“The Good Doctor” Star Tamlyn Tomita: “Stop Treating Me As A Woman. Treat Me As An Equal”

“The Good Doctor” Star Tamlyn Tomita:

“Stop Treating Me As A Woman. Treat Me As An Equal”

Photo Courtesy of IMdB

The Japanese-American actress plays hospital director Allegra Aoki on the ABC show The Good Doctor and also appears in the Amazon drama The Man in the High Castle as Tamiko. Her name is Tamlyn Tomita, and although acting was not what she dreamed of doing when she was a kid, she is thrilled to have the opportunity not only to perform but also to use her platform to make the changes she longs to see in our world.

She made her original screen debut as Kumiko in The Karate Kid, Part II, but she is perhaps best known for her role as Waverly in The Joy Luck Club. She has also appeared in Berlin Station, Teen Wolf. How to Get Away with Murder, True Blood, Glee, and 24, among many others. Her stage work includes Heart Song, A Distant Shore, and Winter Crane, for which she received a Drama-Logue Award.

Being actively engaged in social and political causes, as well as supporting the Asian-American community and the artists within that community is highly important to Tomita. One project on which she worked, the sci-fi short film “Real Artists,” is committed to elevating representation by featuring a 75 percent female crew and a cast-crew that’s 50 percent people of color. The film is currently on the festival circuit, having already won twelve awards and received twenty-seven nominations. She however describes herself as “a mediocre everything” when she was growing up. She was never particularly interested in singing or performing until other kids at her church suggested putting on plays for Easter and Christmas. Instead, the Okinawa born and San Fernando Valley raised Tomita wanted to be a teacher. “I’m stereotypically a valley girl. I went to Grenada Hills High school where John Elway and Valerie Bertinelli went.”

Her mother is half Japanese and half Philippino and was born in Okinawa. Her father was a US soldier based in Okinawa between the Korean and Vietnam Wars when he met Tomita’s mother, who was a singer at the USO. “My mother learned English singing Debbie Reynolds and Doris day songs.” Tomita was born on the base in Okinawa and then the family returned to her father’s home in LA, where her dad became an LAPD officer and founded the first bilingual Asian American task force in the nation. “My parents were bridge builders and community builders.”

She was one of only four or five other Asian students in her school, which meant plenty of stereotyping from the other students. Photo courtesy of Liane Hentscher/ABC

Tomita found herself in no particular group as a kid but instead in all of them. “I was a typical American kid with geek friends, athlete friends, cheerleader friends, stoner friends. I was friends with everyone.” She was one of only four or five other Asian students in her school, which meant plenty of stereotyping from the other students. “People would think you know karate; you know Kung Fu; you must own the Chinese restaurant.” But it was also advantageous, she says, because everyone knew exactly who she was – the black haired girl playing volleyball who was on the student government. That, she says, gave students the chance to recognize both the differences and the similarities between herself and the other kids at school who didn’t look like she did. “Soon they figured out that we’re not so different from each other,” she says.

"This is what I was meant to do, create stories. That’s how I approach my work.” Photo courtesy of Richard Blinkoff

So how does a kid who wanted to be a teacher go from putting on plays at church to becoming a successful actress? Tomita explains, “It was serendipitous. It was blessed.  It was designed by fate,” she says.

At the time she was asked to audition for Karate Kid 2, she was a Junior at UCLA studying to be a history teacher. It felt like kismet since the story takes place in Okinawa. “It was a natural extension of telling our history, our stories. This is what I was meant to do, create stories. That’s how I approach my work.”

She was celebrating Nisei (which means second generation) Week. The Japanese-American festival is the oldest ethnic festival in the states. That year they were celebrating the 79thanniversary, and Tomita was asked to compete in the contest to be named Queen. It was 1984. A casting director called the festival and asked if there were any girls who wanted to audition for Karate Kid, Part II. Tomita said, yes, of course, and the rest, as they say, is history.

