Recently, I had the privilege of having a wonderful conversation with Lauren Tom, a talented and skilled actress who plays the sharp, direct Linda Tran on SUPERNATURAL. Besides being incredibly intelligent, kind, soft spoken, funny and down to earth, she is an absolute pleasure to talk to and one of the best conversationalists I have met in a while. She was so easy to talk to and has such a light-hearted spirit we spent most of the interview just laughing and becoming acquainted. She is the first person I’ve interviewed who actually wanted to know more about me! She is just an ‘everybody’s friend’ person and that is a very special talent to have.
A multi-talented actress who’s just as comfortable on the stage as she is before the cameras, Lauren Tom has built quite an impressive résumé by establishing herself as one of the most prolific small-screen players of her generation. She is an Obie Award-winning actress who has appeared on Broadway in “A Chorus Line,” and “Hurlyburly.” Her one-woman show, “25 Psychics” premiered at HBO’s U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, and won Dramalogue Awards for Best Performance and Best Direction.
Lauren’s film credits include “The Joy Luck Club,” “Men in Trees,” and “In Good Company,” to name a few. She has been on NBC’s hit series “Friends”, a series regular on NBC’s “Dab” and ABC’s “Grace Under Fire”, and is currently shooting a pilot for FOX called “Short Coms” from which she graciously took time out from her hectic schedule to do the interview, which I heartily appreciate.
Besides being a star of stage and screen, Lauren’s voice can be heard in such animated series as “Mulan II,” “King of the Hill,” “American Dragon,” and “Futurama.” She has also published personal essays in Brain, Child Magazine, East West Woman, Strut, and Freshyarn.com and is writing a book. This is a woman of many talents.
We of course know her best as the strong willed Linda (Mama) Tran on SUPERNATURAL. A role she loves to play a lot and hopes to play again before the season ends this May. A hope many fans including myself share.
In the interview she talks about her start in stage and screen career, her experiences on the SUPERNATURAL set, the character of Linda Tran, a charity that is near and dear to her heart and her future goals.
This is one fun interview from one very sweet and warm-hearted person. I hope you all have as much fun reading it as I did doing it. Many thanks again, Lauren. You are one super nice gal!
So how did you like playing Mama Tran?
Oh gosh, that was just one of my favorite jobs I’ve done, probably. Because it required different skills that I’m not normally asked to do. And I just found the cast and crew so much fun to work with. And of course how can you not love Osric Chau.
Oh yeah he’s an amazing person, and so young too. He’s quite impressive. I have two young sons that I hope grow up to be just like him.
So I was going to start with some things in your bio if that’s okay.
I read that grew up Catholic in a Jewish Chicago suburb, the only Asian family in the area. Did that affect your childhood at all?
Oh Yes, Definitely. I always felt like an outsider because you know I got the whole Ching Chong Chinaman thing. And I really had no idea what they were talking about. I think that’s something that people learn as they grow up because when you’re young you just assume everyone is the same. So yeah, I was actually pretty shy when I was younger. Then I kind of grew into myself later on in life. But I always felt like there was something wrong with me because I was Chinese. And I just wanted to have blonde hair and have a Bar Mitzvah like everyone else. [Laughs] I definitely became sort of honorary Jewish cause I has gone to so many Bar Mitzvahs and I knew all that Hebrew.
But you know what, like that saying ‘whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.’ And I think it kind of prepared me for the life of an actor where you have to go through so much rejection and so many obstacles. So in a way, I think it kind of toughen me up a bit. Enough to play Momma Tran!
I’ve heard from other actors that it’s difficult to get into the business because of all the rejection.
I really wouldn’t want my kids to go into it, unless they had just a burning desire and there was nothing else they wanted to do. There is so much rejection and you have to be so far grounded in yourself and know who you are and know that the rejection is not personal. [Laughs] So many variables that go into why someone gets a job. I wish someone had told me that when I was first starting out, to just not take anything personally. But it’s a business and people can be harsh. I mean that’s why I love Twitter so much because I think I’ve only gotten one comment that’s been on the mean side. And with the SUPERNATURAL fandom, I keep going back there because people are so sweet.
You studied dance for a while in your childhood and at 17 landed your first major performing job in a touring company of “A Chorus Line.”
