Rae Dawn Chong in the Hot Seat - Rolling Stone
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Rae Dawn Chong in the Hot Seat

The actress keeps her cool as her career heats up

Rae Dawn Chong, The Color Purple

Rae Dawn Chong in a scene from the film 'The Color Purple', 1985

Warner Brothers/Getty

Rae Dawn Chong is in New York, trying to explain how she became the first actress of Cherokee-Chinese-African-French-Scottish-Irish heritage ever to land a part originally written for a blue-eyed blonde. “Let’s face facts,” says Chong, recalling her determination to play Arnold Schwarzenegger’s wisecracking sidekick in Commando, Hollywood’s latest attempt to break Sylvester Stallone’s headlock on the blood-and-guts film dollar. “This is Arnold Schwarzenegger we’re talking about, and people are going to see this movie. I want people to see me.”

After a “disastrous” first audition, Chong read and reread the screenplay and muscled a second try in front of Schwarzenegger and the Commando production team. Then she bounded into the room and gave what producer Joel Silver describes as “a phenomenal reading, full of humor, energy and excitement. She simply blew us a way.” And that’s how Chong got the part that she hopes will get “people to see me.”

Not that the twenty-four-year-old daughter of comedian Tommy Chong (as in Cheech and…) has been exactly invisible; it’s just that she’s been, well, inconspicuous. Though Chong has appeared in a half dozen films in the past four years, playing supporting roles as diverse as her ethnic background, none of them has been what you would call big at the box office. She was a primitive cave dweller in 1982’s Quest for Fire; a jazz student in last year’s break-dance musical Beat Street; a barfly poet in Alan Rudolph’s moody romance Choose Me. And those are her better-known films. How many people caught Chong as a lesbian fan dancer in last winter’s Fear City? How about as a member of a futuristic youth gang in the recently released City Limits? Indeed, Rae Dawn Chong has probably attracted more attention with her three minutes of erotic prancing in Mick Jagger’s “Just Another Night” video than in all her movies put together.

Dressed in a bright turquoise jump suit, her tightly curled hair flying free in what she calls her “wild, third-worldly look,” Chong dines on salad and club soda at Memphis, a Manhattan restaurant so trendy it doesn’t need a sign on the door. She is in town to promote not one but three new movies, each calculated to move her away from the esoteric and toward the popular. “Every actress wants to be successful. And to be successful means to be a movie star,” says Chong, looking very much like one. Besides Commando, which represents her first leading role as well as her first real shot at a box-office smash, Chong is appearing as Kevin Costner’s girlfriend in the bicycle-race drama American Flyers, her first major-studio picture. Then there’s The Color Purple, Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, scheduled for a Christmastime release. Chong’s role as Squeak in this heroic, emotional story may prove to be the most important so far in her young but already eclectic career. After all, as Chong herself might put it, this is Steven Spielberg we’re talking about, and people are not only going to see this film, but it may win Oscars as well.

On her first major publicity tour, Chong is still wary of interviews — as if to express her hopes in public would be to guarantee their premature demise. “The worst thing I can do in life is to expect anything. I’m always checking myself not to have assumptions or expectations beyond the moment, because I’ll just get hurt,” she says, her fast-breaking sentences rolling into each other like waves in a storm. “What if Commando doesn’t do any business? What happens if Color Purple does, but everybody else gets noticed and I don’t? If I’ve given an interview and said, ‘I hope I get this and this and this,’ and, boom, I don’t get anything, I’ll be this schmuck with egg on my face. And listen, at any moment, man, I could be a waitress in a restaurant. I could be a taxi driver in New York City. I don’t know whether I’ll have to be driving pickup trucks and delivering newspapers next Wednesday if these movies come out and people go, ‘Rae Dawn who?’ ”

Which, actually, is not a bad question. As it happens, Chong’s parentage is as unconventional as her name. It is widely known that the actress’ father is Tommy Chong, the musician turned comedian whose Up in Smoke and other Cheech and Chong films have grossed somewhere around $300 million. But ask Rae Dawn about her mother, and her full-throttle mouth quickly goes into underdrive. “I have two mothers, Abigail and Maxine,” she says tersely. “It only hurts my family, even if I mention it.” Why? “Because what if I say something about one mother and don’t say something about another mother? Both are very responsible for who I am.” George Hackett writes the Newsmakers column in Newsweek magazine.

But Tommy Chong (who is half Chinese, half Scotch-Irish) offers a more credible explanation for his daughter’s sensitivity about the subject. “Rae Dawn was born out of wedlock,” he reveals, explaining that his daughter’s natural mother is a Canadian named Abigail, part Madagascan, part Cherokee, who left Tommy before Rae Dawn’s birth. When Rae Dawn was six months old, Tommy married another Canadian, Maxine Sneed, in Edmonton, Alberta; Abigail brought Rae Dawn to the wedding, where Tommy laid eyes on his young daughter for the first time. After an unpleasant custody battle, Rae Dawn was taken from Abigail at about age three and raised by her father and Maxine, first in Edmonton, then in Vancouver, Detroit and finally Los Angeles. Rae Dawn didn’t learn of her natural mother until adolescence.

