Jeff Pearlman

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Lauren Tom

#318
Her grandmother brought a bag of dried prunes to the premiere of "The Joy Luck Club"—then spent the next two hours loudly spitting out the pits. Against all odds, this veteran character actress survived the embarrassment to piece together a remarkable career in film and television. POSTED July 17, 2017

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I’m often asked, “How do you decide who will be Quazed?” The actual explanation is quite complicated, and demands I go into great detail …

First, I think, “Who would I like to do a Q&A with?”

Second, I reach out to that person.

Um, so that’s about it. Which explains why, after finally seeing “The Joy Luck Club” for the first time a few weeks ago, I tracked down Lauren Tom, the veteran character actress whose portrayal of “Lena” in the 1993 film leapt from the screen. It turns out Lauren enjoys one of those riveting careers that has taken her to everything from “Friends” and “Quantum Leap” to “The Cosby Show” and “Futurama” to “Kim Possible” and “Billy & Mandy’s Big Boogey Adventure.” She also happens to be a undeterred survivor in a profession that too often leaves women for roadkill as they age.

These days one can catch Lauren on (among other things) the Disney series “Andi Mack,” where she plays Celia. She’s also very involved in Homeboy Industries, the charitable organization that rehabilitates formerly incarcerated ex-gang members. Lauren will be participating in Homeboy’s 5K this September, and is raising money here.

One can also visit Lauren’s personal website here, and follow her on Twitter here. She is a true gem.

Lauren Tom, you are the 318th Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: Lauren, I was going to start this by telling you how much I loved “The Joy Luck Club,” but then I began to wonder whether that’s the right approach. The film is 24 years old. It probably feels like another lifetime to you. In fact, for all I know you look ba­ck and think, “I should have been better” or “If only I knew then what I know now.” Truly, I have no idea. So, Lauren, how do you feel about “The Joy Luck Club”? Do you love the film? Love yourself in the film? And what did that role do for your career?

LAUREN TOM: I was immensely delighted and proud to have been cast as one of the daughters in The Joy Luck Club; it remains one of my favorite movie credits to date. When it first came out, I was touched that so many Asian women stopped me on the street to tell me what the film meant to them—that they had seen it with their mothers, and that it was cathartic to watch characters articulate thoughts and emotions that they could not come up with in real life.

The release of the film wasn’t all praise and roses, though. While the Asian community embraced the idea of Asian-Americans up on screen, there were some who had grievances about the way the Asian males were depicted in the film. I remember at a panel discussion, one young man stood up and said, “Why are all the Asian men jerks?” And Wayne Wang, our director said, (unapologetically), “Because Asian men are jerks.” There was a grumble in the audience, and Amy Tan, our writer, jumped in and said, “Look, this is just my experience—I’m only one person with a story to tell. That doesn’t mean that audiences should take this as the be all and end all of Asian-American experience. There need to be many more stories reflecting the Asian-American community, so I encourage writers to get their stories out there. I just happen to be the first one, so the script is coming under great scrutiny.”

Lauren with her brother back in the day.

Lauren with her brother back in the day.

J.P.: Along those lines, your grandmother came to America from China as a teenager—which means (I imagine) your role in the film couldn’t have felt like a total stretch. And I wonder what that was like for you emotionally. Did it help you bring something extra to the role? Did you feel at all as if you were performing your family’s history, in a sense?

L.T.: I took my mother and grandmother to the premiere of The Joy Luck Club, which was sort of a total disaster. Looking back on it, I have to laugh, but at the time, I was nothing but mortified.

At the top of the aisles there were ushers standing there to give little packets of Kleenex to audience members since the film is a bit of a tearjerker. My grandmother turned to an usher and said, in her fabulous broken English, “Why I need that? What? You think I’m going to be some kind cry baby?” I whispered to her, “Grandma, just take it. It’s free!” At which point she said, “Oh!”, and snatched it from the usher’s hand. We sat down, and toward the beginning of the movie, my grandma pulled out a bag of moi (dried prunes with large pits in them) and a plastic grocery bag to spit the pits into. She shook the empty bag open and placed it on her lap, which made what seemed like a deafening crinkly noise in the dead-silent movie theater. Then she proceeded to clack the pits between her teeth and spit out the pits with, literally, a patooey! sound. I slid down in my seat and wanted to disappear. My grandmother had seen a lot of pain and strife in her life in China and talked at the screen for the entire movie. “Why everybody crying? I seen worse. What’s the big deal?”

