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.”