“Easter Sunday” star Tia Carrere recalls past rejection in Hollywood
It’s been 20 years since actress Tia Carrere walked the red carpet for a starring role. That was for Disney’s Lilo and Stitch, in which she voiced Nani Peleka. Tonight she gets to do it for Universal’s “Easter Sunday.”
Carrere plays Tita Teresa in Jo Koy’s film about a family getting together on Easter Sunday, with an all-Filipino cast. She calls playing Koy’s aunt in the film a “dream role”. After four decades in the industry, Carrere – who has starred in Waynes World, True Lies, and Rising Sun – still faced quite a few role rejections for being considered too “ethnic” or “exotic.”
Carrere sat down diversity to talk about why Tita Teresa is a first for her and what her next music album will bring.
Was it really 20 years since your last red carpet?
Well, the only reason I know is because people keep reminding me it’s the 30th anniversary of Wayne’s World or the 20th anniversary of Lilo and Stitch. Everyone else keeps track of time and I try to forget.
How does it feel to have that red carpet moment with “Easter Sunday”?
It’s so special. I’ve been in this business for a long time. I’ve played Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, prostitutes, terrorists and worked in a teahouse. For the first time I get to play Filipino. My father is from the Philippines and my mother is from Hawaii, and I get to celebrate all of those idiosyncrasies.
Take me back to receiving the script. How refreshing was it to see this part for Tita Teresa?
I originally auditioned for the role of the mother, but when you see her, Lydia Gaston, she’s petite, and in the breakdown he wanted her to be a little bully. I’m taller than Jo too, and that wasn’t his vision. Jo then said: “Well, it won’t go as you wish for the mother, but there is an aunt.” Of course I said yes and they offered me that and here I am.
Tita Teresa is a character that we see across cultures. Yes, it’s the one uping with food, fashion, the arch rivalry with sisters and the desire to be in the same hierarchy within the family. It’s such a universal theme. We’ve seen the WASP version of this story a million times, but we’ve never seen the Filipino version. The great thing is that we’re just starting to see the Latino and Asian stories and we happen to have different faces than what Hollywood has seen over the last 100 years because the world is starting to look more and more like us.
What was important to you to play this character properly?
From the start, Jo said he didn’t want to make fun of Filipinos. He wanted to party and laugh with them. It was about elevating the culture.
Which scene meant the most to you to film in terms of representation?
The film is packed like a tourist suitcase. I loved seeing the food on the table. Unfortunately it sat there for days and had to be sprayed to keep it looking shiny and not smelling funny. But I remember family reunions. I remember the pig and how it’s roasted all day [on a spit roast] and we ate it in the evening.
You see the family squabbles, but the fact that we showed up and we were together, with the food around the table, that was very familiar to me, except we spread to other tables. There would be other kids running around.
How did you unpack Tita and this rivalry that exists with her sister?
I wanted to make sure there was love underneath and then you layered all the other stuff on top. I grew up with my sister. We were separated for 18 months and shared a room. She would always borrow my stuff and then crumple it up and throw it in a drawer or on the floor. She never bothered with my stuff while I liked to be very meticulous. I love them underneath, but I’d be like, ‘Did you borrow that?’ I had a big fight with her and my parents said they would get boxing gloves because we fought so much. But behind that there always had to be the basis of love. Otherwise it flies off course, and I wanted to show that. I think that’s a real thing about the siblings: there’s one who’s “Sucio,” with hair, makeup, and clothes, who’s always trying to better herself and make sure she’s the prettiest, and that’s why I have her I loved that and loved playing with it.
I have to ask what would your karaoke song be?
When it came out we had a karaoke machine and a microphone. I remember one of my grandmother’s birthdays, we gave her a fully charged microphone. It had the little cards with 1000 songs and a few hundred were in Filipino. It was great to be able to share that with her because she and I always sang together, even on “Lilo and Stitch”. She sang harmony to one of my songs on the TV special.
Well, for me, my songs are “What’s Up” by Four Non Blondes and “Blue Bayou” by Linda Ronstadt.
It’s a Filipino karaoke tune.
Oh dear God. It just has that island beat. Oh, how I long for the islands again.
Given your journey in the industry and the conversation about representation, how does it feel that this is a Hollywood first — an all-Filipino American cast?
It’s a whole new world. Thank god I’m allowed to be a part of it. I started in 1984 and came here from Hawaii. Everyone’s mixed there and they’re five, six, seven different ethnic backgrounds, but I came here and people said, ‘What are you? Chinese? Japanese?” They didn’t even know Filipino. My hair was short and I had to get a long hair wig because I would only get roles that required me to work on a Chinese accent. Even when I was in General Hospital, I had I never have an interracial relationship. I was in the Asian Quarter with my Asian friend who is also an Asian doctor. When we left the Asian Quarter, we were supposed to go to the old homeland to help our people. It was still very divided It was very hard trying to get out of there.
One of my great achievements is becoming “Married with Children”. I’m so proud of that because I went to the audition and there was a room full of American looking girls who were blonde or brunette and were “all American”. I went in and killed the reading and they gave me the roll. That was such a great win. But why does it have to be such a runaway situation? There have been network TV shows where I’ve given great readings and the casting director said, “That was really great, but it turns out we didn’t think about going ethnic with this role.” Or her would say they wouldn’t go “exotic”.
You wouldn’t have that today. Now it’s “Submit all types”, BIPOC or whatever. I remember first seeing this on roadside assistance [the description of the characters]and I thought, “Here we are at last.” So may the best person win, regardless of their ethnicity.
To keep our stories front and center – and that comes on the back cover of Crazy Rich Asians – I say to every Filipino I meet who wants us to keep doing this and see our faces: tell your family to go and see it . Once Hollywood sees that we’re an economic demographic to show up and put our money where our mouths are, we can go ahead and make more movies like this.
That’s right, and that’s the way it is in this industry, because if nobody comes, it’s easy to say “No one came for that”.
And those opportunities don’t come that often. It took someone as big as Rideback’s Dan Lin and Steven Spielberg to put his power behind this image. Otherwise would we have been given the budget to do this the right way? Having someone like Jo Koy who has the eyeballs and the following to fill arenas with thousands of people buying tickets with QR codes because he flashed at every show. All of this works together to hopefully get us out there in a big way, so hopefully we can do Part II in Manila.
What are you hoping to do next?
Please God please knock on wood this movie starts off big like a Big Fat Greek Wedding for Filipinos. We can do one more thing. We have so much to offer this business and hopefully it makes sense and gets the wind in our sails to push us forward. I want to work until I’m 100 like Betty White, except it would be more like Betty Tone Brown.
i love working It’s fun what we do, bringing joy to the screen and to that music. I feel so privileged to have gotten into this business because of a movie like Wayne’s World. I wouldn’t be where I am, you know, 30 years later. So I take every opportunity and take advantage of it because I know it’s such a gift to be able to work in this magical industry.
You’re still recording, right? You are a Grammy Award winning artist.
Yes. I have two behind me. They are [on a shelf] next to my high school trophies.
Musically, what would you like to do next? You released your album Dream in the 90’s and are currently recording Hawaiian music.
I would like to do jazz. A Jazz/Sade thing with some European beats underneath. That would be great. At the moment it’s about my Hawaiian music. It wouldn’t be bad if I had my showroom act in Hawaii. I would live in Honolulu for a while and do a nice show and tell stories about what it was like to move from Honolulu to Hollywood. I will manifest this.
https://variety.com/2022/film/news/easter-sunday-tia-carrere-past-rejections-1235328872/ “Easter Sunday” star Tia Carrere recalls past rejection in Hollywood