In 1996, four years after establishing herself in Hollywood as the iconic Cassandra Wong in “Wayne’s World,” Tia Carrere was in Las Vegas for a pilot called “Desert Breeze.” Upon checking in at Alexis Park Resort, the man behind the front desk introduced himself. He told Carrere about his dreams of becoming a stand-up comic, but that his mother, a small Filipino woman, wanted him to be a nurse. This man, Joseph Glenn Herbert Sr., became known as comedian Jo Koy and, like Carrere, became a household name among Filipinos.
“He had hair and glasses back then,” Carrere laughs during a Zoom interview. Twenty-six years after their chance meeting, Carrere and Koy make history with “Easter Sunday” – one of the first nationally distributed studio films to feature a majority Filipino cast from the coveted lead to supporting roles. Directed by Jay Chandrasekhar (“Super Troopers”), Koy Joe stars as Valencia in a semi-autobiographical story about a hopeful comedian who travels home to Daly City with his teenage son and the guilt of an absent father in tow. Carrere takes on the role of Tita Theresa, whose sibling rivalry with Valencia’s mother (played by Lydia Gaston) heats up the excitement and delicious merriment of the Philippine Easter celebration.
The last time a Filipino film received a Hollywood nod was in 2000. A coming-of-age story by Filipino-American filmmaker Gene Cajayon, The Debut explores the nuances of Filipino pride, shame and ultimately Love of family in a master film. But despite settling scores with rising stars Dante Basco and Tirso Cruz III, the film struggled to gain momentum and remains relatively unknown even among Filipino Americans who grew up in the ’90s.
Move forward two decades, and “Easter Sunday” reflects similar sentiments, this time through the tender lens of comedy. For Carrere, who is Hawaiian and Filipino, this is also the first time in her 30+ year career that she has played a Filipino. From the rock star babe making Wayne dizzy with his Cantonese to Chu-Hoi leading a train through a booby-trapped Vietnam in Quantum Leap: “I’ve played Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai – like that many different ethnic backgrounds but my own. So it was great to pick up my aunt’s accent, my dad’s accent, and my neighbors’ accents in Hawaii because I grew up in a Filipino neighborhood,” says Carrere. “And celebrating that and amplifying that has been really fun because I’ve never been able to play myself and what I do best.”
Reflecting on her work, Carrere recalled being told she was too “exotic or ethnic” for network shows and casting agents who would end up settling on a “Central American” guy. Despite this, Carrere directed 66 episodes of “Relic Hunter” as Sydney Fox and continues to navigate Hollywood with a sharp aplomb — something she credits to her grandmother, who raised her. “My grandmother raised me very simply, very down to earth,” says Carrere. “You don’t spend more money than you have. As soon as you received the Sears bills in the mail, we were on the bus to pay them. There are no delusions.”
Easter Sunday co-star Lydia Gaston says her chemistry with Carrere was a natural fit. “Tia, she knows who she is,” says Gaston. “She was just very real. We talked about real things. We laugh at the same things. We talked about our sisters. … She’s really, really accepting of who she is, and that’s so refreshing.”
Carrere has long used her fame to advocate for the Filipino community. Her longtime boyfriend, the exuberant Fritz Friedman (a former Sony executive and current member of the San Diego Arts and Culture Commission), has known the actress since she landed in Los Angeles when she was 18. “She never says no. When I asked her to do something on behalf of the community, on behalf of a charity, she was very generous,” says Friedman, who worked with her to provide benefits to Filipino-American WWII veterans. “She is a wonderful person. She is very nice. She is very kind. She is also very strong. You know, underneath that facade of kindness, you have to be tough to be in the entertainment business.”
Towards the end of our conversation, Carrere smiles behind her gold aviator sunglasses and says, “We’re getting more and more people in positions of power in Hollywood writing, producing, writing shows, executives, studios looking like you and me.”
Her words are a reminder that while Hollywood hasn’t always been ready for an all-Filipino cast, Filipino Americans have been doing the work to get here for decades. And seeing Jo Koy on Easter Sunday billboards across Los Angeles and Tia Carrere’s cheeky humor accompanying national Instagram ads not only validates what we already know, but shows us that we create our own space when we do not get a seat at the table Kamayan. For the uninitiated, “Kamayan” is a Tagalog word meaning “with hand” and refers to the traditional Filipino way of eating – together and without plates or cutlery – “Easter Sunday” style.
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/movies/story/2022-08-05/tia-carrere-easter-sunday Tia Carrere lets her Filipino heritage shine in ‘Easter Sunday’