‘The Good Doctor’ actress Tamlyn Tomita discusses her lucky break in ‘The Karate Kid’
Tamlyn Tomita had never acted before when she was cast as Ralph Macchio’s new love interest in “The Karate Kid Part II” in 1986.
“I did not want to become an actor; I had no [such] dreams,” Miss Tomita told The Washington Times recently. “It really sounds very Pollyanna-ish, but I really did not know anything” about the business,” she said, but “I found myself cast in ‘The Karate Kid Part II.’”
Nonetheless, three decades after the serendipitous part of Kumiko endeared her to moviegoers, Miss Tomita isn’t pausing in her career. She currently portrays Allegra Aoki on the ABC show “The Good Doctor,” which stars Freddie Highmore (“Bates Motel”) as an autistic savant surgeon who joins a prestigious hospital’s surgical ward.
“We have such an unusual character in Dr. Shawn Murphy,” Miss Tomita said of the titular physician. “I think he represents people who are different, who are outsiders, who might be considered odd or not understood.
“And at a private hospital, his teammates on the surgical team, they’re going to realize he [has] a special set of skills, and that all of us can learn to be a little bit more patient and tolerant of those who happen to be not ‘typical.’”
Also not typical has been Miss Tomita’s career arc. She was born in Okinawa, Japan, the daughter of an L.A. police officer who had been interned at the notorious Manzanar camp during World War II as a young man. As a teen, Miss Tomita was crowned queen at the Nisei Week Pageant in Los Angeles in 1984 and later Miss Nikkei International in 1985.
While traveling to Hawaii as Miss Nikkie International in 1985, she was spotted by a casting agent who recommended her to director John G. Avildsen for the second “Karate Kid” movie.
“The wonderful John Avildsen was a hero and father figure who was really present in my life even though we didn’t have day-to-day or year-to-year” contact, Miss Tomita said of the director of the “Karate Kid” trilogy and original “Rocky” film.
Miss Tomita appeared earlier this year in the documentary “John G. Avildsen: King of the Underdogs,” which played at the Santa Barbara Film Festival this winter. As the doc made the festival circuit, only director Derek Wayne Johnson knew that Avildsen himself was not only ill but not long for this earth as he answered questioned alongside the “Rocky” and “Karate Kid” cast at screenings.
“He’s one of those people that I really do miss, and I really respected his opinion my entire career,” Miss Tomita said of Avildsen, who died in June at the age of 81.
But Avildsen was active right until the end: Miss Tomita said Avildsen was “hovering” over Mr. Johnson’s shoulder as the latter edited “King of the Underdogs.”
“He was really involved in the making of the project on himself. Now we understand why,” she said of what has effectively become the late director’s epitaph. “It was his last efforts in making sure that his legacy was told correctly.”
In addition to Avildsen, Miss Tomita said actress Nobu McCarthy, who portrayed the old flame of Mr. Miyagi (Pat Morita) in “The Karate Kid Part II,” became an acting mentor to her as her own star rose.
“Everybody in the cast of that film really took me aside and said, ‘Know your lines, stand on your mark, get in your light, and connect with the other actors,’” Miss Tomita said of the advice she received as a 20-year-old. ”‘Forget about the camera, forget about the hordes of people who are watching. Just make sure it’s really simple between you and the other actor.’”
Since “The Karate Kid Part II,” Miss Tomita has appeared in well over 100 films and TV series, including “The Joy Luck Club,” “Santa Barbara,” “Babylon 5,” “Four Rooms,” “JAG,” “24” and now “The Good Doctor.”
“In terms of my career, it’s a great challenge to be a champion or people who might be different,” Miss Tomita said of her work on the ABC show about the autistic doctor.
Furthermore, the actress says she feels a responsibility to the Asian-American characters she portrays.
“Being a woman, being a person of color, we have all these discussions as to” how such persons are shown in film and on TV, she said.
Part of that, she believes, is putting the bug in the ears of writers rooms to get the voices of female and ethnic minority characters correct.
“Just throw out ideas, because the writers aren’t [all-knowing], which is something I’ve always had to keep in mind,” Miss Tomita said. “They don’t have all these stories mapped out. And because I’m a woman of color, they might be able to insert” more specific cultural references, she said. “That encourages us to say can we do this [in] a certain style.”
One of the producers of “The Good Doctor” is actor Daniel Dae Kim, who has starred on “Lost” and “Hawaii Five-O.”
“I call him ‘o captain my captain,’ and he really is,” Miss Tomita said of the South Korean-born actor, who purchased the rights to the original Korean show of the same name and brought it to the West. “He’s the one who has basically carried this to term.”
Unlike Mr. Kim, Miss Tomita said she has no ambitions to move behind the camera, offering, “I’m much too egotistical to move outside the acting realm.”
Furthermore, she adds there really is no true path or “primer” for either getting into show business or sticking with it.
“The ratio of failure to success is [enormous]. You really have to be careful and really strong,” she said of continuing to press on in Tinseltown. “And not take criticism personally, especially with social media.”
She says that would-be actors must love to do one thing primarily: tell good stories.
“It’s not about raising your profile or raising your ego,” she said of effectively utilizing social media. “It’s a vehicle, and it’s a vehicle to tell stories.
“You just have to not care [about rejection] and do your own thing,” she said. “You can film yourself with your iPhone and put it [on the internet].”
Miss Tomita hopes that audiences who tune into “The Good Doctor” will attain a sympathy not only for the autistic lead character, but for anyone who has a disability or handicap.
“We have to look beyond what we see as the typical, the ‘normal package,’ and just see people as who they are,” she said. “We all have to learn and get along a little better in society.”
“The Good Doctor” airs Mondays at 10 p.m. on ABC.