Tia Carrere was in Las Vegas in 1996 shooting a pilot called “Desert Breeze.” This was four years after she had established a permanent place for herself in the Hollywood industry by playing the legendary Cassandra Wong in “Wayne’s World.” The gentleman who was at the front desk at the Alexis Park Resort made his introductions while guests were checking in. He shared with Carrere his aspirations to become a stand-up comedian, despite the fact that his mother, a petite Filipina, encouraged him to pursue a career in nursing instead. That individual, Joseph Glenn Herbert Sr., would later become known as the comic Jo Koy and, much like Carrere, would become a name that was familiar to most Filipinos.
During the course of the Zoom interview, Carrere laughs and says, “At the time, he had hair and glasses.” Carrere and Koy are making history with their film “Easter Sunday,” which is one of the first films with a majority Filipino cast to be nationally distributed by a studio. This includes the desired lead role as well as supporting roles, and it has been twenty-six years since their chance meeting. Koy plays the role of Joe Valencia in the semiautobiographical story about a hopeful comic who travels home to Daly City with his adolescent kid and absent-father guilt in tow. The story was directed by Jay Chandrasekhar (“Super Troopers”), who also directed the film. Tita Theresa, whose sibling rivalry with Valencia’s mother (played by Lydia Gaston), pumps up the tension and delicious mirth that characterizes Filipino Easter. Carrere slips into the role of Tita Theresa.
The year 2000 marked the most recent occasion that Hollywood paid attention to a film from the Philippines. In “The Debut,” a coming-of-age narrative directed by Filipino American filmmaker Gene Cajayon, the complexities of Filipino pride, humiliation, and ultimately love of family is shown in a single, superb film. “The Debut” is a story about a young man growing into his own. However, despite having Dante Basco, a rising star, and Tirso Cruz III, a relatively unknown actor, the picture had difficulty gaining pace and is still largely unknown, especially among Filipino Americans who came of age in the 1990s.
The film “Easter Sunday” takes place twenty years later and revisits similar themes, albeit through a more lighthearted and comedic viewpoint of comedy. It is also the first time in Carrere’s illustrious career spanning more than 30 years that she has taken on the role of a Filipino. Carrere is of Hawaiian and Filipino descent. I’ve portrayed Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Thai — so many various ethnic backgrounds other than my own, from the rock-star blonde who confuses Wayne with her Cantonese to Chu-Hoi guiding a platoon through a booby-trapped Vietnam in “Quantum Leap.” Because I grew up in a Filipino neighborhood, it was nice to pull on the accents of my aunt, my dad, and my next-door neighbors in Hawaii,” adds Carrere. “So it was great to pull on their accents.” “And to get to celebrate that and magnify that was really exciting, because I never got to play myself and what I knew best before,” she said. “And to get to celebrate that and amplify that was really fun.”
Carrere recalls that while she was considering her body of work, she was warned that she was too “foreign or ethnic” for network shows and casting agents who would end up going with a “Middle America” type. This caused the casting agents to choose someone else. Carrere would lead 66 episodes of “Relic Hunter” as Sydney Fox, and she continues to negotiate Hollywood with a sharp self-awareness, something she thanks her grandmother, who reared her. Despite this, Carrere would lead 66 episodes of “Relic Hunter” as Sydney Fox. Carrere adds that her grandmother nurtured her in a manner that was “extremely simple, very salt-of-the-earth.” You don’t blow through more cash than you have available to you. We were on our way to Sears to make the payments as soon as the bills arrived in the mail, which was as soon as you received them. There is no room for illusions.”
Lydia Gaston, who co-starred alongside Carrere in “Easter Sunday,” has said that the two of them had natural chemistry together. Gaston remarks, “Tia, she is aware of who she is,” “She just came across as really genuine. We engaged in substantive conversation. The same things make us laugh out loud. We had a discussion regarding our sisters… It’s really nice to see someone who isn’t afraid to be themselves, and she does that so well.
Carrere has shown a long-standing commitment to using her celebrity status to support causes important to the Filipino community. Since she moved to Los Angeles when she was 18 years old, her lifelong friend Fritz Friedman, who is currently a member of the San Diego Arts and Culture Commission, has known the actress. Fritz Friedman is a former executive at Sony and currently serves on the commission. “She never, ever, ever, ever, ever says no. “When I asked her to do something on behalf of the community, whether it be for a charity or for the community itself, she is incredibly generous,” recalls Friedman, who collaborated with her to get benefits for Filipino American soldiers of World War II. “She is an exceptional member of the human race. She is really charitable. She is really kind and generous. Additionally, she possesses a lot of physical strength. You have to be tough, despite the fact that others see you as friendly if you want to be successful in the entertainment business.
Near the end of our conversation, Carrere smiles behind a pair of gold aviator spectacles and says, “We’re having more and more people that look like you and me in key positions in Hollywood that are writing, producing, show writing, executives, and studios.”
Her words serve as a reminder that although Hollywood hasn’t always been ready for an all-Filipino cast, Filipino Americans have been putting in the work to get here for decades. Her sentiments also serve as a reminder that Hollywood hasn’t always been ready for an all-American ensemble. And to see Jo Koy on “Easter Sunday” billboards across Los Angeles and Tia Carrere’s cheeky humour punctuating national Instagram commercials not only confirms what we already know but also reminds us that when we aren’t granted a seat at the table, we make our own kamayan (struggle) to be heard and seen. For those who are unfamiliar, “kamayan” is a Tagalog phrase that means “by hand.” This term refers to the traditional way that Filipinos eat, which is communally and without plates or other utensils, in the style of “Easter Sunday.”