud” opposite Holly Hunter; Lane Nishikawa’s “Only the Brave” and the Brazilian-Japanese film “Gaijin 2 – Ama me Como Sou” directed by Tizuka Yamasaki.

Tomita’s next project is “Tekken,” a live-action adaptation of the action video game.

Tomita pops up across the networks on televisions series, sometimes in as a regular and sometimes as a guest star for an episode.

She’s been in recurring roles on “JAG” and “24.” Other credits include: “Criminal Minds,” “The Mentalist,” “Monk,” “Heroes,” “Saving Grace,” “Women’s Murder Club,” “General Hospital,” “Eureka,” “Pandemic,” “Twenty Good Years,” “Supreme Courtships,” “Commander in Chief,” “Stargate: SG-1,” “Stargate: Atlantis,” “Jane Doe,” “Strong Medicine,” “Walking Shadow-Spenser For Hire,” “North Shore,” “Threat Matrix,” “The Agency,” “For the People,” “The Shield,” “Providence,” “Crossing Jordan,” “Will and Grace,” “Freaky Links,” “Nash Bridges,” “Seven Days,” “The Michael Richards Show,” “Chicago Hope,” “Sisters,” “Quantum Leap,” “Babylon 5,” “Living Single” and “Vanishing Son.”

She was a cast member of the series “The Burning Zone” and “Santa Barbara” and also appeared in PBS’s “Storytime” and “Hiroshima Maiden,” and “To Heal a Nation” and “Hiroshima: Out of the Ashes.”

She obviously keeps busy.

Tomita has also appeared in several stage productions including the world premiere of Chay Yew’s “A Distant Shore” (Kirk Douglas Theatre); “Question 27, Question 28” (East West Players/ Japanese American National Museum); “The Square” (Mark Taper Forum’s Taper, Too); “Summer Moon” (A Contemporary Theatre and South Coast Repertory); Philip Kan Gotanda’s “Day Standing on its Head” (Manhattan Theatre Club); “Nagasaki Dust” (Philadelphia Theatre Company); “Don Juan: A Meditation” (Mark Taper Forum’s Taper, Too) and “Winter Crane” (Fountain Theatre) for which she received a Drama-Logue Award.

She brings her cultural and political identity to her art, too. According to her resume:

Keeping herself busy in an industry that has been slow to receive actors of an ethnic demographic, Tamlyn is selective in the roles she chooses, steering away from images that perpetuate stereotypes. She is always searching for ways to create or balance images and stories about Asian Americans and to educate others in and outside the film and television industry on issues she is concerned about.

Having worked on a variety of Asian American projects such as “My Life…Disoriented”; “Day of Independence,” “Hundred Percent,” “Life Tastes Good,” “Four Fingers of the Dragon,” “Soundman,” “Requiem” and “Notes on a Scale,” Tamlyn proudly supports Asian American filmmakers and artists in the pursuit of giving the world a gallery of portraits from a golden perspective.

Erin and I are big fans of Tomita’s life and career, and we’re looking forward to our conversation with her.

Here are some videos with Tamlyn:

On Indie Food Channel’s “Directors Dish” show, talking about “Only the Brave” with filmmaker Lane Nishikawa and actress Gina Hiraizumi:

Here’s a video we shot last year during the DNC, after an APIA Caucus meeting:

And here’s a recent video shot by a Nikkei View reader, Akemi Shimbashi, who goes by the YouTube username letsugo, of Tomita emceeing the Tanabata Festival in LA:


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2 Responses to Next up on Tamlyn Tomita, leading lady of AAPIs in Hollywood

  1. Ted says:

    I’m so proud of being Canadian of Japanese decent right now.
    Tamlyn Tomita and Gina Hiraizumi not only are both breath taking,but have a wealth of knowledge to share from their fascinating life experiences.
    Love being Japanese!

  2. liver says:

    she still made a living being a white mans tool

    I probably dont need to explain the whole Western view of White guy/asian girl

    I hardly find that to be empowering

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