Tamlyn Tomita is an American actor of Okinawan-Japanese-Filipina descent. Depending on your age, you may know her from “The Karate Kid Part 2”, “The Joy Luck Club”, “Glee”, “Teen Wolf”, or “Star Trek: Picard”. If you don’t, you’ll catch her on “Cobra Kai – Season 3” premiering on NetFlix in January 2021. She keeps 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 on the search for ways to create or balance images and stories about under-represented communities and women, especially those from an AAPI, or “golden” perspective. A native Los Angeleno and Lakers/Dodgers/Rams fan, she is also a proud UCLA Bruin.
1. Tell us about your role as an AAPI entertainer and advocate.
Entertainer and advocate? Hahaha! I have a hard enough time being identified as “Actress and Activist”!
I am simply an actor who tries her best in telling stories on film, T.V., and stage, along with the other artists/craftspersons who get to tell these stories. “Representation matters” has been an effective slogan in calling out for stories that reflect the wide and beautiful spectrum of what it means to be an American, and ultimately, just what it means to be a full human being. It’s a slow journey, but it is a journey that requires us to look back in order to move forward.
Simply seeing faces who look like ours is hugely impactful – I always ask, when did you see someone (a character) who looked like you on TV, in the movies, on the stage? How did it make you feel? And we go on from there…
As for being an advocate, I think we are all advocates when we simply talk about things we like and just want to share it with other folks so that they can enjoy/benefit/be inspired by them, too.
2. As an actress, how have you been inspired by the people you work with?
It is a constant learning process: As an actor, it is a responsibility to hone characters as true-to-life as possible – what, where, when, how they do and say, but most importantly, WHY they do and say. We’re all puzzles trying to figure ourselves and each other out because we all want something – love, attention, respect, peace, etc.
In terms of becoming better with the tools I use to hone characters, I am always inspired by people I work with, whether I am actively paying attention or just notice something in passing. Folks young and old, experienced and inexperienced. When I work, I always and consistently feel that there’s going to be some lesson for me in some way or another. Everytime feels like the 1st time I stepped onto a set – scared, but excited that I will learn something. I get to observe and learn something new every time. I just have to open my eyes, heart and mind and check my ego to see it. Whether it be behavior, attitude, technique, team spirit, habits (good and bad), approach, gratitude, prep work, how they see the world, whatever – it is always a gift and I hope to put that inspiration into practice.
Truth, in short, I just steal from everyone.
3. Has your acting experience played any role on the advocacy work you do?
Indeed. As an actor, my job is to speak the words of a story with truth, and sometimes, authority. In the advocacy work I am asked to do, I just try to bring attention to the stories being told in the real work being done by the advocacy organizations. Over the years, I have developed an advocate persona – a supporter, a cheerleader, a noisemaker for those organizations and individuals involved. I am in no way a know-it-all, but I sometimes think to myself that people must think I possess authority because I can convey that trait in my acting work. So not true! But I do try to lead folks to be shown-it-all by the organizations who are truly doing the work. And to thank these hard-working folks.
4. How have you (and your team) adapted your work surrounding the pandemic?
My work is not important compared to the healthcare workers, frontliners, first responders, food providers, and essential workers. Let’s pay attention and help them continue to adapt to the new world ahead of us. I cannot wait for January 21st to come. And for the leadership that will speak to the world about winning against this virus, instead of whining.
5. What is your message to young folks who are interested in getting involved in public service?
What you are interested in getting involved in is of the highest order – to serve the public. To help, assist, support people who you do not know and will never altogether know.
Is it your sense of duty? The gigantic nature of your heart? Your desire of giving back?
Whatever it is that led you in this direction, you are the best of us.
6. How has your identity played a role in work that you do?
Identity always plays a part in all the work we all do. Our identities inform us as to the choices we can make. An actor just gets to have fun in justifying all the choices a character makes, especially if the choice runs antithetical to her/himself.
In terms of advocacy work, which I presume you are asking about, I just have to be mindful that my identity as an AAPI woman is merely a launching point as to how I can connect with people – and the similarities and differences between us are fascinating. And how can my identity help get us to a place, to a solution, to answers that will help us all?
7. What are the biggest challenges facing the entertainment industry?
How long is this newsletter?
For me, it is the effort to get stories out there that are not re-issues, reinterpretations, reunions, re-hashings, re-examinations, retellings of stories already told, with people we’ve already seen. We hit the refresh button to see what’s new.
