Despite her critically lauded appearances in Alan Parker's internment camp epic Come See the Paradise and director Wayne Wang's hit film version f The Joy Luck Club, Tomita had to get the Picture Bride part the old fashioned way: through auditions. When she found out she'd won the role, she was thrilled. "Kana is unlike any character I've ever seen before, especially one played by an Asian-American woman," she says. "She's tough and harsh on the outside, but underneath that exterior, she's actually a lot more vulnerable and soft than the lead character, Rijo. It was somewhat off-putting having to play a woman who's at first so unlikable, but when she finally breaks and you see that softer side, it all falls into place and she makes emotional sense."
The shoot in Hawaii was grueling, replete with continual storms. "Meteorologists projected that the year we shot, 1993, would be a dry year, so of course it turned out to be the rainiest year on record," she says, laughing. Yet despite elemental mishaps--not to mention a cast full of confident, experienced character actors with very definite ideas of what makes a good performance--there was surprisingly little rancor on the set. "There was the sense that this was a very important film for Asian-Americans," she says. "This wasn't your typical Hollywood romance. We all had an obligation to get it right."
Although Tomita has been associated primarily with historical epics and sociologically conscious dramas (she has appeared in two TV movies about Hiroshima survivors and had a recurring role in the Vietnam series "Tour of Duty"), the actress says she has a hankering for crowd-pleasing popcorn parts. She'll get to strut that part of her stuff this fall in Four Rooms, the Quentin Tarantino-produced anthology of comedic tales set in a single hotel. She says that if she could play one part in all of movie history, it would be Barbara Stanwyck's role as a self-sacrificing blue-collar mom in the 1937 tearjerker Stella Dallas. "That character is so giving and so scary at the same time," marvels Tomita, "and Stanwyck is so much bigger than life. That's how I'd play her, too--bigger than life. I really love those kinds of characters--the ones who are so big and colorful and complicated that they send chills down your spine.