‘Easter Sunday’ Star Tia Carrere Recalls Being Rejected From Roles for Being Too ‘Ethnic’

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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 coming together on Easter Sunday, which features an all-Filipino cast. She calls playing Koy’s aunt in the film a “dream role.” After four decades in the industry, Carrere, who starred in “Waynes World,” “True Lies” and “Rising Sun,” has nonetheless faced her fair share of rejection for roles because she was considered too “ethnic” or “exotic.”

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Carrere sat down with Variety to talk about why Tita Teresa is a first for her and what’s in store for her next music album.

Has it really been 20 years since your last red carpet?

Well, the only reason why I know is people keep reminding me that it’s the 30th anniversary of “Wayne’s World” or the 20th anniversary of “Lilo and Stitch.” Everyone else is keeping track of time, and I’m trying to forget.

How does it feel to have this 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 working in a tea house. For the first time, I get to play Filipino. My father is from the Philippines and my mom is from Hawaii, and I get to celebrate all these idiosyncrasies.

Take me back to receiving the script. How refreshing was it to see this part for Tita Teresa?

Originally, I auditioned for the part of the mom, but when you see her, Lydia Gaston, she’s petite and in the breakdown he wanted her to be a tiny tyrant. I’m also bigger than Jo, and so that didn’t match his vision. Jo subsequently said, ‘Well, it’s not going to go your way for the mom, but there’s an aunt.’ Of course, I said yes and they offered that to me and here I am.

Tita Teresa is a character we see across all cultures. Yes, it’s the one-upping with food, fashion, the arch-rivalry with sisters and wanting to be on 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 ever. What’s so great is we’re just starting to see the Latino and Asian stories and we happen to have different faces to what Hollywood has seen for the past 100 years because the world looks more and more like us.

What was important for you to get right in playing this character?

From the beginning, Jo said he didn’t want to be making fun of Filipinos. He wanted to be celebrating and laughing alongside them. It was all about uplifting the culture.

What scene meant the most for you to film in terms of representation?

The film is packed like a tourist’s suitcase. I loved seeing the food on the table. Unfortunately, it had been sitting there for days and had to be sprayed to keep it looking glossy and not smelling funky. But I remember family get-togethers. I remember the pig and how it’s roasted all day [on a spit roast] and we ate it at night.

You see the family arguments, 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’d be spilling over into 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 that there was love underneath and then you layer all the other stuff on top. I grew up with my sister. We were 18 months apart and we shared a room. She was always borrowing my stuff and then crumpling it and throwing it in a drawer or on the floor. She would never take care of my things, while I liked being very meticulous. I love her underneath, but I’d say, ‘Did you borrow this?’ I had a huge fight with her and my parents would say they’d get boxing gloves because that’s how much we fought. But underlying that always had to be the basis of love. Otherwise, it flies off the rails, and that’s what I wanted to show. I think that’s a real thing with the siblings: There’s one that’s “sucio,” with the hair, makeup and clothes always trying to one-up and make sure she’s the prettiest, and so I loved that and loved playing that.

I have to ask, what would your karaoke song be?

We owned a karaoke machine and mic when it first came out. I remember for one of my grandmother’s birthdays, we got her a fully loaded mic. 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 for “Lilo and Stitch.” She was on the TV special singing harmony to one of my songs.

So, for me, my songs are “What’s Up” by Four Non Blondes and “Blue Bayou” by Linda Ronstadt.

That’s such a Filipino karaoke tune.

Oh my God. It’s just got this island kind of 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 that I’m able to partake in it. I started out in 1984 and came here from Hawaii. There, everyone is mixed and they have five, six, seven different ethnic backgrounds, but I came here and people were like, “What are you? Chinese? Japanese?” They didn’t even know Filipino. My hair was short, and I had to get a long-haired wig because I was only going to get these types of roles where I’d have to work on a Chinese accent. Even when I was on “General Hospital,” I never had an interracial relationship. I was in the Asian quarter with my Asian boyfriend, who’s also an Asian doctor. When we left the Asian quarter, it was to go to the old country to help our people. It was still very divided. It was very hard trying to get out of that.

One of my great achievements is getting “Married with Children.” I’m so proud of that because I walked into the audition and there was a room of American-looking girls who were blonde or brunette and “All American.” I went in and I killed the reading and they gave me the role. That was such a great win. But why does it have to be such an outlier situation? There were network TV shows where I gave great reads, and the casting director would say, “That was really great, but the word comes down that we weren’t thinking of going ethnic with that role.” Or they would say they weren’t going to go “exotic.”

You wouldn’t have that today. Now, it’s “submit all types,” BIPOC or whatever. I remember seeing that for the first time on breakdown services [the description of the characters], and I thought, “Here we are, finally.” So, may the best person win, whatever your ethnic background may be.

To have our stories front and center — and this comes on the back of “Crazy Rich Asians” — I’m telling every Filipino I meet that wants us to continue doing this and continue seeing our faces: Tell your family to go and see it. Once Hollywood sees that we are an economic demographic that will show up and put our money where our mouths are, that’s how we get to move forward and make more films like this.

Right, and that’s how it is with this industry, because if no one shows up, then it’s easy to say “Well, no one showed up for that.”

And those opportunities don’t come along that often. It took someone as big as Dan Lin from Rideback and Steven Spielberg to put their might behind this picture. Otherwise, would we have gotten the budget to do this the right way? To have someone like Jo Koy that has the eyeballs and the following to fill arenas with thousands of people buying tickets with QR codes because he had that flashing at every show. All of that 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, that this film opens big like a “Big Fat Greek Wedding” for Filipinos. We can do another one. We have so much to offer this business and hopefully it shines a light and puts 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, to bring joy to the screen and that music. I feel so privileged that I was able to get into this business because of a movie like “Wayne’s World.” I wouldn’t be where I am, you know, 30 years later. So every opportunity I take and I run with it, because I know it’s such a gift to be able to work in this magical industry.

You’re still recording, right? You’re a Grammy award-winning artist.

Yes. I have two behind me. They’re [on a shelf] next to my high school trophies.

In terms of music, what would you like to do next? You released your album “Dream” in the ‘90s and you’re currently recording Hawaiian music.

I’d love to do jazz. A jazz/Sade thing with some European beats underneath. That would be awesome. Right now, it’s about my Hawaiian music. It wouldn’t suck if I had my showroom act in Hawaii. I’d get to live in Honolulu for a bit and do a nice show and tell stories about how it was moving from Honolulu to Hollywood. I’m going to manifest that.

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