The night before I interviewed Tamlyn Tomita – who has been in everything from True Blood to Four Rooms – I told my mates at the pub I had to leave early. They asked who I was talking to and I said, “Do you remember the tea-making scene from Karate Kid II?” It was like I’d told them I was interviewing Jesus in the morning...
These days, Tomita can be seen playing purse-strings-pulling hospital administrator Allegra Aoki in The Good Doctor and Sandra Abe, the multilingual, multi-talented assistant to the station chief in spy thriller Berlin Station. In both shows she’s a model of calm efficiency, which makes it a lot easier to talk to her about them at the same time!
Naturally, I also found space to bring up Karate Kid, The Joy Luck Club and all the other amazing things she’s done over her non-stop career...
Watch the first episode of Berlin Station at SBS On Demand:
We’re here to talk about both The Good Doctor and Berlin Station, and I noticed Sandra Abe and Allegra Aoki are very similar characters. Both have that “calm and professional, getting stuff done” thing happening.
That's a very, very good assessment. Yeah, I do find they’re very similar in their demeanour, absolutely. They’re calm, they don’t get flustered, they don’t show the cards they’re playing with all too often. And yeah, that’s a very interesting observation. I didn’t realise that. (Laughs)
Whereas Allegra is the person that everybody goes to in terms of saying yes or no, I think the difference is that Sandra is the person who got things done. Allegra is the person who gets to choose the direction in how the finances sustain the hospital, how the money comes in and goes out. And it kind of affects the hiring, as with Shaun Murphy (Freddie Highmore).
I’m glad you mentioned it to me. I will have to be a little bit more cognisant of differences and choices I make!
I think it's just because I was watching them back to back and thought, “If Allegra went into the spy trade, this would be her.”
Yeah, she'd be good, because she doesn't show what she thinks. And they're really topnotch dressers as well! Oh my God, now I'm going through... Wow, other similarities. Oh my gosh, thank you. They're topnotch dressers, but Allegra has better hair.
Sticking with Allegra and Sandra, were they written to be Asian-American characters from the outset?
To my recollection, no, they were not written specifically for Asian-Americans. I don't recall, but I don't think so. But I'll tell you something really special. When I went in for The Good Doctor, I had just been released from Berlin Station. And when I got the initial role for the Good Doctor pilot, her name was Allegra Abe. That was the script.
So I called [The Good Doctor executive producers] David Shore and Daniel Dae Kim, and I go, “Dudes, I just want you to know that I thank you for making Allegra in keeping with my Japanese-American heritage, but I also need you to know that I'm Filipino-American as well, so if you could put that in, that might be great. So you might consider Asuncion, or another Filipino name.”
But they go, “What about Abe?” They liked Allegra Abe, the way it sounds. And I go, “The only thing about Abe is that my character Sandra Abe was on Berlin Station, so I don’t think you should make her related. Because people will know that I’m Tamlyn Tomita, playing Sandra Abe and Allegra Abe."
So I gave them a list of Japanese names, and they picked Aoki. But in the very, very far reaches of our cultural memory, Allegra was known as Abe in a former life. So, there we go.
That's so cool! They could have been sisters.
You’ve done so much over your career. Which role do people most come up and fanboy/girl over?
Oh my gosh! Well, it’s interesting because, as I get older, I'm finding that there are four definitive groups. And I look at a person and try to compartmentalise them by age first. So if they happen to be over the age of 35 and they're male? They're probably going to recognise me from The Karate Kid Part II. But also female, as well. That's where it gets a little confusing. Because the over-30-year-old women usually connect me with either Karate Kid II or The Joy Luck Club.
Two very different roles.
Yeah, very different roles. And then now, I find with the younger teens, from age 14 on up, it’s Teen Wolf. They recognise me as Kira from Teen Wolf, because she’s a kick-arse mum. You know, she fights with her daughter, but she also fights alongside her daughter. But I find that there are a lot of secret Teen Wolf fans out there and it's not just teens.
And now, I'm finding a lot of folks on the street – because we're living and working in Canada, and I just returned from a trip in New York – are already noticing me for The Good Doctor. Even though my presence isn't that strongly felt yet in the show. They'll go, “It's my favourite show. I love that show.” Everybody's just really vocal in expressing their love.
But also, there's this strange thing. Because the reboot of Will & Grace is out, Hulu has released all the original episodes. And I walked into two boutiques in New York, and both of these guys in two different boutiques recognised me from the Will & Grace episode. So that's my latest!
A couple of people with autism have YouTube channels where they review episodes of The Good Doctor. Have you come across that kind of reaction personally?
No, I haven't, not as of yet. But I have sets of friends who do have people with autism in their lives, and it's just really interesting to hear their reactions. It's the impact of seeing a person who has autism being represented on a major TV show. They think it's extremely groundbreaking, and it opens up a discussion.
So, neurotypical people, people like you and me, we shouldn't be afraid of the differences or how “weird” or how “strange” or “odd” people who happen to have autism are. We have to change, we have to adapt, we have to adjust. And that person can learn alongside us. They can learn to understand and read more neurotypical signals.
So it’s a give and take. And that discussion, from persons with autism is really welcome. I’ll have to go search for them! I’m really curious as to what they think and what they hope to see, and I hope they're understanding that we can't... That first of all, Shaun Murphy is not representative of everybody on the spectrum. But, because he is autistic, we can expand our conversation if we happen to meet a person in our real lives who has autism.
It’s a step up in terms of representation.
Exactly, exactly. Yeah, because that’s the magic of our show – Freddie Highmore, Golden Globe-nominated Highmore, he allows the audience to feel what Shaun feels. I think that’s the real key to it. He is such a magical, gifted actor that he allows the audience to feel what Shaun feels. And that’s kind of amazing.
Watch Berlin Station on Wednesday nights at 10:30pm on SBS. The first two seasons of the show are streaming now at SBS On Demand.