TW recently caught up with prolific Asian-American actress Tamlyn Tomita to speak about her two latest parts as Allegra Aoki in the popular medical drama The Good Doctor and Tamiko Watanabe in the Amazon Prime original series The Man in the High Castle. There was also an opportunity to reminisce about two of her most iconic roles as Waverly Jong in The Joy Luck Club and Daniel-San’s girlfriend Kumiko in Karate Kid II.
You made your acting debut in Karate Kid II. How did that opportunity come about?
In 1984 I was participating in a beauty pageant at the Nisei Week Japanese Matsuri in Los Angeles, a festival that is decades old, and myself and other girls taking part were asked to audition. I had only ever been in church and school productions before, but somehow managed to book the role and 30 years on it is still what I am most well-known for. It’s become like a badge that I am very proud to continue wearing. It was wonderful to be part of something that had such a big impact on people.
What was it like being on set?
Every day was an adventure. I was constantly learning how to act and more importantly how to react. The cast and crew helped me a lot including Pat Morita and Ralph Macchio who were both great. New Yorker Ralph had this terrific ability to naturally transform himself into the five years younger sweet, naive Daniel-San from Los Angeles. Pat meanwhile was very different to Mr Miyagi but did have the same sense of fun, spirit, mischievousness, and wisdom. Then you had [director] John Avildsen who brought everyone together and knew exactly what he wanted. I was devastated by his passing last year. He was my mentor and godfather into the world of show business.
Were you always interested in becoming an actress?
No, my ambition when I was younger was to be a history teacher. This opportunity for Karate Kid II came out of nowhere and I then decided to pursue acting as a career. History as a subject is about telling stories of one’s culture, people and tribes, and a movie is a great platform to show that. Back in the 80s, the depiction of Asians and Asian-Americans in cinema wasn’t flattering. We were basically portrayed as geishas, gangsters or gooks. I only wanted to appear in productions that were balanced, so if I were to play a stereotypical negative character then there would be at least one Asian or Asian-American alongside me shown in a more positive light. That’s something I’ve insisted upon throughout my career.
How hard was it for you to get work in those early days?
People did see me as the sweet Kumiko so I was typecast for a while. Also, there were fewer roles to go for, but I wouldn’t say I had it more difficult or straightforward than anyone else. It was just a case of going through the traditional audition processes. Except for a couple of independent films, nothing was ever handed to me. The fact that I’ve been around for so long has made it easier and I have managed to appear in some major productions [including the likes of 24, Heroes and Criminal Minds]. You just have to persevere, work hard and hopefully at times get lucky.
The Joy Luck Club celebrated its 25th anniversary this year, what does that movie mean to you?
I’m still often asked about the character of Waverly and that says it all really. People look back at it as an iconic movie and it’s always referred to as the first film with an all Asian/Asian-American cast. At the box office, the movie did modestly but eventually grew into something much bigger over time. It’s been brought into the conversation much more this year because of Crazy Rich Asians. I think The Joy Luck Club has been mentioned in nearly all the interviews I’ve seen with cast members.
What were your thoughts on Crazy Rich Asians?
I loved it. It was like a wonderful ice cream cone to devour during the heat of the summer. The one thing I took away personally was the wide range of Asian males. From the weirdos to the hunks, the sensitive guys to the arrogant, jerk-off husbands, it was fantastic to see such a diverse bunch of characters. Who would have thought we would ever be able to see that in a Hollywood film?
Are you pleased with the progress that’s being made with regards to the representation of Asian and Asian-American actors in Hollywood?
There’s a long way to go but I believe big steps have been made over the past few years. The 2002 movie Better Luck Tomorrow [about a group of over-achieving Asian-American high schoolers who dip into extra-curricular criminal activities] helped get things going. Since then you’ve had things like Dr Ken’s standup and [the sitcom] Fresh off the Boat doing well. Following Crazy Rich Asians, I hope that filmmakers are encouraged to tell Asian and Asian-American stories, and are more open to casting minorities in Hollywood movies. My fear, however, is that is that production companies are just going to capitalize on its success with spinoffs that are basically a rehash of the original with little tweaks. I heard Lazy Rich Asians is already in the works.
Allegra Aoki in The Good Doctor is one of your biggest roles to date. Can you tell us about her?
She’s the president of the foundation that runs the hospital and oversees all the financial aspects of the institution. She interacts with the doctors infrequently, but when she does speak, whatever she says is listened to with the utmost consideration. It’s been a great role to sink my teeth into.
Have you been surprised by the success of The Good Doctor?
Yes and no. You had this fascinating show from Korea that Daniel Dae Kim [Lost, Hawaii Five-O] brought over here, and it now also has a Japanese version. During the filming of the first season, we realized we had a good product, we just didn’t know how good. I don’t think people were expecting the numbers to be as crazy as they have been, and for Sony Pictures and ABC Studios to agree to a second season before the first one had finished airing was amazing news. It’s thanks to a great script and a stellar cast lead brilliantly by Freddie Highmore as the autistic savant Dr Shaun Murphy. He’s a young man, barely 26, who is so mature. It’s flabbergasting watching him perform. A real gentleman and an amazing human being．
We can also currently see you in the third series of Man in the High Castle. What were your impressions of the first two seasons?
I was blown away by both series and the same could be said for Philip K Dick’s book. It’s an intriguing story [set in a dystopian alternate history in which the Axis powers have won World War II] that keeps you gripped throughout. The third season, which premiered on October 5, is now veering far from the novel as the resource material has been exhausted. I’ve got quite an integral role, playing Tamiko Watanabe who is part of Trade Minister Nobusuke Tagomi’s storyline. It means spending a lot of time with Cary Tagawa.
What is it like to work alongside him?
Amazing. He’s been there since the beginning of the show and has been guiding me through what the storytellers expect from us. Cary is an old soul who, like me, has been in the industry for over 30 years. It’s always fun trading stories. This is the third time we’ve worked together and each time I’ve really enjoyed it. His character in Man in the High Castle is very interesting. I believe it is one of Dick’s favorites.
Finally, what does the future have in store for Tamlyn? Any plans to reprise your role as Karate Kid’s Kumiko in Cobra Kai?
There have been some discussions but nothing concrete yet. If Ralph asks me to do it I don’t think I could ever turn him down. At the moment, I am focusing on the current season of The Good Doctor and the fourth series of Man in the High Castle. Fortunately, they are both filmed in Vancouver which makes the two possible. I feel it’s important to keep on challenging myself so one day I would like to take on a comedic role as it’s something I’ve never done. I might wait until I get a bit older though because I think I’ll be funnier then.