After the movie ended, my mother, who, by her own admission, is a very competitive person, asked me why I had less lines than the other daughters. Was it because I wasn’t as good as them? Was some of it cut out?

Needless to say, the premiere was not the triumphant moment of my career I thought it was going to be …

J.P.: Hollywood is infamous for typecasting and for its treatment of actresses as they age. You’re a woman, you’re Asian, you’re about to turn 56. Yet somehow you’ve maintained this really active, really diverse career. How? Is there a secret? Luck? And the criticisms of the business overstated at all? 

L.T.: Criticisms of the business are not overstated at all. I often marvel at why and how I am still working as much as I am given the fact that I’m teeny tiny (5-feet tall), in my 50s, a woman, and ethnic! I think my saving grace is/was that I’ve never been tagged as the ingenue/pretty girl. I’ve always been a character actress, which I think has given me more opportunities to play interesting roles.

It baffles me why I am so often cast as a bad ass, when in real life I feel like a giant marshmallow. I suppose I’ve perfected channeling my mother and grandmother, as I come from a long line of very strong women. When young folks ask me for advice about how to break into the business, I always tell them to study their craft as much as possible in order to set themselves apart. To be so good that producers take notice—because they may not get the particular role they are reading for, but might be remembered for a different part in that film, or a different project down the line. You just can’t control anything in this business—it’s so subjective, you can only control yourself, your attitude toward the business and your craft. I remember an acting teacher of mine once told our class that in his mind, the actors who have made it all have these three things in common: focus, sex appeal, and a sense of humor. And I would add “craft” to that. At least the ones with very long careers …

Alongside David Schwimmer in "Friends."

Alongside David Schwimmer in “Friends.”

J.P.: How do you know if something you’re filming is good? Or sucks? Can you tell as it’s going on? Are you ever caught off guard? I mean, for example, did you know “The Joy Luck Club” would be brilliant? Did you know “Mr. Jones” perhaps wouldn’t be? Are there clues along the way?

L.T.: I have the worst sense of what is going to land with an audience. I think my tastes are probably a lot quirkier than most people. I remember that when I read the script for Friends I wasn’t that excited because I didn’t think it was going to be a big deal at all. Cut to the second season, when it was a gigantic success already, and I was offered the role of Julie, Ross’s love interest and the foil for Rachel.  I jumped at the chance and was so thrilled to be a part of the show!

And you are right, I thought Mr. Jones was going to kill at the box office! I loved working with Mike Figgis, because like me, he comes from theater, and let all us actors improvise most of our lines. So no one should ever ask me what’s going to be a hit. Or they can, and assume it will be the opposite of whatever I say.

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J.P.: This is sorta random, but in the aftermath of most presidential elections there’s a backlash against actors endorsing candidates. You know what I mean—the whole “Stick to showbiz!” and “Ugh, Hollywood elites suck!” sort of thing. And sometimes I wonder, as a liberal, whether the input of a George Clooney or Tim Robbins might perhaps hurt more than help. What says you?

L.T.: I’m always delighted and inspired by actors who take a stand politically—especially the ones who are unexpectedly intelligent. I think most people assume that actors are dumb, vain and self-absorbed (which can be true of course, myself included), so I’m always relieved when folks can counterbalance that image with intelligent personas. I know that the entertainment community is seen as a giant club of “snowflakes,” but we need all kinds of voices in the world, and I happen to agree with the more liberal stances taken by our community.

J.P.: I read an old article where you said you used your grandmother as a model for film roles. You said, for example, that you behaved as your grandma would have to land the role of Jack Nicholson’s wife in “Man Trouble.” You also channeled her for “Mai” in “Men in Trees.” I always hear about acting methods, but I don’t fully understand how they’re implemented. So how do you actually channel another person? Is it mimicking? Is it emulating? Do you actually think of the person as you’re performing? And is that a common approach to acting?

