By TOM LAVENTURE
AAP staff writer
New York (May 31, 2013) — Jodi Long was made for the theater. Yet, she enjoys her work in films and has a knack for playing judges and tiger mom’s on television.
Long is a Broadway actress with more than 30 major theater roles, and appearances in 18 feature films, dozens of television shows, and produced her own documentary about her theatrical parents. She is going strong with television and her own one-woman theater project for 2013.
“I have made a living from acting for a very long time, and I have been really lucky,” Long said. “Luck comes with hard work, perseverance, and from being incredibly tenacious and especially when everyone seemed to be saying no to me.”
Long’s current project is “Sullivan & Son”, a comedy series on TBS that was just renewed for a second 10-episode season returning June 13 on TBS. She portrays ‘Ok Cha Sullivan’, the frugal Korean immigrant wife of ‘Jack Sullivan’ (Dan Lauria) and mother of Steve Sullivan’ (Steve Byrne).
The show set in a multi-generation family bar in Pittsburgh. Byrne is a real life Pittsburgh-native and born to a Korean mother and an Irish father. The show centers on Byrne, who leaves a successful corporate law practice in New York to take over the bar when his father announced that he wanted to retire.
Vivian Bang portrays little sister ‘Susan Sullivan’. She is an NYU Tisch School of the Arts graduate and is well known as the MTV’s web Status Updates girl. Some of her film credits include Jim Carrey’s “Yes Man” and “Memoirs of a Geisha.
The patrons are a tapestry of White, Black, Middle Eastern, Asian and Latino, with Roy Wood Jr., Owen Benjamin, Valerie Azlynn, Ahmed Ahmed, Christine Ebersole, and Brian Doyle-Murray as recurring cast members. They speak freely lay all race issues on the table as patrons who argue amongst themselves as friends.
The type of stereotypes so often present in other network shows are not present her, Long said. A cross-fabric of people have a relationship based on the bar and can razz each other about everyday encounters and experiences with humor, she said.
“It is like that in real life too,” Long said. “It is so interesting about how our show address race head-on.”
It works, Long said, because it is doesn’t point the finger of blame and uses a perspective that is palatable to a wide spectrum. The show tackles issues in much the same way Archie Bunker did with All In The Family in the 1970s, she said.
“We have to talk about these issues in America,” she said. “Let’s put it out there so we can laugh at them because laughter is the common denominator.”
‘Ok Cha’ is part tiger mom and not unlike many immigrant Asian mothers that “come from the old country, whichever one, and want their children get a good education, work hard and to have a better life than the one she came from,” she said.
“They take that to the nth degree with me,” Long said. “People come up to me on the set and say that I am just like their Jewish mother who came from Poland.”
For Long, who has appeared in countless television shows since the 1980s, Sullivan & Son stands out as a special cast and crew that work for the common goal of a great show. They work magic on camera, and work well together behind the scenes, she said.
Long has portrayed Korean immigrant mothers in The Hot Chick and in All American Girl, the 1994 series starring Margaret Cho. The show sparked Cho’s career and she became vocal about the unreasonable demands she experienced regarding her appearance and in script-writing for an Asian American family.
Cho visited the Sullivan & Son set during tapings where cast members reflected on the example she set with her show. Cho says that everyone from All-American Girl is still like a family and that it now extends to other Asian-Americans in the media, television and film, art and music as “every kind of greatness is a new member of our family.”
“I love Jodi like she is my mother, even though we are actually about the same age,” Cho said. “She is a wonderful actress and a great friend.”
Long said she is pleased that Sullivan & Son offers a central, recurring role in a multi-generational Asian and diverse supporting cast in a show that is making a social statement.
“The change is slow but it is progressive,” Long said.
Long recalled that Pat Morita was the first Asian American to star in his own series with “Mr. T and Tina” in 1976. He had just become a household name for his role as the restaurant owner on Happy Days.
Both all American Girl and Mr. T and Tina featured Pat Suzuki in the cast. She was in the original Flower Drum Song, and was nominated for a Grammy in 1960 for one of her many albums.
Long said a live audience teaches an actor how to respond and adjust to transform an evening into a shared experience. In television, she said the producers and directors understand this as do the comedians in the cast.
Working with a cast and crew is about chemistry, she said, and when that magic happens where everyone pulls together to make a great production doesn’t happen as often as she’d like.
“Egos get nutty and that makes it hard,” Long said. “When we have a team with everyone working together that is a real blessing.”
