Rae Dawn Chong in the Hot Seat
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.
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