“Every role I get follows the same pattern,” Tomita says. “Representation matters. My face isn’t necessarily recognized as an American face. We have the potential to be the link to the original country but we are still Americans. America is the leader in global relations because we are the country that embraces diversity. Well, we at least should be. We have to flush out people who think old-fashionedly.”

Tomita describes the expression “Make American Great Again” as meaning going back to repression and oppression, something that she says we can’t go back to and don’t need to go back to because “We are still great. We need to celebrate universal good values. Because we are asking for equality for all does not mean less for those who have it.”

She likens it to children playing on the playground and says we must return to those sharing ethics.  “We have to think, ‘If she doesn’t have enough or he doesn’t have enough, what can we do?’ We have to change with each other and not against each other.” The issue is that we have to remember that we’re not so different from one another, she says. “We are brothers and sisters. All of us. Food, language, how we live with each other. It’s a fascinating and hard conversation. We have to learn to say I’m sorry, to say I’m wrong. And then we have to forgive.” The best part is that “Sharing ultimately means more for everyone,” she explains.

Tomita says there has been change though. Good change. Positive change. And she sees proof that we are ultimately moving forward. “It’s been a continuum from the start of my career in 1985. Things have really improved. Slow but sure. Sometimes two steps forward and one step back.” But she says that’s no real surprise since evolution is always a rough ride.

Moving forward though, “we have to reassess,” she says. “I do still see and experience that exotic representation. But I am accepted as a full-fledged actress, which is an amazing landmark for me.” Finally, she sees herself as being considered for her abilities first and her race second. “I have not gotten used to that,” she says. “The pendulum keeps moving forward.”

Tomita says there has been change though. Good change. Positive change

Because she is a woman in the film industry, she has certainly faced very specific, gender-based challenges. She explains that all too often, women are treated as commodities and objectified. “Our demands are not taken seriously because we don’t negotiate like men with balls and say, ‘Eff you’ to an offer. Women are seen as screeching to be seen as equals and peers. And we are. But they see us as demanding and bitchy.”

It feels inherently unfair, she explains. “Because I am female, I am just a girl whining. I have to take a breath and say, ‘Stop treating me as a woman. Treat me as an equal.’ It’s a continual fight. But I see change. They do value you when you open your mind and your mouth. You open minds when you open your mouth.”

So how does she deal with the negative voices, you might ask? That’s easy, she says: “You have to recognize the trolls who are not worth your energy. That’s where you and I have to take a breath and say, ‘Wow there are still a lot of people who have not had the exposure and the life experience.”

A recent storyline on “The Good Doctor” has a younger, white man – also a potential large donor to the hospital – interested in Tomita’s character. A new twist on an old story. She’s told to steer clear because it would look bad for her to be involved with him. “Would this conversation have happened? Would audiences have seen that if the genders had flipped?” Tomita asks. Probably not, she says. But the show writers are too smart to miss out on opportunities to initiate dialogue and illuminate the potentials for conflict that life often presents and that is why they write these stories.

“They have a lot of colors to paint with and only 18 episodes to shoot in. Just seeing these colors represented is so important,” Tomita says. For her, working in this business is all about the power of storytelling and with “The Good Doctor” in particular, it’s about how people are centered around a unique individual. “We have colored it with a palate of actors who are still as American as apple pie and how they react in a medical situation. It is about literally taking care of one another as doctors and administrators but also relating to people.”

In terms of advice for other women looking to fulfill their own Hollywood dreams, Tomita says, “Your face is worth 1000 ships because you will be affecting girls who look like you but also girls who don’t look like you. You have to share your heart and soul and mind. We have to celebrate our differences but even more our similarities.”

Jenny Block

JENNY BLOCK is a frequent contributor to a number of publications from Huffington Post to Playboy, and is the author of The Ultimate Guide to Solo Sex, and O Wow: Discovering Your Ultimate Orgasm.

1 Comment
  1. I have loved and admired Tamlyn’s work ever since I first saw her in Joy Luck. I was thrilled to see her on The Good Doctor. We need to see more of her. She’s amazing! 👏👏👏

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