Sharon Knolle Freelance Writer

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east west magazine

Winter 2009 issue

Icon: Lauren Tom

By Sharon Knolle
Click thumbnails for full-size image

An exclusive group of Asian American actresses, members of a club called Joy Luck, set the stage and opened the doors for the growing number of Asian faces seen in films and on television today. Lauren Tom was one of them.

It has been 20 years since the novel by Amy Tan was first published and more than 15 years since the film version made its debut, but Tom says the story’s themes of family, friendship and following your dreams still resonate with her.

“I’m still really proud of it. I think it’s held up in that classic sense,” says Tom of the landmark 1993 film. She still keeps in touch with Tan, who was “on the set every day.” And for last year’s 15th anniversary of the movie, Tom, along with Tan, Ming-Na and director Wayne Wang, celebrated at the Asian Film Festival in San Francisco. “It was so great to see them,” Tom enthuses.

Tom got the role of Lena St. Clair after telling Wang that Lena was the character she could identify with the most. “I grew up in an all-white Jewish neighborhood. We were the only Asian family in the whole town. I felt like I did not fit in at all, so I became more and more invisible."

Tom can definitely relate to Lena’s struggle of “finding her voice and being seen and heard.” Although The Joy Luck Club was a critical success, it wasn’t a huge moneymaker. “I think that when things were rolling for me, if I were white, I would have been getting more offers,” she shrugs. “But I think the Asian thing still stopped us. Not just me, but everyone from The Joy Luck Club."

The actress, now 48, also saw herself in the character of Waverly. “My mom and I were always competitive with one another, so there was something familiar about Waverly and June,” she says. “It’s taken years for me to be OK with being competitive and to really learn how to become friends with women. And now I have a slew of women friends that I don’t think I could live my life without, so I’m really glad I was able to transform that."

Given how rare good roles still are for Asian American women, Tom often finds herself going up against her former co-stars like Rosalind Chao and Tamlyn Tamita for a part, but their competition is hardly cutthroat. “Every time we audition for the same part, it’s like a big party where they have to come and shush us,” she laughs. “We’re in the lobby just catching up and laughing and having a great time."

At one time, there was talk of a sequel to the film, or maybe a TV series, but neither came to pass. “I still think it would be an interesting series,” says Tom, who replies, “Oh, God, yeah!” when asked if she would want to be part of such a project. “The challenge that the Asian community has is that sometimes the sponsors or the network aren’t sure that enough people will be able to relate to just an Asian story. That’s why it has to be really universal. I had so many people come up to me after the film — white, Jewish, black, whatever — and say, ‘That’s me and my mom!’ And that’s because Amy wrote it so specifically. She told me, ‘The more specific something is, the more universal it becomes.'"

With Tan’s advice to "write what you know," Tom penned several magazine essays and is still contemplating turning them into a book. But for now, her creative passion, apart from acting, is painting. "I’ve been painting my dogs and my sons and my husband, the things and people I love,” she says. "You can spend hours and it feels like its 10 minutes; I love feeling so absorbed. My manager keeps pushing me to get back to writing. But it’s easier for me to draw something than figure out what I want to write about."

The actress, whose award-winning one- woman show was titled “25 Psychics,” doesn’t necessarily believe in psychic ability, but how else does one explain how she landed her role as Ross’ girlfriend on Friends? “On some level, I don’t know how, I manifested that job,” she says. “I was watching Friends, and I said to myself, ‘That guy’s so cute,’ meaning David Schwimmer, ‘I would love to do that show and I’d love to play his girlfriend.’ And I swear, the next week, my agent called me with an offer for that.” She’s amused that despite having studied Shakespeare and done a lot of classical theater pieces, “I’m most known for Friends and cartoons!” She refers to her career as a voiceover artist on Futuramaand the now- canceled King of the Hill as her "bread and butter," something that’s kept her going through rough spots when her last series, Men in Trees, was canceled.

Through the ups and downs, Tom says her relationship with her mother has grown strong and developed even though they clashed early on as much as any of Tan’s characters. "I have so much compassion for my mom now,” she says. “My grandmother was hilarious and colorful, but she was really narcissistic, so my mother never got to have her turn. She wanted to be an Olympic ice skater and my grandmother told her, ‘You’re a girl, you’re nothing, forget it.’ So, even though my mother was really, really supportive of me and drove me to all my dance classes and paved the way for me, it was really hard for her."

But Tom’s mother did get her chance, all in good time. She started a center in Chicago at Columbia, which encourages Asian students to go into the arts. "My dad died really young, and she was just trying to find her way and she found it. So now, she’s really making her mark. She brings in all these directors and producers and artists to tell the kids, ‘You can do it too and you should do it and don’t listen to your parents!'"

Mother and daughter also recently collaborated on a children’s book, “The Bubble Gum Machine.” “It’s about a rainbow of colors of different gumballs, representing different people. I wrote the basic story when I was 17 years old, and she dug it out, reworked it, got an illustrator and made it into this book,” she says. “It’s not exactly how I would have done it, but it was nice to have that connection with my mom.”

In fact, her mother, whom Tom calls “the Asian mayor of Chicago,” has no problem cold-calling people and telling them, “‘You know Lauren Tom? I’m her mother!’ Could I be any more embarrassed?” laughs Tom, who doesn’t seem the least bit embarrassed just amused.

“She’s 75 now and we’ve come a long way,” she says of her relationship with her mother. Lena and Ying Ying would be proud.