I toured for a year with them and they trained me and got me ready. I had to be 18 in order to do it on Broadway. So after a year when I was ready, I moved to New York and I did the show for another year. So I did the show for two years straight and it was just one of those little gifts that felt like it fell from the sky.
What inspired you to study dance?
Well I started as a gymnast and I was really not a very tall person. [Laugh] I was pretty good at it, but my coach wanted me to take some dancing lessons to help me with my grace. I learned that I actually love to dance more than gymnastics. I was becoming too afraid because the tricks were getting harder and harder. And I didn’t have that Daredevil feeling like, “Oh let’s do this flip on the balance beam.” [Laughs] I was getting too scared. Dancing seemed a lot safer and I just loved it.
And also because I was a bit shy, it was a great way to express myself without having to talk. So it seemed to be a perfect venue. I thought I was going to be a dancer. And then “A Chorus Line“ came through Chicago as a touring company, and my friends all said, “You really should audition for it because there is a part in there for a small Asian girl and they really have a hard time finding people to cast in that role. So, I couldn’t sing and I couldn’t act, but because I was a really good dancer, they decided to just take me anyway and then train me, gave me voice and acting lessons. Then I realized that acting was even easier than dancing. And people were saying if you’re going to be a dancer, you will be done by the time you are 35 because it’s like being a professional athlete. You kind of have to hang it up. But if you’re an actor, can really act your whole life. So then I made the switch to acting.
I kind of regret a little bit that I gave up the dancing completely because one of my co-stars in “A Chorus Line,” Bebe Neuwirth from “Cheers,” she kept up with her dancing. Even now she can still dance the heck out of anything. And that’s pretty cool. But it’s so much disappointment and so much work and I ended up having kids and I just kind of let it go.
After changing to acting, you were in the New York Theater for a while.
Yes I was. I did a lot of straight plays. I did a couple more Broadway plays. A lot of good fortune there too. There was a play called “Hurlyburly.” It wasn’t a musical or anything and I was the understudy. The miraculous thing about that was that I was Asian, but the role that I got was written for a Caucasian girl.
The beauty of theater is that the producers and directors tend to really look at the essence of a person more than what they look like. They didn’t care that I was Asian, it was color blind casting. But because TV and film are so visual, I think Hollywood has always been behind in that regard.
It was really fortunate that I got to go on and do the part because understudies don’t always get to do that. But I did a run of the show when the previous girl left. That was really exciting.
Then I moved out to LA to pursue film and TV. I got one film, my first film, in “See No Evil, Hear No Evil” with Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor. It was just a tiny part. And after that I got “Cadillac Man” with Robin Williams. I did a little part, and was sort of channeling my grandma, and for some reason the “Tonight Show” thought it was just hilarious and thought I was just this girl in they found in Chinatown or something. They weren’t really sure. But they wanted to have me on the show, so they flew me out to LA. And that was my first little taste of that.
I got bumped because Bill Crosby was on that night and so I had to stay for a week and they just put me up and I realized I kind of liked LA. So I stayed and built my career from there. I’m forgetting one thing though. I think I did a couple of episodes of “Facts of Life” before that in LA and they flew me out there and flew me back to NY. I can’t remember the order of things. [Laughing] I’m so old now.
Anyway then I realized how much I loved LA because I had lived in NY for probably 10 years, you know, just doing theater and really building up my craft. The film and TV didn’t come until later.
New York is just a wonderful city but it’s so diametrically opposed to LA. So I think I was ready for a change. It’s easier to live if you have money. If you’re living on a super tight budget, Manhattan is really challenging.
Did you find it difficult to transition from stage acting to camera acting? Did that cause any problems for you?
That is a really good question. Yeah I really did. And even to this day I feel I have to watch not being too big. Because you know you have to project yourself when you are on a stage and reach the person in the back row. The whole way that an actor presents himself is a little more animated and bigger life in theater unless you have a really tiny house. So I had to get used to that. I still remember meeting Richard Attenborough and he just talked to me during the audition saying, “You have to realize that just your eye alone is like 6 feet wide on the screen so any tiny little movement that you make is just going to be magnified. So you have to be very internal and try not to show that much.” So that was a big lesson.
It’s a really different style of acting for sure. But I’m really glad that I had all that experience on the stage because it was a great discipline and it just built me up as an actor I think.