Long said she can rest at the end of the day if she believes that she and everyone involved in a show did a lot of good work.
“That is all you can ask,” she said. “Show up to work and be kind.”
Film & Television
Long’s first television show was “Nurse” in 1981. The CBS drama starred Michael Learned of “The Walton’s.” She made her film debut that same year in “Rollover” starring Jane Fonda and Kris Kristofferson.
There were not a lot of film roles for Asian women at the time and she recalled the 1981 writer’s strike made it impossible to find new work and returned to theater for a couple of years.
“I did theater for a really long time, from college until my early 30s,” she said. “Then I came to Los Angeles and started in a little television.”
In the 1980s, Long appeared on “Scarecrow and Mrs. King”, “The Equalizer”, “The Cosby Show”, “Roseanne”, “L.A. Law”, and many others. In the 1990s she was a regular in Miss Match and appeared as Judge Marcia Phelps in Eli Stone, with other judge roles on Law & Order: LA, on House MD, Made in Jersey, and Franklin & Bash.
Her film work continued with reporter roles in “Splash”, “Born on the Fourth of July”, and “New York Stories.” She appeared in “The Exorcist III”, “RoboCop 3”and even in a 1987 New Order rock video.
She traveled to London in 1987 for a role in Mike Newell film, “Sour Sweet,” starring Sylvia Chang and Danny Dun. It is the story of an immigrant Hong Kong family trying to make a new life and Long plays the elder sister “Mui.”
“I was grateful for the experience,” she said. “It was a great roll.”
Back in the U.S., Long continued films work in a 1988 film about Patty Hearst, with appearances in RoboCop 3, Striking Distance. Her television roles continued with the role of “Patty, the power lesbian” in “Sex & and the City.”
Later in 2013, Long’s most recent dramatic role in, “A Picture of You”, will be released. She plays the mother of estranged siblings ‘Kyle’ and ‘Jen’, who travel from New York City to rural Pennsylvania to pack up the home of their recently deceased mother.
Film and television is a very different experience from theater, Long said. There is some immediacy with the live audience on Sullivan & Son. The people and the laughs are real, which contrasts to film, where the experience is one-on-one with the camera.
“When its you and camera, then that is your partner,” Long said. “That is the lens, communicating what the scene is about, or what the human experience is about.”
The stage director has some control but with theater the actor is out there on their own. With film and television the executive producer, writer and director control the performance to some extent, and the performance can also be in the final edits.
“Theater has the playwright, and once the show opens it is controlled by the actor and that is why I love theater,” she said. “Once the curtain goes up it is you and the audience.”
Long Story Short
Long will also reprise her one-woman show, “Surfing DNA”, this June with East West Players in Los Angeles. Her performance about her own growing up in a show business family earned Long an Ovation Nomination for Best Solo Performance in 2012.
The film documentary version of “Long Story Short” (www.longstoryshortdocumentary.com), directed by Academy Award-nominated Christine Choy, is Long’s screenwriting debut. The film tells the same story about her vaudevillian parents as the Larry and Trudie Leung nightclub act in the 1940s. She even discovered a tape of their appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show on May 7, 1950.
The couple divorced when Jodie was a girl and she revisits those memories with her parents that were held inside for decades. Her film won the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival’s 2008 Audience Award for Best Documentary, and was voted one of the top 10 documentaries by UCLA’s Asia Institute. It is available to view online on Amazon.com.
Long’s American roots begin with her maternal grandfather coming from Japan in 1900, settled down and married a picture bride 15 years later. Her mother, Trudie Long, was born Kimeye Tsunemitsu in Portland, Oregon to Issei Japanese parents.
Even though her brother was already serving in the U.S. Army when Pearl Harbor was bombed in 1941, the Tsunemitsu family was relocated to Minidoka Internment Camp in Idaho.
“My mother got out of the camp early and was only there for about a year,” she said. “She was just 18 and took a train to only place where she could hope to find work, New York City.”
She was sponsored to work as a clerk for the American Bible Society and took a higher paying second job as a dancer at The China Doll night club.
“They paid her $75 a week, versus the $12 dollars she was getting at the American Bible Society,” Long said. “She walked into it sideways.”
Long’s father, Lawrence Long, was of Chinese-Scottish background, and the youngest of six sons born to a Chinese-Australian mother. There was dance studio above the fruit stand where he worked as a child, and was taking lessons from age 12, and performed in the pre-war Australian vaudeville.