L.T.: I’m an actor who works from the outside in—meaning I can adopt the way a person moves, holds her head and speaks in order to get inside the character. My brother and I used to mimic my grandmother when we were really little, so her voice and mannerisms are a part of me, a part of cell memory. It’s pretty cool to be able to conjure that up so easily; I’ve been practicing my whole life! Other actors work the other way around, and like to understand the character on an intellectual and emotional level first—what they are thinking and feeling, and then the physicality comes afterwards. I used to be a dancer when I was young (my first show was the Broadway musical, “A Chorus Line”) so I’m more comfortable with using the physical as a portal.

From "Mr. Jones"

From “Mr. Jones”

J.P.: I know you grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in Highland Park, Ill., I know your family came from China—but I don’t exactly know how this happened for you. So, when did the acting bug bite? When did you think, “Yes! This is my a calling”? And when did you first realize you could make a career of it?

L.T.: You’ve done your research! I was quite shy as a child so dancing was perfect for me. I could express myself through my body and didn’t have to talk. When I was 17, the touring company of A Chorus Line came through Chicago, and on a dare from my friends I auditioned for it. There was actually a part in it for a tiny Chinese girl if you can believe that. So I do believe there is luck involved in having a career (at anything, really) which I should’ve mentioned in your previous question. I always tell my kids to work their butts off so that they are prepared should opportunities arise, but to know that there is some luck involved, and sometimes no matter how hard you try, the right chance may or may not come your way.

J.P.: It might just be me, but I feel like your most recognizable TV gig has to be as “Julie,” Ross’ girlfriend on “Friends.” How’d you land the gig? What’s it like, finding out you snag a job that big? And what was the experience like?

L.T.: One of the producers from Friends had seen the Joy Luck Club, which had just come out prior to their looking for someone to play Julie. She may have thought of me because Julie was supposed to be a super nice girl (and the joke was that Rachel thought she a bitch anyway, because she was jealous), and my character in Joy Luck Club was sort of super nice as well—bordering on wallflower, actually. I still remember I was walking on my treadmill while eating a donut (calories in, calories out) when my agent called with the news of the part. I almost fell of the treadmill, and said, “Well, let me think about that for a minute—YES! Of course!” It was almost eerie because toward the beginning of Friends I was watching David Schwimmer and thinking to myself, “Boy, I’d love to work with that guy someday.” And then—bam!—a half a year later I got the call. The universe works in mysterious ways sometimes …

From "Bad Santa"

From “Bad Santa”

J.P.: Greatest moment of your career? Lowest moment of your career?

L.T.: Some great moments: Joy Luck Club, Being given an Obie award in New York that Morgan Freeman presented to me, working on Friends, Futurama, Supernatural because my character got to punch someone in the face, (plus the fandom for that show has been unbelievably supportive), and the show that I’m on right now. It’s called Andi Mack and it’s very diverse and edgy for a Disney show. It stars an Asian cast, complete with black and gay best friends. Very proud of it.

Worst moments: At 15-years old, booked a TV commercial as a dancing bear and wore a bear costume with a gigantic bear head, couldn’t see and almost passed out from heat stroke. Working on Grace Under Fire was miserable for me. It was the most money I had ever made up to that point, and yet, I was unhappier than I had ever been. The star hated my guts (never really knew why) and consistently tried to get me fired; she eventually succeeded.

J.P.: You performed in the award-winning, one-woman show, “25 Psychics.” And I would love to ask a question that calls for a ton of detail. Namely, what’s it like? I’m v-e-r-y sincere in wanting to know this: What’s it like standing there, all alone, before an audience? Is it terrifying? Electrifying? Does it get old after, oh, the 40th performance? Does it always thrill? What are the applause like? What’s it like when you expect laughs and they don’t come? What’s it like when a theater is half full? What’s a standing ovation like?

L.T.: I absolutely love live theater because I love the idea that the performance is only for those people in that room, in that moment. I loved performing 25 Psychics because I really felt like I was just talking to this group of people, since all the words were my own. I remember a friend asking me if I had really thought things through—that by admitting I went to psychics, I was basically outing myself as a weird, new-age flake. And to be honest, there was one critic in San Francisco, who basically called me just that.