A little earlier you alluded to securing a role that was originally written for a Caucasian woman. Do you find it harder to get roles that are not specifically written for someone with an Asian background?
Well that was my experience coming out here. You know, sometimes I think that because my mind was so not accustomed to being stereotyped, coming from New York, it didn’t really occur to me that I couldn’t get roles that were written for Caucasian woman. And then as I was here for a longer amount of time, I started to realize that I just wasn’t going to be allowed to go up for those roles. But I think because of all of the activism from Asian groups, really campaigning to get more Asian faces on the screen that has really helped a lot. And I just became more aware of the problem.
But I think that each generation has helped that situation greatly. So when I did “Joy Luck Club” the women who played our mothers were all the pioneers who helped my generation be able to do a little bit more and same for us. My generation helped the next generation. So I think you see a lot more [Asian] faces on the screen up there now. Still not as much as the general population, but it’s better…. it’s getting better.
I think Asian people have been raised to be more silent and not so pushy. I think in our culture you are raised to be really just nice, polite and quiet, don’t make waves so much. So that’s been a little bit more of a challenge. This pilot I’m doing now for FOX, I play the mom of this stand-up comic. She’s 30 but she is playing 25. You know, her generation is very forward thinking, and she was adamant about trying to create a show that was like “Seinfeld,” where it’s really not about anything per say, and not to mention at all that we’re Asian. It’s just that we happen to be Asian. I thought that’s refreshing.
So you know I’ve played a lot of parts where I have been channeling my grandma and I do this little accent because she was so funny. And that accent is an easy way to make anything funny. I’ve never really had a problem with it but there have been a lot of people in the Asian community that felt like that’s really not a cool thing to do. But there are so many people in the world that have an accent, I really didn’t have a judgment about it like that.
Having said that, it’s nice to just balance that with roles where I’m just American – because I am American. My mother was born here as well and her mother came over from China so that’s how I know to copy that accent.
Your Grandmother seems to have been a really big role model for you. Do you pattern yourself after her a lot?
Well you know I come from a long generation of really strong women, so I’d like to think there are parts of me that are like her because I found her really courageous. She came over here from China with nothing. And I can’t compare my life to hers because my struggles were much more about “Aww, I didn’t get that guest star work.” And hers were really about literally surviving. So I do think that she was a role model for me absolutely. She was shrewd and smart and just would not give up. And I think for anyone who wants to be in this business a key element that you need is persistence.
Besides doing a stage and camera acting you do voice acting as well. Which do you prefer?
Oh gosh, I never want to put down the voice acting in any way because honestly it’s been my bread-and-butter for over a decade. It is the most joyous job because for some reason there are no egos in that world. I never met a jerk, not one jerk in that entire time of doing all those different cartoons. And it is really fun. Having said that, it is more challenging for me when I am on camera because you get to go deeper. In voice acting, I never have to memorize my lines or anything! On camera work requires a whole other set of skills. Some of my fellow voice actors like that the fact that people don’t know who they are. But I don’t mind that so much because one of my favorite things is to have someone come up and say that something that I did touched them. It makes me feel like I’m contributing to the world in some way.
For instance, after “Joy Luck Club” people came to me and said it really helped them with their relationship with their mom or they felt like they were looking at themselves up there. It just was a lovely period of time when that film came out.
I have a little funny story about that too. I brought my grandmother and my mother to the premiere of that movie. The ushers at the top of the aisles were handing out little packets of Kleenex because they were assuming that you were going to cry. And my grandmother, being the tough lady she was, said to them “What I need that for? You know I’m not cry baby.” And I was like “Grandma just take it, it’s free.” And she says “Oh okay.”
Then she talked through the entire movie and was yelling at the screen. And I just tried to sink down so no one could see me. I was so embarrassed. She was yelling, “What you crying about? You guys are all crybabies. This is nothing.” Because she has seen so much in her life, she was like “Why everybody crying?”
Then my mom, who was also tough but in a different way, (and she doesn’t have that accent,) was saying at the end, “How come your part was so small. Your part seems way smaller than the other girls. You didn’t have nearly as many lines.” And I was like “Oh my God. Can you guys just be here with me and support me in this? This is the highlight of my whole life so far.”
That’s a cute story.