“Dad was a tap dancer from the music halls in Sydney,” Long said.
After serving in the Australian Navy in WWII, Lawrence was serving on a merchant ship that stopped in San Francisco. He frequented the Chinatown nightclubs and it wasn’t long before he found work and was a headline act with his stage name “Larry Leung.”
“He started out in the Forbidden City as a tap dancer,” she said. “He formed a group with Paul Wing, called the Wing Brothers, and they brought the act to New York and headlined the China Doll. That is where he met mom.”
The two eventually married and formed the husband and wife act, “Larry and Trudie Leung” and worked the nightclub circuit and USO shows across the country into the 1950s. Trudie stopped performing shortly after Jodi was born in Queens, New York.
“I am still a New Yorker, born and raised,” Long said.
Lawrence went on to perform in regional theater and in the original Broadway cast of Flower Drum Song. He would later tour with the show as the male lead and director.
In the 1960s he formed his own production of East Goes West. After some difficulty with producers over creative control, Lawrence left show business and become a professional golfer in the l970s. He was a club pro at Old Tappan Golf Course in New Jersey, and served as President of the New Jersey PGA Seniors.
Long was just 7 years-old when she made her own Broadway debut in the Sidney Lumet show “Nowhere to Go But Up.” She was also the youngest girl in Flower Drum Song and would have toured with the show until her mother said no.
Instead, Jodie attended the High School of Performing Arts in NYC, and went on to earn a BFA from Purchase College’s Conservatory of Theater Arts & Film. She was working regional theater and off-Broadway right out of college, and a year later was cast in the Virginia Wolfe production of Loose Ends.
Long said theater is a life on the road and living hand-to-mouth. It is great training for an actor though, and says she wouldn’t have traded the experience for anything.
As a schooled Shakespearian actor Long said her education and early experience led to roles not written specifically for Asian American actors at a time when it was not commonplace. Auditioning for roles even when it was not likely going to result in a part was something she did just to get experience and to get her name and face out there.
College taught her to study characters and not to see the ‘oh, this is not written for you’ in any role,” she said. Instead, she explored the character and how she would portray them.
“I was incredibly tenacious,” she said. “I had it in my mind that when I got out of school that I could play anything,” she said.
There was rejection but she continued doing things her own way and said the work eventually became regular.
Eventually, she said producers found non-traditional casting of actors of color to be profitable in regional and off-Broadway productions. Directors love to experiment, she added, and when it didn’t hurt ticket sales the fad became more standard practice and eventually made its way to Broadway.
One of Long’s favorite roles was “M” in the 1988 Philip Glass multimedia musical “1,000 Airplanes on the Roof”, a unique piece about alien abductions with a monologue scripted by David Henry Hwang. She became the back-up lead and eventually made the role her own.
“It had actually been written for a man, and I actually auditioned as a man, with a suit and that whole thing,” Long said. “It was a really great transforming experience touring the world and I loved that show a lot.”
She appeared in the 2002 Broadway revival of “Flower Drum Song”, winning an Ovation Award for her performance during the Los Angeles tryout. She recently revived her role as Madame Liang in 2012.
Long has worked in five David Henry Hwang productions and says she is proud to have been instrumental in some of the seminal work of great Asian American playwrights from regional theater to off-Broadway to Broadway.
“I was there when it all happened,” Long said.
“With her immense talent, versatility, and devotion to craft, Jodi Long has been one of my most dependable collaborators over the years,” said David Henry Hwang. She can do just about anything, and do it brilliantly.”
Rick Shiomi, founder of Mu Performing Arts in Minnesota, has also worked extensively with David Henry Hwang. Although he has actually never worked with Long, he has met her and seen her perform.
“She’s a terrific talent and has been one of the leading Asian American actors of her generation,” Shiomi said.
Long was recently honored by the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California for her contributions as a Chinese American. She is also the recipient of the Los Angeles Woman’s Theater’s Maverick Award, The Titan Theater of New York ’s Earthshaker Award, and a Pan Asian Rep’s Award for her work in the theater.
Some of Long’s side projects include a lead singing role with Fred Houn’s Asian American Art Ensemble. She even released a jazz album, “Bamboo That Snaps Back.”
Long serves on the Board of Hollywood Orchard, an education and awareness group that works to donate fresh fruit to those in need. She is also a certified trainer of Kundalini Yoga, is an animal lover and a vegetarian who enjoys cooking.