But as a whole, I felt like I connected to people, and that just happened to be my experience at that time. My father had died young, and so after he passed, I began a search to find out where he went, and to possibly figure out how to fill this gaping hole that he left there. I’ve since come to learn how dangerous going to psychics can be. People are usually at their most vulnerable and desperate when they visit a psychic. I had a friend once have a psychic tell him that he had had a terrible curse placed on him and that the psychic could help him remove it for a mere $2,000! I don’t feel a need to search for meaning and guidance in those ways any more, and have finally begun to keep my own counsel.

Live theater can be exhilarating when all is going well—the laughter and the standing ovations can be heavenly, but of course, if those things don’t come, it can be pretty devastating and make a person question why they are performing at all. I toured the country at a lot of colleges, and am happy to say the kids were so open and generous as audience members, that I remember the whole experience as quite a positive one.

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QUAZ EXPRESS WITH LAUREN TOM:

• Rank in order (favorite to least): Ironman, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Stone Temple Pilots, “Schindler’s List,” Harold Baines, Frosted Flakes, Delta Burke, Rodeo Drive, the Keebler Elf, kayaking, Tavon Austin: Haha! Schindler’s List (cried for days after that one), Frosted Flakes (dipped in peanut butter, that’s all I ate in college), Ironman (I never saw it but it had a lot of actors in it who I admire), Harold Baines, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Tavon Austin, kayaking, Delta Burke, Stone Temple Pilots, Rodeo Drive.

• Three memories from your role as “Shopper” in the 1997 TV series, “Pinky and the Brain”: Haha, no clue.

• I assume they’re long deceased, but you’ve had dogs named “Richard Gere” and “Vivica A. Fox.” Explain: All my dogs have been shelter rescues. Richard was a black basenji mix with close set eyes, only half an ear, excema all over his skin and bowed legs. I told him, “After I get done cleaning you up and loving you as hard as I can, you are going to be sleek and sexy just like Richard Gere.” Vivica A. Fox was also a basenji mix from the shelter whose name at the time was “Vivachi” because she was so lively. At the time, I was working with Vivica on a medical show, and Vivachi looked like a fox. So it seemed like the right name for her.

• One question you would ask Anson Williams were he here right now: What was it like working with Ron Howard? Is he as nice of a person as he seems to be?

This is my all-time favorite song. Thoughts?: I’ve never listened to Blind Melon (I’m a million years old), but I really liked the song. Lots of food for thought there.  Great lyrics.  A bowl of bitter beans … (reminds me of a saying my brother and I always say to each other—“Bitter—Table for one!”) and Have to decorate a dying day makes me think of Van Jones, “You can’t polish this turd.”  But on a more serious note, the song to me deals with loss, which we all have coming in some way or another. I had a meditation teacher once tell me to try to be as kind as possible because we, as human beings, all react to helplessness in a different way.

• The world needs to know—what was it like working with Dylan Sprouse in “Grace Under Fire”?: I’m sure Dylan was as sweet as he was cute, but honestly, I sort of blocked that whole chapter out!

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Nope. Not really that afraid of flying!

• You’ve gone to a ton of psychics. What’s the strangest thing one has ever said to you?: That I was going to be working on a lot of different sound stages doing a ton of voiceover work. I had never tried my hand at that, and years later, it turned out to be absolutely true. For awhile there, I took a break from on-screen acting, and did almost all voice work.

• You grew up among my people. Give me three Bar/Bat Mitzvah memories from your childhood: Bar/Bat Mitzvahs were long-ass events when I was 13—like three hours long. I started to memorize some of the prayers because I was hearing them so much. I remember squirming a lot. I have a son who’s 13 right now, and he tells me that all the Bar Mitzvahs he goes to are only about an hour and a half these days. He’s so lucky.

• What’s the biggest on-stage/on-air screwup of your career?: I was performing the Greek tragedy, “Ajax” at the Kennedy Center and completely missed my cue. I had to come on stage sobbing so I was backstage preparing with my headphones on, and couldn’t hear the monitor. My fellow actors had to improvise lines (not an easy thing to do in a Greek tragedy) for what seemed like an eternity. They nearly killed me after the show; they had so much egg on their faces. I’m pretty sure the audience got a good laugh out of it.

  • Ted Mark

    Nice Quaz.

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life