Of course we know you best as feisty Linda Tran. You seem to have no fear when it came to Kevin. You even punched Crowley in “A Little Slice of Kevin.” How did that make you feel? Was that as much fun to do as it was to watch?
Oh, one the top 10 moments of my entire career, punching Mark Sheppard. We had a blast doing that together. And the stuntmen helped me you know, to make it look real. I actually threw my shoulder out a little bit because we did it so many times. I was so into it, throwing everything I could into it and then I pulled my neck and shoulder out. The stunt coordinator, Lou, was such a sweetheart. He had a masseur come over and work on me in my trailer for an hour to try to get the kink out. [Laughs]
But Mark Sheppard is an awesome actor and those guys were wonderful and, I think I tweeted this out, we were laughing so hard because on one take we were just goofing around, when I threw the punch I yelled, “Douche!” And then Jared said “Bag.”[Laughs] And then for the rest of the day, we kept saying “Douche” “Bag.” [Laughing]
He’s funny. Both of those guys are so funny, Jared and Jensen.
That’s a wonderful memory. So many guest stars have relayed wonderful stories of Jensen and Jared’s antics on set. Do you have any others you can share with us?
Well let’s see, that was one. The other one was in the second episode I was in when I almost hit the Impala.
[Gasping sound] Oh no. You almost hit Baby?
A thickness of a piece of paper, that’s how close I was to swiping it, to completely sideswiping it. [Laughing] Because it was like one in the morning and I had to pull the car into this space, and it was really dark, and it was a very tight space and I was supposed to quickly pull my car, make a hard left in to this little parking space in the woods. And we practiced it and the first time I did it everybody on the whole set was like “OH MY GOD Lauren!” Because it really looked like I was going to just crash right into it. And I had no idea and I’m like, “You guys, I’m Asian. You know? Like what can I say? You knew what you were getting here. I’m not a good driver.” LOL.
So then they had my stunt double practice it a few times and then I did it again. And I just couldn’t get it. And then I was getting way too far away from it. This was like the most stressful part of my whole SUPERNATURAL career. [Laughs] And then I finally, finally got it. They had this standby ready just in case I couldn’t do it. But it was so funny. It was like, “I’m paid to act. I’m not paid to drive.” LOL
Jared and Jensen were really funny when they got out of their car, they were just giving me such shit about it.
Oh and the other thing that was like really fun and Jensen would never know this, but you know that moment when he’s got me against a pillar with the knife against my neck…there was a part of me that really did not mind that. Not one bit [She starts laughing]. I’m staring and I want to kill you but this position I’m in right now? It’s so cool! He’s insanely handsome, as you know.
I know he is.
I know, I know…. It should be against the law to be so cute. You know. LOL
He is amazing. And you know my own husband is REALLY hot, so handsome. I feel, “How can I even think something like that.” But it’s not like you’re dead after you get married, you know.
Well you’re not alone. A lot of fans agree whole-heartedly with you!
How did you get the part and were you aware of the series before you auditioned for the role? Did you know from the beginning it was going to be a recurring character?
Actually I was offered this part. Jenny Klein, a SUPERNATURAL writer gave me a tour of the writer’s room, and I got to meet Jeremy Carver! It turns out, his wife was a writer on “Men in Trees”, a series I did for ABC several years ago. So he liked my work from that show, and that’s why he gave me the part! They called me up on a Thursday night and I was on set by Monday morning!
Yeah! That is one of the most wonderful things that can happen to an actress when a role just drops from the sky like that because I really don’t enjoy auditioning. And it was just such a great part.
I actually had heard of the show, you know I’m a million years old, so I’d never seen it. [Laughs]. It’s got a little bit younger demographic I think. But I was really into it. It scared me the first time I saw it. I’m like, “Oh my gosh, I’m in a horror genre show.” I normally don’t gravitate towards that type of show but it’s so well done, and kudos to the special effects people too. I just thought it was really cool. Then I found out what an active fandom it had. It’s just been so much fun for me.
Then Osric wanted me to join Twitter and so I did. He helped me set my account up about the end of August. And then the next day I just deleted the account [laughing] because I thought I am such a loser I have zero followers. And he asked me, “I thought we did it together and you’re not on there.” So I told him why, and he goes, “No, no, no…let me help you. Everyone has to have someone help them.” So he tweeted out, “Please welcome…me.” Then I had about 150 followers in about 30 sec. So I thought, “Oh that’s how it works.”