8. What were some of the barriers you faced in your career as an AAPI Woman of Color?
It has evolved and continues to do so.
When I began working in the 80’s, our elders were fighting for roles that weren’t ‘gangsters, gooks, and geishas’. Brothers and sisters from our ally POC communities have been fighting for roles that weren’t demeaning, dehumanizing, defeated, etc.. We’re all seeing the changes and we’re all seeing that change comes slowly. Sloooooow. Patience is required because our stories are worthy of being told. The truth is, we might not be around to tell them, but if we keep telling them to our community, someone down the line will tell them to the larger audience, because they are that important, deserving and compelling.
As an AAPI woman of color – my immediate knee-jerk reaction is, where are the medical dramas that feature Filipino nurses? The AAPI women activists/advocates like Patsy Mink, Yuri Kochiyama, Grace Lee Boggs, etc.? The stories from the next Jenny Han, Mindy Kaling, Maya Erskine, etc.?
Other barriers are I can only do so much as an actor. If I’m going to call out a problem, I also have the responsibility of providing solutions/answers to said problem. The solution for me is to become a creator/producer, as I cannot write, and encourage/cull out/support writers to write the great stories of AAPI women of color and other under-represented folks. And let’s amplify those stories! Light the fire so folks in our industry will pay attention and say, ‘THAT story needs to be told’ for whatever reason.
9. How can AAPI organizations do more to uplift AAPIs in entertainment?
AAPI organizations have always tried their best to uplift AAPI’s in the film/TV industry and on stage. But doing more is about what YOU can do more. Amplify the stories you see with AAPI’s however you can. I am still quite new to the useful tools of social media, but I find word-of-mouth is still the best, even on social media!
But, as AAPI organizations seek to do more to uplift AAPIs in entertainment, what is it that the organization wants for/from them?
I used to say before social media, write letters or call the TV networks, movie studios, production companies and voice your opinion, yea or nay, especially the 1st weekend of release. Are folks doing the same thing on social media? Why or why not? Is it the echo chamber nature? Is it cancel culture? Is it being held accountable for one’s opinion?
It can be difficult for individuals to publicly issue yeas or nays concerning AAPI’s in entertainment or stories featuring AAPI’s; I can only imagine how difficult it is for an organization to do the same, but it is appreciated when organizations do.
However, I do have to say that amplifying positive portrayals of AAPI’s in entertainment should be broadly and widely amplified and not just to other AAPI’s – it’s a reminder that these are American stories that should be seen and enjoyed by all Americans.
10. As more AAPIs become civically involved, where would you say is the best place to start?
To be civically involved, we believe that we can be more, so much more than we are now!
The best place to start becoming involved is to start with the groups whom you’re involved with? Sometimes, that means your family!
Talking about the vote and why it’s important can be a great start! Especially with folks who are new to voicing the power of their vote! It causes us to see our family members as equal members of our collective society, which can be hard or even weird because we have to see them as people, for goodness sake, not just as our parents, grands, siblings, childrens and other assorted relatives!
Our circle of friends, colleagues, churches/temples, schools, places of work are also great places to start – it is practicing how to engage with them as equal citizens and discussing issues that you think will benefit our society as a whole, that includes all of us, and not getting sucked into a “us vs. them” whirlpool.
11. What’s your morning routine to get yourself ready for the day?
Checking if my love is okay and has slept well. And his dreams are usually the 1st stories I hear, because they can be epic!
Checking if our cats are okay and are still sleeping well even though I’ve left the bed.
Not looking at the computer, phone, or TV for at least 30-60 minutes and checking the world outside our windows.
Brush teeth, wash face and put on a presentable one even if I’m not going outside or expecting anyone.
And if I’m streaming live with someone, I put on shoes. Because I like to imagine I would be somewhere else with that someone and I would wear shoes!
12. What has been your most memorable moment working on set?
There have been many.
But the story with a nice set of bookends is that I had no aspirations in becoming an actor, so being selected to come onto “The Karate Kid 2”, I had no idea what I was doing. I knew nothing. Every step was guided by someone else on that set and production and then they let me fly.
And 35 years later, to be involved in the same but different story of “Cobra Kai” was a trip – backwards and forwards. And I’m still flying.
I am lucky.
13. How do you keep yourself grounded?
Thank you for saying that.
I just try to be mindful and kindful.
And thankful. I wouldn’t be where I am or who I am without the love and support I’ve received from so many others, past, present, and hopefully, the future..
And I just try to give out that same love and support to others – we’re all in this grand circle. Together.