Actress Lauren Tom cuts a stylishly petite figure in her clingy, all-black outfit, as she sits perched on an office couch, chatting effervescently about her work and more while on a break from rehearsals for "Ikebana," which opens at East West Players today.
She's got the energetic manner of a woman who can schmooze her way through an industry cocktail party, no problem. Tom also has an easy laugh--but it's just a bit too easy, betraying a mild case of the jitters just beneath the composed veneer.
Tom may look the part of the rising talent that she is, but she's not so self-assured.
"I was desperate from the start," says the 31-year-old, with a quick giggle at her own expense. "From the time I was little, I always felt like an outsider. I always felt nervous and uncomfortable with myself."
Ever on the prowl for new techniques and ideas that might help her feel more at ease, she meditates daily and has dabbled in an array of New Age and metaphysical pursuits, from psychics to chakras.
"I've been a seeker pretty much my whole life," says Tom, who recently bought a second home in Sedona, Ariz.--a mecca of sorts for the chant-and-crystal set. "What I've realized is that, especially in Los Angeles, a lot of people are on some kind of path, even if they're not completely conscious of it.
"I've sort of always been on a path to find more peace, more security within myself. I've always felt like I needed something to help me feel better."
Not that she's feeling bad these days.
With a career that's been going strong since she made her Broadway debut at 17 in "A Chorus Line," Tom has recently broken through to mainstream film and TV success. She's best known for her performance in "The Joy Luck Club" and from her recurring role on the TV series "Friends," as Ross' girlfriend last season.
Yet despite her screen work, Tom hasn't completely abandoned the stage. She recently wrote and performed a solo show called "25 Psychics" and is now making her East West Players debut in "Ikebana," directed by Lisa Peterson. Alice Tuan's new play focuses on a family of Chinese American women grappling with issues of personal history and identity as they learn about Japanese flower arranging, known as ikebana.
The family in "Ikebana" includes two sisters, one an introverted writer, the other an outgoing singer. Tom plays the latter character, the one director Peterson describes as "a flamboyant, dual-natured person. She's playing the wild sister of the two."
It's a trickier role than one might expect. The actress in this part "has to be able to convey a certain self-absorption," Peterson says.
"Lauren is able to do that without losing our sympathy for the character, which is hard," she says.
"She's able to maintain enough vulnerability that we still love her. Lauren is really outgoing and fun, but she also questions everything she does, so [her work is] complicated in the right way. She has the right amount of self-doubt to make the part work."
Tom's self-doubt stems from her childhood in Highland Park, Ill. She and her older brother came from the only Chinese American family in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. Their father was an entrepreneur who ran five small restaurant-related businesses, their mother a housewife.
Tom discovered dance as a teenager, spending every spare moment away from her high school studies in the studio.
"I was very shy, and it was the perfect way for me to express myself," she says.
In 1982, at 16, Tom happened into the kind of break of which show-biz fables are made. When the national touring company of "A Chorus Line" came through Chicago, Tom auditioned and was invited to join the show.
She was young, but she recognized a major opportunity.
"I was so excited," she says. "It was the happiest moment of my life. I couldn't even believe that that happened."
Unfortunately, her good fortune met with considerably less excitement at home.
"I was supposed to go to Northwestern and become a dental hygienist, get married, have babies," Tom says. "My father was very against me being in show business.
"Usually in Chinese culture, education is the most highly valued. Theater is kind of like right next to being a prostitute--not that bad, but it's really not very highly regarded."
Inevitably, the "Chorus Line" offer led to arguments between the teenage Tom and her father.
"It was very hard for me because my mother was so excited for me and my dad was very wary of the whole thing," she says. "I was fighting so hard to prove to him that this made sense for me.
"Years later, my mom told me that during that time that we were fighting so much he was secretly very relieved that I was such a tiger about it. That meant he didn't have to worry about me. But I didn't know that at the time. I felt like I was totally disappointing him."
Ultimately, Tom was allowed to leave home to go with the show on tour.
"They trained me on the road for six months, gave me singing lessons and some acting lessons," she recalls.
In 1983, she made her debut with the show on Broadway. But the triumph was marred by loss.
"My dad actually died right as he was going to come see me," Tom says. "He was going to drive my brother to [graduate school at] Stanford, then fly to New York to watch me open. But he had a heart attack right before he got in the car.
