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Actress of Chinese Descent Relishes Roles That Break the Color Barrier

Three weeks ago, actress Lauren Tom--the feisty, abusive dim sum waitress in Orion Pictures’ black comedy, “Cadillac Man"--was doing Jacobean tragedy in Chicago and New York.

Now she lives in a guest house in Beverly Hills and is preparing for her first appearance on “The Tonight Show.”

“I spent the last eight years doing a lot of theater, and I started moving into really heavy theater, Jacobean and Greek tragedies,” says the 20-to-30-something Chicago native. “It’s so heavy and gut-wrenching. And you have to project so far out into the theater. Now I’m more interested in doing things that are a little more naturalistic.”

In “Cadillac Man,” she plays a Chinese immigrant who appears in three scenes. She based the role, including the accent, on her restaurant-owning grandmother.

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“My character is so aggressive and pushy and rude to her customers,” Tom says. “But you have to understand what’s behind it. She gets so involved with her customers’ lives--it’s like family to her. And you know how you are to your family.”

In the theater, Tom, who is of Chinese descent, managed to break the color barrier that usually keeps nonwhites from “colorblind” or traditional roles. She won an Obie award for her portrayal of a hotel clerk from Ohio in the New York Shakespeare Festival’s production of “American Notes,” for example, and played for a year in “A Chorus Line” on Broadway.

“I am American, third generation, and I like to play parts that could be anything, not just characters where I do (a Chinese) accent,” Tom says. “In theater, it’s much better. I think it’s coming along a little slower in film and TV.”

After “Cadillac Man,” Tom will appear at the Mark Taper, Too, in a performance art piece set to music composed by Jan Kaczmarek.

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