After More Than 35 Years Acting, Tia Carrere Is Finally Getting the Chance To Represent Her Filipino
Article & Interview by Zara Rawoof
Hollywood’s love of family-centered comedy is no secret. It’s a role in movies that audiences always see themselves in. In “Easter Sunday,” a Filipino family is brought to the screen on one of the most important days in their culture. Jo Koy leads the film as Joe Valencia, a single father still trying to get his big break as an actor. The movie’s plot is based on Koy’s life, resonating deeper with many Filipino Americans since hitting the theaters in August.
Several eccentric characters make for an entertaining movie, including Tita Teresa. Teresa is Joe’s aunt and remains in constant conflict with his mother. Played by legendary actress Tia Carrere, Tita Teresa can strike a chord for many viewers as the judgemental auntie. “It’s all good-hearted at the bottom of it,” Tia Carrere said of her character’s quips and digs when talking to Nfm Magazine. Born in Honolulu, her Filipino heritage had not been portrayed on-screen before “Easter Sunday.” To prepare, Tia began learning bits and pieces of Tagalog. This was no easy feat. Tia relied on her family and friends to help her perfect her accent and says her character is “a composite of all these different spicy women that I knew in my neighborhood where I grew up in Hawaii.” Carrere’s role as Tita Teresa benefited from her upbringing surrounded by similarly judgemental people. But Tia remembers both her and Jo Koy acknowledging the personality could be found in several cultural settings.
The actress’s relationship with the leading man in “Easter Sunday” stretches further back than on set. “He’s gonna hate that I keep telling this story,” Tia laughs. “I was checking into a hotel in Vegas with my mom because I was doing a TV pilot there. And he was working behind the front desk.” Jo Koy recognized Carrere, and the two bonded over their Filipino heritage. Koy confided in Tia, telling her about his aspiration of becoming a stand-up comic. She remembers telling him, “If you really want to do this, if it fills your soul and it’s not about the fame and fortune…you have to do it.” Years later, the pair reconnected when Koy played at the iconic Laugh Factory. Since that fateful hotel check-in in Las Vegas, Tia has been ecstatic to see how successful Jo has become over the years.
This relationship carried onto the set of “Easter Sunday,” with each cast member feeling comfortable enough to share suggestions on how they felt the movie could represent their experience even further. Tia admires Jo Koy’s dedication to keeping this comedy tasteful; something often lost in movies centered around minorities. Whether it had to do with foods or accents, there was an acknowledgment that Filipino culture would not be the butt of any jokes. “The key about how we represented our people was really in Joe’s filter,” Tia says. This contrasts greatly with the earlier days in her career, where Carrere spent her auditions being told directors weren’t “going exotic with the role” or that she was too ethnic. “It’s indefensible. There’s no explanation as to why you wouldn’t fit in that world. It’s just that they didn’t want ‘somebody like you’ in that role,” Carrere reflects.
The frustrating start of her career began with “General Hospital” in 1984 when interracial couples were still not shown in the media. Tia says the evolution of the entertainment industry has been astounding. While there is still work to do, she appreciates how “we see what our general population looks like reflected on the screen.” But Tia Carrere has been around long enough to know the key to driving diversity upwards. “We have to make sure we show up and put our money where our mouth is,” Carrere insists. “Go and support these films. If Hollywood sees that films like [“Easter Sunday”] make money, we will make more.”
Tia’s knowledge of show business has been growing since she was discovered in a grocery store at 17 years old. “I was modeling at the time, so I had just come from a photoshoot and had a full face of makeup on. I had a haku headband, which is like a garland full of flowers, around my head. A producer’s parents approached me.” This led to her first film, “Aloha Summer.” After receiving her SAG card, the actress made some money and left Hawaii for Hollywood.
Her success as an actress came young, but her musical career began even earlier. At around 14 years old, Tia began performing with her current music partner Daniel Ho. In 2009, the pair won two GRAMMY Awards for their albums “‘Ikena” and “Huana Ke Aloha.”
Tia Carrere’s success is undeniable, but being a performer means that rejection is inevitable. Tia’s resilience throughout her life keeps her bouncing back, excitedly looking for life’s next role. “It’s hard not to take [rejection] personally. You’re the product. You can say, ‘I don’t want to buy this purse because the handles are too short and it breaks too easily.’ But when you’re the product, it’s hard not to take all that. I guess I’m super stubborn,” Carrere jokes, pondering what has kept her resilient throughout her life. “Or maybe I don’t care what people have to say. I think it was because there’s no plan B. There was no soft landing. I’m not skilled in anything else, so I’ve gotta move forward.”
Since her teenage years, Tia has been swimming upstream in the entertainment industry, prevailing against the racist, discriminatory habits that actors of color face. Now, Carrere is finally representing her people in “Easter Sunday.” Her role not only connects with an audience on a deeply personal level, but it continues to open doors for more actors that look like her. With so much work left to be done, it’s easy to forget just how much of a difference people like Carrere have made with their careers. But remembering progress is as important as making change happen. After years in film pushing away this part of her identity, Tia Carrere has finally been a part of a project that brings Filipino culture to the world.