But, I have been having so much fun with it ever since because people have been, as I said, so supportive, especially with my fundraiser that I’m doing. That’s one of the greatest things about Twitter; people have been so supportive of it. I’ve got a couple of people that were giving me two dollars a week on the day they got paid for the 5K run I did for the organization I’m supporting, Homeboy Industries. I find that so touching because I know there are a lot of young fans out there and they don’t have a lot of money. I just thought, based on this one little part I did on this show, that they would be that kind. And then I had one fan…because I almost reached my goal, I was $126 away from reaching my goal, and she just gave me the rest. She gave me the $126.
WOW! Hats off to that fan!
I know! She was so sweet! And actually we are trying this month based one of the SUPERNATURAL fans who nominated me for the Bille Celebrity Challenge. Jensen, Jared and Misha won it. And then Misha accepted and I email him and asked him if it was cool and he said, “Oh yes, it’s legit.” Cause it’s a crazy amount of money. They give you $32,000 dollars to give to your charity. Misha said there were no strings, no repercussions. He got the money for Random Acts and everything went off without a hitch.
The fans also won it for Jensen and Jared but Jensen turned it down. That wasn’t great.
Why would Jensen turn it down?
I’m not sure. And I haven’t been able to talk to him about it. That’s why I was starting to get worried, like is there something about it that he knows and I don’t know? That’s why I talked to Misha.
They do take a photo of you and they get to use it as long as they want too. But to me it’s just a photo of you accepting the check with the fan who nominates you. And to me that’s like, I don’t care. I want my charity to get that money. But I’m behind Ian Somerhalder who obviously has a lot of fans. He’s very handsome. So I don’t think I’ll win this month and I think I’ll tell people don’t worry about it, and we’ll try another month. I’m not even in the top ten yet. I’m not sure why, but it might be that fans are really disappointed Jensen turned it down, and Jared’s is still up in the air. I don’t think he’s accepted either. To work that hard to win it for them and for them not to take it is a little bummer. I think they have a year to accept. And I think if Jared did, that would like help me but I think fans are a little burned out.
That’s a very worthwhile charity. I hope you eventually win.
Well I’m just going to be patient and I hope people won’t get sick of voting. But maybe we can try again in a month that doesn’t have someone from Glee or someone like Ian. [Laughs]
So you have been in two episodes so far “A Little Slice of Kevin” and “What’s Up, Tiger Mommy?” Which was your favorite?
The first one for sure. My mom was, “Hey how come this episode, the second one, wasn’t all about you? You were hardly in it.” I said, “Ma, oh my gosh, they aren’t all going to be like that.” [Laughs]
The first one was a great introduction and I was featured in it a lot. But I don’t think it will ever get better than that. I just hope they have me back again. Honestly I haven’t heard anything from them. I’m just keeping my fingers crossed. I think they shoot until the end of April or something like that.
A friend of mine told me he wrote to Jim Michaels and asked if I was coming back. And all he [Michaels] wrote was “Stay Tuned.” [Laughs] That’s a little bit encouraging because it wasn’t “No.” But I haven’t heard anything yet. We’ll see. It could have been just a diplomatic way of saying, “Keep watching the show.” [Laughs]
I know a lot of people did like your character and I was a little surprised when I heard Kevin say that he sent his mom away. That was kind of weird.
I know! You know I’ve heard that it’s very tricky for female character to work on that show. That they don’t like weak female characters, they like strong ones. But I’m a strong one. I not really sure, but I think some fans have felt they like Kevin better without me because he doesn’t work much when I’m there. He’s a lot stronger on his own at least that’s the way it’s written. So we’ll see.
It would be fun to be in the finale of the season. I don’t know if they tend to call back people a lot but it’s amazing to me that I have this much interest after doing two episodes. I think it would be fun to do one of those conventions with everybody. But I don’t know, they [Creation] don’t seem to be picking up on that. I think that *that* convention would be fun.
I was wondering if you had been contacted. Most people end up on the convention circuit eventually.
Well I know a lot of fans have been asking Creation to add me to their list. They are willing to have me, but it’s clear they don’t care if I come or not because usually you get paid nicely to do something like that, and they are just not doing that for me. So yeah…it kind of a drag.
