In 1996, four years after settling in Hollywood as the iconic Cassandra Wong in “Wayne’s World,” Tia Carrere was in Las Vegas for a pilot called “Desert Breeze.” While checking in at the Alexis Park Resort, the man behind the front desk introduced himself. He told Carrere that he dreamed of becoming a stand-up comic, but that his mother, a petite Filipino woman, wanted him to become a nurse. That man, Joseph Glenn Herbert Sr., would become known as comedian Jo Koy and, like Carrere, become a household name among Filipinos.
“He had hair and glasses then,” Carrere laughs during a Zoom interview. Twenty-six years since their chance meeting, Carrere and Koy are making history with “Easter Sunday” – one of the first nationally distributed studio films featuring a majority of the Filipino cast, from the coveted lead role to the supporting roles. Directed by Jay Chandrasekhar (“Super Troopers”), Koy plays Joe Valencia in a semi-autobiographical story about a hopeful comic headed home to Daly City with his teenage son, and an absent father’s guilt, in tow. Carrere takes on the role of Tita Theresa, whose sibling rivalry with Valencia’s mother (played by Lydia Gaston) pumps up the thrill and delightful merriment that is Filipino Easter.
The last time a Filipino film got a nod from Hollywood was in 2000. “The Debut,” a coming-of-age story by Filipino-American filmmaker Gene Cajayon, portrays the nuances of Filipino pride, shame and, ultimately, love for the family in one masterful film. But despite billing from rising star Dante Basco and Tirso Cruz III, the film struggled to gain momentum and remains relatively unknown, even among Filipino Americans growing up in the ’90s.
Shuffle forward two decades, and “Easter Sunday” echoes similar sentiments, this time through the tender lens of comedy. For Carrere, who is Hawaiian and Filipino, this is also the first time in her prolific, over 30-year career that she has played a Filipino. From the rock star babe Wayne makes giddy with her Cantonese, to Chu-Hoi leading a pack through booby-trapped Vietnam in “Quantum Leap,” “I’ve played Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai – so many different ethnic backgrounds but my own So it was great to attract my aunt’s accent, my father’s accent, my neighbors in Hawaii because I grew up in a Filipino neighborhood,” Carrere says. “And to celebrate and amplify that was real. nice, because I’ve never been able to play myself and what I knew best.”
Reflecting on her body of work, Carrere recalls being told she was too “exotic or ethnic” for network shows and casting agents who would eventually go with a “Central America” type. Despite this, Carrere would run 66 episodes of “Relic Hunter” as Sydney Fox, and continues to navigate Hollywood with a keen self-awareness — something she attributes to her grandmother, who raised her. “My grandmother raised me very simply, very salt of the earth,” Carrere says. “You don’t spend more money than you have. As soon as you got the Sears bills in the mail, we were on the bus to pay them. There are no delusions.”
“Easter Sunday” co-star Lydia Gaston says her chemistry with Carrere was a natural fit. “Tia, she knows who she is,” Gaston says. “She was just very real. We talked about real things. We laugh at the same things. We were talking about our sisters. … She’s really very accepting of who she is, and that’s so refreshing.”
Carrere has long used her celebrity to advocate for the Filipino community. Her longtime boyfriend, the ebullient Fritz Friedman (a former Sony executive and current member of the San Diego Arts and Culture Commission), has known the actress since she landed in Los Angeles at the age of 18. “She always never says no. When I asked her to do something on behalf of the community, on behalf of a charitable organization, she was very generous,” said Friedman, who worked with her to get Filipino-American WWII veterans’ benefits. ‘She’s a wonderful person. She is very nice. She is very friendly. She is also very strong. You know, under that veneer of kindness, you have to be tough to be in the entertainment business.
Towards the end of our conversation, Carrere smiles behind her gold aviator glasses and says, “We have more and more people in positions of power in Hollywood writing, producing, showwriting, executives, studios, who look like you and me.”
Her words are a reminder that while Hollywood hasn’t always been ready for an all-Filipino cast, Filipino Americans have been putting in the work of getting here for decades. And to see Jo Koy on the “Easter Sunday” billboards in Los Angeles and Tia Carrere’s cheeky humor accentuating the national Instagram ads not only confirms what we already know, but shows us that when we don’t table, we get our own kamayan. To the uninitiated, ‘kamayan’ is a Tagalog word meaning ‘by hand’, referring to the traditional Filipino eating style – communal and without plates or cutlery – ‘Easter Sunday’ style.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.