"I had the most exciting and wonderful thing happen right next to the worst thing that could ever happen. It was very hard for me. I feel like I'm still dealing with it."
Tom stayed with "A Chorus Line" for a year and a half, during which time she studied acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York.
In the next few years, she landed roles on Broadway, in "Hurlyburly" and "Doonesbury," as well as at the Public Theater and elsewhere.
Tom then found herself going through an avant-garde phase. She had roles in Peter Sellars' version of "Ajax," seen at the La Jolla Playhouse and the National Theatre in Washington in 1986, and JoAnne Akalaitis' Guthrie Theatre production of "The Screens" in 1989, among other noted productions.
In 1990, Tom landed a small part, as an abusive dim sum waitress, in the movie "Cadillac Man"--a job that proved to be the beginning of the next phase of her career.
"It started out as two lines, then it grew," she says. "I was playing my grandmother in my own head, but they didn't know that."
For a small part, it brought Tom a lot of attention.
" 'The Tonight Show' thought that I was some girl from Chinatown that they'd found in the street," she says. "They thought, 'Wouldn't it be funny to have her on the show?' They didn't know I was an actress."
The charade ended when Tom went west.
"They flew me out and then realized I was an actress," she says. "But I went on and we had such a good time that they asked me if I'd like to come on again the next month."
She said yes, and she's been in L.A. ever since.
"Because of that 'Cadillac Man' thing, I had a series of network deals every year, where they wanted to develop a sitcom for me," she says. "So I got paid a lot of money to sit there."
In addition to "Cadillac Man," Tom has also appeared in "Mr. Jones," "When a Man Loves a Woman," "Dear God," "North" and other films. Yet her part in "Joy Luck Club" has had the greatest effect.
"When 'Joy Luck Club' came out I kind of became a role model for the Asian acting community," Tom says. "I started to talk at colleges and emcee charity things. I'm much more connected to my sense of being Asian now."
It's a major change in mind-set from the way she looked at things during the years that she lived on the East Coast.
"When I first moved to New York, I was so naive that it never crossed my mind at all that I wouldn't get a job because I was Asian," Tom says. "I didn't think very much at all about the fact that I was Asian. Especially coming from a Jewish neighborhood, I was not connected to my Asian-ness at all."
But she learned the realities of typecasting shortly after arriving on the West Coast.
"Once I got out here, it felt like the emphasis was a little more on the visual," she says. "If you can act, that's like really great, but it wasn't the primary focus.
"I've had a lot of good luck out here. I'm just very aware of looking at things differently than when I was in New York."
When it comes to the potential effect of her ethnicity on her Hollywood career, Tom is cautiously critical but upbeat.
"I may not get to go up for everything because I'm Asian, but what I don't want to do is sit around in a room with other Asian actors and gripe about how horrible our situation is," she says. "That doesn't help anybody.
"I like to stay positive and keep focused on all the changes that are happening slowly. There are so many Asian faces now on TV and in the movies. I really think it's changing for the better."
Should the superficiality of the entertainment industry ever get Tom down, she's got not only her Sedona retreat but also some creative outlets to help her feel more balanced, among them her one-woman show, "25 Psychics." Next year, she will tour the piece, which she performed at Highways in Santa Monica this past season.
In her solo performance, Tom recounts the many different teachers and "quacks" she's met and the methods tried along the way in her search for enlightenment. In fact, if you want a list, she can launch into the litany faster than you can say holy holistic healing.
"I've read every self-help book known to man," says the actress, quoting her own show. "I've gone to seminars, walked across fire, gone to 25 psychics. Been to therapy. Been re-birthed. Been into tranquillity . . . had my aura read, my palm read, my head read, my Turkish coffee grounds read. I've had my body Rolfed, my chart done. . . . I've filled my house with crystals, I've meditated with crystals . . . put crystals on my pillow."
Less obviously, "25 Psychics" also stands as a tribute to Tom's grandmother, a native of the tiny village of Hoi Ping, in southern China.
"My grandmother comes in [to the show] and gives me some sound advice," Tom says of her family's matriarch, who died recently at the age of 87. "In her country, you never stopped to look in and reflect. [Finding enlightenment and fulfillment] has nothing to do with yourself. It has to do with serving, with community."
* "Ikebana," East West Players, 4424 Santa Monica Blvd. Opens today, 7 p.m. Regular schedule: Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends Dec. 22. $18-$23. (213) 660-0366.