Given Mrs. Tran’s aggressive nature, and how very protective she is of Kevin, do you see her becoming a demon hunter if something happens to him?
Oh yeah! Absolutely! Being a mom myself, it’s so kind of cliché, but it’s so true, there isn’t anything I wouldn’t do for my child. It brings up this insane courage that you’d never know you possess. And it’s kind of nice in that way.
Oh yeah. Gosh Mrs. Tran is a badass. She’s way tougher than I am. [Laughs]
You’ve punched out Crowley, overpowered a demon and stuffed him in the trunk of your car.
That was all so much fun. That was definitely fun.
Oh yeah. I was glad that nobody asked me how the heck I got that guy, how I picked him up and put him in the trunk.
I know! I’m watching that and wondering how you would put a 6 foot tall man in the trunk by yourself.
That’s how resourceful I am I guess. I’m tough. I guess I just completely disabled him. But you know when moms are in distress and they are trying to save their kid, you’ve read those stories where they can pick a car up.
As an actress do you identify with Mrs. Tran through your grandmother? Do you see parts of you in her as well?
I think the trick is always to get to know yourself so well, through therapy or whatever, so that you can really access the different parts of yourself that are required for different roles. For sure, this is something I’ve grown into in real life and then also something that was handed to me by my past generations with my mom and my grandmother. So I had it in me, but I wasn’t that sure of myself as far as expressing it and utilizing it, that kind of thing. Because I wasn’t required to, but also started off kind of shaky with feeling like such an outsider. But I’ve grown into that more.
I have to tell you something funny too. [And she laughed through the whole story. So did I!] After I shot that first episode, I was feeling like such a badass, that I had an altercation with someone outside by our cars. I really shouldn’t have done this because I could have gotten shot or killed but I really stood up to this guy who thought that I had hit his car, which I totally didn’t hit his car. But I was shocked that I was walking around like some sort of badass as if I could really do something to him. Not thinking about what could happen to me.
When I was telling that story, my friends were like, “Oh my God, are you insane? People can carry guns in LA. You can’t do that!” I‘m like, “I know. I know.” But I was secretly smiling at myself because I just…. gave it to him.
[Laughing] You were all hyped up on the show. That great!
I got that from SUPERNATURAL. I have that show to thank for that. But in a way I probably got a lot of that spunk from my grandma too.
See, there is a part of Mama Tran in you.
Did you have any first day jitters when you started on the series?
Oh yeah. It’s almost like the first day of school, and also because of the fact that I didn’t audition for it, you are not really sure if what you’re going to do is going to be what they want because you haven’t had any exposure yet. So I had a lot of questions. The person that seemed to be able to answer my questions most was Kevin Parks, because he has been there the whole time, where as the director changes every week. He was just a wealth of information. There were certain things that weren’t clear, so we just decided for ourselves then. Like I didn’t know where my husband was. I don’t know who my husband is. I didn’t know whether to wear a wedding band or not. So we just decided some of those things together. I wish they had followed up on that little tidbit that Crowley said about Kevin not knowing who his real dad is.
Yeah. Someone else wanted to know if we would ever find out more about Mama Tran’s past.
Well I hope so! We can theorize but I have no idea.
One last question, I noticed that you currently have a movie in post-production, “Chasing Eagle Rock.” Do you know when it will be released?
Oh yeah. That’s an independent film. It’s still waiting for its distributor so I’m not sure when that’s coming out.
But I am doing that FOX pilot and I hope it gets picked up. That’s a comedy. I’m playing the mom of a standup comedian from San Francisco. So I’ve just included two more actors now who I’m mama to. I have a son and daughter in this sitcom. It called “Short Coms.” It’s five standup comedians and each is doing an eight minute skit and we will be taping it live in two shows in LA.
So ended an extremely enjoyable time with Lauren Tom. I SOOOOOO hope they bring her back. She would be so cool as a hunter and the boys can use all the help they can get.
Lauren also asked me to pass on a request to please keep voting for her at the Bille Celebrity Challenge. She very much wants to win the prize for her charity. Homeboy Industries is a very worthwhile cause. You can find out more about it by clicking here.
And Lauren, the lab tour invite is open whenever you are in town. 🙂