Tommy Chong describes the atmosphere at home during Rae Dawn’s formative years as “loose” though not quite as smoky as his later films would imply. “He wasn’t that way at home,” says Rae Dawn, though she does recall that her father smoked marijuana as casually as some people drink martinis. Rae Dawn has little more to say about her childhood, but her dad describes a mutually warm and loving relationship.

Her tranquil existence with Maxine and Tommy was shattered by the time Rae Dawn was ten years old. In 1971, Tommy divorced Maxine after carrying on a long relationship with a neighbor, Shelby Fiddis, now his common-law wife and mother of three of his children. “Rae Dawn took it the hardest,” says Tommy. “When I left, I think she felt that it was somehow her fault.” After the divorce, Rae Dawn was pretty much on her own, keeping a home base at Maxine’s house in Venice, California. She was twelve when she learned about her natural mother, Abigail, and went to visit her in Canada; that same year she went off to boarding school. “In terms of parents,” she says, “I’m closest to no one. I was by myself.” Though father and daughter maintain close contact by telephone, Rae Dawn says she seldom visits her dad. “It’s hard when you’re twenty-four to hang out with your parents,” she explains. “But I have communication with my family.”

Now Rae Dawn, a divorced mother herself, lives in Malibu with her three-year-old son, Morgan. Of her ex-husband, a New York stockbroker, she says only that “he’s Welsh” and “we still see him.”

Chong made her professional film debut when she was twelve. A Walt Disney talent scout happened to see her sing “Celebrate Life” at her sixth-grade graduation from the Ojai Valley School near Los Angeles, and she was given a featured role in the Disney TV film The Whiz Kid of Riverton. Realizing at a young age that she was more likely to make it as an actress than a singer, Chong enrolled in acting school and, at sixteen, was picked up for the female lead in the hip 1978 film comedy FM. When the producers learned Chong was underage, she lost the part. But somewhere, among the tryouts and rejections and small roles, the young girl developed an aura of self-confidence and a drive to succeed. “I decided that I liked being Rae Dawn,” she recalls. “I stopped worrying about things.” After a short modeling stint in London, Chong heard about Quest for Fire and got herself an appointment with director Jean-Jacques Annaud. It would be the first in a string of memorable auditions.

“I forgot about the interview until about twenty minutes before it started,” she recalls. “I’d been at the beach surfing, I didn’t have any interview clothes, so I threw on this white dress, which was totally wrinkled and dirty. I had sand on my legs, and I didn’t put my shoes on because I thought, ‘Hey, it’s primitive.’ So I walked in thinking, ‘Boy, if this doesn’t work, I don’t know what will.”‘ But it didn’t work, at least not right away. Annaud expressed interest but decided to continue his search. “The son of a bitch went around the world for seven months looking for somebody else,” Chong remembers bitterly. When her interview with Annaud was over, she says, “I just shined a smile at him, and as soon as I got through the door, I said to myself, ‘I never walked in that office,’ because it was the only way I was going to survive seven months of doing things like Lou Grant. Eventually, Annaud came back and handed Chong the role. Chong put resentment aside and gave a performance that many critics called the highlight of the film and that won her a Genie Award, the Canadian equivalent to an Oscar.

Chong had to wait two years before her next movie, Fear City, but she’s been on a roll ever since, starting one film on the tail of another and keeping so busy that she sometimes brings Morgan along on location. But the actress hasn’t let her recent success diminish her passion for the dramatic, come-from-behind audition. Consider the famous Commando reading that convinced the producers to forget about the blue-eyed blonde. The script segment that Chong was supposed to read called for Schwarzenegger to find — of all things — a dildo while rummaging through her stewardess’ flight bag (the scene has since been cut). “I thought it was disgusting, low Sixties chauvinistic humor,” Chong says. So instead of sticking to her written lines and saying, “Oh, it gets lonely up there,” Chong took a risk: she screamed, “What’s that! That’s not mine!” and jumped back in horror. “They howled,” recalls Chong. “I had these executives, who I think were very tired, laughing. And I knew I had the part, too, because of it.”

Perhaps. But the directors who have worked with Chong think there’s more to her appeal than the ability to make people laugh during a brief audition. “She has an amazing screen presence that makes up for her relative lack of experience,” says American Flyers director John Badham. Alan Rudolph (Choose Me) agrees: “She’s a mixture of humanity with a smile that simply makes you feel good,” he says. “Everything that’s unique about her comes across in one beautiful package.”

And so even if Chong’s master plan fails, and after American Flyers and Commando and The Color Purple, people are still asking, ‘Rae Dawn who?’ this actress who has learned never to count on anything will no doubt carry on. “Look, I’m twenty-four years old,” she says. “I have so much to do, I have so much to learn. If these movies don’t do a lot for me, then God, that’s cool, too. That means I’m not supposed to have that yet. I’m supposed to work some more.”

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