'Friends' guest star Lauren Tom on playing Ross’ girlfriend, Julie

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Responding to recent criticism that “Friends: The Reunion” failed to acknowledge or grapple with the sitcom’s nearly all-white white legacy, the special’s director Ben Winston told the British newspaper The Times: “What more diversity do they want in this reunion?” But a small handful of women of color did appear as guest stars on “Friends” over the show’s 10-year run and their absence from the reunion is conspicuous. Winton’s explanation: “Not everyone could join the show.”

Lauren Tom played Ross’s girlfriend Julie for a seven-episode arc starting in 1995, and after seeing Winston’s defense, I was curious if Tom had been invited to participate. “Unfortunately, the producers did not invite me to the reunion,” she said.

But that’s not what prompted me to reach out to Tom last week. Instead, it was because only recently did I learn she is a Highland Park, Illinois, native, and one whose family has notable Chicago roots: Ping Tom Memorial Park in Chinatown is named for her uncle.

Though her childhood was spent in suburban Chicago, by 17 she was branching out when she was cast in a national touring production of the musical “A Chorus Line.” The show would eventually take her to Broadway and then her career shifted to TV and film, including a starring role in 1993′s “The Joy Luck Club,” which is what got her cast on “Friends,” no audition needed.

“That was really quite the journey I took,” said Tom, whose career also includes a long list of credits as a voice actor on everything from “King of the Hill” to “Futurama” to “Teen Titans Go!”

“I don’t know how much you know about Chinese culture,” she said by way of introduction to her story, “but my father’s goal for me was to get married and have five Chinese sons.”

Both sets of grandparents immigrated to Chicago from Hoiping, China. Her mother’s side of the family had a restaurant called Bang Ho on Fullerton Avenue. Her father’s side of the family was in the restaurant supplier business. “And one of the restaurants they worked with was Bang Ho, and that’s how my parents (Chan and Nancy) met.”

But Tom’s father envisioned a life for her beyond the family business. “His brainstorm was that I would become a dental hygienist and work for a dentist, where I would meet lots of wealthy men. I wanted to be an actor and dancer, and if it weren’t for my mom, I wouldn’t have been able to pursue my career in the arts. My dad was just so set against it.”

Landing a role in “A Chorus Line” as a teenager was “one of those drop-in-your-lap gifts from the universe,” she said. “I was super shy, so I put all of my energy and time into dancing.” Every day after school she was in the dance studio. “I couldn’t act or sing, but I was a really good dancer.” The summer she was 16, she worked as a dancer at Disney World. “My mom was with me in Florida that summer and she really was my champion. She had always wanted to be in the arts herself and her mom was like ‘no.’ So she was trying to foster that dream in me.”

Tom graduated from high school a year early, and that’s when “A Chorus Line” came through Chicago. “There was a part for a tiny Asian in the show, Connie Wong. A friend of mine from the Gus Giordano Dance School had been in ‘A Chorus Line’ already, so she gave them a heads-up that I was a really good dancer and they should audition me. And even though I couldn’t sing or act, they decided to hire me and train me on the road. I was touring with the show for a couple of years and then I moved to New York and did it on Broadway.”

Transferring to Broadway would be a bittersweet milestone. “My dad had seen me on the road, but the plan was that he was going to drive my brother to Stanford and drop him off at business school and then fly to New York for my opening night. He passed away right as they were getting in the car. It was just awful. It was such a juxtaposition of the best thing and the worst happening right at the same time. But life is funny that way. They held the spot for me so I could come home to Chicago for the funeral, and then I ended up doing the show for another year.”

Los Angeles came calling with small guest roles on “The Facts of Life” and “Spencer: For Hire.” Then came her first major on screen role with “The Joy Luck Club,” adapted from Amy Tan’s bestselling novel. Director Wayne Wang, Tom remembers, “wanted to know which part we resonated with the most in the book. And I said Lena,” a young woman in an isolating marriage to a man who is cold and obsessive about splitting the bills between them. “Growing up in Highland Park was so idyllic. But at the time we were the only Asian family in the whole town. So I felt very invisible and I had no other Asian friends. The only time we ever saw anybody Asian was when we would go to the restaurant or to visit my other set of grandparents in Chinatown. So I felt very outside and lonely and that’s kind of Lena’s story too.”

One seminal project would lead to the next.

“Gail Mancuso was one of the directors on ‘Friends’ and she had seen ‘The Joy Luck Club’ and she really liked the movie. They were looking for someone to play Ross’s girlfriend. The joke was that Rachel was going to think she was a b— no matter how nice she was, so they wanted to find someone whose essence just seemed like a really nice person. Like, there’s no way you could ever hate this person. And Gail apparently thought of me.”

When it came to taping the episodes, “Everyone wanted Rachel and Ross to get together and I was the ‘other’ woman, so when I would make my entrance the audience actually booed me, which was hard. Most actors, we want to be loved. That’s probably why we got into this in the first place (laughs).

“Then to make matters worse, when my arc ended — that was always the plan — the National Enquirer ran a story on the front page that said: ‘”Friends” actress fired.’ The story was that Jennifer Aniston, who played Rachel, thought that I, Lauren Tom the actress, was a b— so she had me fired. There wasn’t a kernel of truth to it, and it was the first time it dawned on me that those stories can be completely made-up.

“I was like, no, no, no! Don’t you understand, that’s the storyline on the show, and I was never fired! I called my agents and said, ‘Should I hire a lawyer?’ And they advised me that a picture is worth a thousand words and to take the publicity, good or bad, and be OK with it. And ultimately they didn’t think it was worth my time or money to pursue suing them. At the end of the day, I knew what the truth was. And it never affected my reputation or my ability to get work. People don’t put much stock in those kinds of tabloids, and maybe the story went away because we didn’t do anything. So that was nuts. And now it’s just a funny story.”

But looking back, Tom said her time on “Friends” was more meaningful than she realized when she was first cast. “It was one of my very favorite jobs of my whole career just for the sheer fact that young Asian women come up to me and say, ‘Oh my gosh, when I saw you on “Friends” it was the most exciting thing ever!’ Not that it was the most challenging role on the planet, but seeing me on that show validates their existence and it gives people inspiration: If that person can do it, maybe I can do it too.”

Working as a theater actor, Tom found she was cast in roles that weren’t specifically written as Asian. But in Hollywood, “I really hit a lot of limitations. I wasn’t able to go up for parts that were written for a blonde white girl,” although voice acting has allowed her to “tap into that same kind of freedom I had in theater.”

As an industry, TV and film is still overwhelmingly white. Especially in key decision-making positions. Recently cast members of the Canadian sitcom “Kim’s Convenience” (the final season of which premiered on Netflix last week) have been speaking publicly about concerns over the lack of Asian writers on the show, poor pay and racist storylines.

“In the Asian culture, I was raised to be very polite and quiet and not to make too many waves,” said Tom. “But I think as a collective community, we’ve had to learn how to use our voices in a loud way to get anywhere. Sometimes the squeaky wheel gets some grease, so you have to make some noise. During this pandemic, with all these anti-Asian hate crimes, it’s not even a choice anymore.

“We have to speak up at this point.”


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