From a childhood in Queens to an education at “Fame High”, from Broadway to independent documentaries, actress and producer Jodi Long is a veteran of the stage and screen, and the star of the TBS hit series “Sullivan and Son”.
As “Sullivan” kicks off its second season, Long, who had no intention of being funny as an aspiring actress (her dream was drama, in the footsteps of her childhood idol, Katherine Hepburn) opens up about the inspiration for her character Ok Cha, show business and the influence her nightclub performer parents have had on her career.
“Sullivan & Son” got a second season, how good was that to hear?
JL: I know, I know. The way things go these days, especially in cable, you shoot a whole season and then it goes on a couple months later. You’re doing your work in a vacuum, you know? It’s not in our hands anymore. We did the best we could. We had fun. Whatever happens, happens. Then, of course, we aired. I was literally on vacation. I’d gone to Hawaii, I had just had a massage and I was feeling like a noodle. I was wandering about Hilo, shopping in a daze. I turned my phone back on and it was ringing. Everything was happening. People were texting me from the show. While I was having this great massage, our show got picked up.
You character is based on Steve Byrne’s real mom from what I’ve read. Did you meet her before, or did you base the character on somebody else that you knew?
JL: I didn’t meet her before I auditioned for the show. I actually met her, I guess, the last night we shot the pilot, so no. Ok Cha is based on an amalgamation of women that I grew up with — one in particular, whose daughter actually called me a couple of weeks ago. They were watching reruns of the show before we premiered [the second season], and she said, “I just have to ask you, are you basing this on mommy?” I said, “Yes.” She said, “I thought so. I’m telling mommy that you’re doing her.” Her mom was like, “Oh no, she’s not. Oh no, she’s not.”
So, the woman doesn’t perceive how others see her, but the daughter knows?
JL: The daughter and her other two daughters know, yes. It’s actually people that I grew up with. They’re Chinese-American and live in Queens. Now the cat is out of the bag.
Your character is outrageous. She knows no boundaries. Is there a favorite moment from this season that you don’t want people not to miss?
JL: I think we have a great show coming up. There’s an episode in which Dan Lauria, who plays my husband on the show, decides to run for neighborhood council, and there’s this political thing. Because I’m so outspoken, he gets nervous that I’m going to alienate the voters. He tries to get rid of me. He tries to keep me away from the voters, so I don’t say anything. Little does he know that Steve has come to me and said, “Look, you’ve got to support dad. You can’t be like this.” She tries, but once she finds out that he’s trying to get rid of her, she gets so mad that she decides to run against him. What ensues is pretty funny.
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Why do you think this show works? Do you think it has a big Asian American audience, or do you think the themes are universal?
JL: I think the themes are universal. This whole new social media thing is pretty amazing, because ever since “Sullivan and Son” is on Facebook — now I’m on Facebook in an official Jodi Long fan page — the fans are interacting with me. Also, I guess people think, “Ok Cha is just like my Jewish mother,” or “She reminds me of Bubba.” I look at their pictures and they’re not Asian. I do think that there is a commonality with the immigrant mind, which is so much about rising up in the echelon of this American dream through education and through money. Money is a hard commodity to come by in the Old Country, whichever Old Country you come from.
That’s a very important thing and you hold on to it because that’s the only way you’re going to eat and get ahead. I think that Ok Cha, who is really based on Ok Cha, that’s exactly how she is. When I talked to Steve about it, he said, “Well, for my mom, money is at the bottom of everything.” Yet she’s the loveliest woman. A lot of the lines that I say, she actually said to him. In the pilot, the first thing I say when I haven’t seen him for eight months is “Hello, Steve. You look fat.” He told me, “Jodi, my mother said that to me five minutes before I walked down the aisle to get married.”
Your background is really interesting. You’re Japanese, Chinese, Scottish and you were born and raised in New York. How has that influenced you?
JL: I was born in Manhattan and raised in Queens. I think on some level my New York upbringing probably influenced me most in a way. My mother is Japanese-American. She was in an internment camp. She really, let’s say, let go of being Japanese culturally and became much more Chinese. I was raised Chinese-American. My parents friends were mostly Chinese-American. Culturally, I have that on me. However, that being said, how has it influenced me? My mother is pretty tough. She had to survive. She got out of an internment camp when she was 20 and came to New York City.
She’s kind of impeccable and yet she’s really tough. She always expected me to be as impeccable as her, which is impossible, especially when you’re a teenager. She was a taskmaster for me when I was in school. I had to do my homework. I had to excel. I was one of those overachieving Asian kids. I think it did me well, because it gave me an incredible amount of discipline. Then, my father was an entertainer. I had this incredible creative streak in me. I think my mother saw that and just wanted to focus me.
She didn’t want me to become an entertainer in any way. When I decided I wanted to be an actress, she thought it was a big mistake, not because I wasn’t talented, but because of how hard she saw it was for my father and herself, because she had an act with my dad. They were nightclub entertainers. She didn’t want that life for me. She wanted me to be more staid and become an English teacher. I’m sorry mom, English is my worst subject. I don’t want to be an English teacher.
It sounds as if the influence from your mom is why you have a BFA, but your dad is why it’s in acting.
JL: That’s exactly right. She said I had to go to college. My father actually agreed with her because I went to the Performing Arts High School, which was “Fame,” you know? I actually went there because, growing up in Queens, I actually had a Queens accent. I used to talk like this: dawg and cawffee. I wanted to be a criminal lawyer. I wanted to go to Harvard. This was the overachieving part of me. I got into Performing Arts, but I also got into Bronx High School of Science. I thought, “There’s really smart kids there. If I go there, I’ll graduate in the bottom 50 percent of my class; if I go to Performing Arts, I’ll graduate in the Top 10 — and I’ll lose my Queens accent,” because I knew I would be taught Eastern standard diction there.
While I was there, they gave me Deanie in Splendor in the Grass as a scene. I did it and then I was hooked. That’s when I decided I was going to go to either Julliard or Purchase College, which is where I went. It was only because my father said to me, “If you’re going to be an actor, I do not want you to be just a pretty face that shows up at these calls and gets cast without knowing what you’re doing. You’re going to learn your craft and go to school and do this. If that’s what you’re going to do, you have to be the best.”
Was he concerned that it would be a struggle because you were an Asian-American?
JL: I’m sure that was in the back of his mind, however, he never said that to me. My mother said that to me, but my father said to me, “Look, you’ve got to do what you love. If when you’re 30, you decide that what you love is being a truck driver, then that’s what you do, but you have to pursue what you love to do.” That was his bottom line. If I was going to do that, I had to have the best training I could have.
Who were your idols when you were growing up? There weren’t a lot of Asian-Americans that were doing TV. Miyoshi Umeki was on “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father.”
JL: She wasn’t my idol.
Were your idols even Asian, considering the only movie I really remember is “Flower Drum Song.”
JL: With Nancy Kwan.
Nancy Kwan and James Shigeta.
JL: If you are looking at that, I thought Ann Margaret was great. “Bye Bye Birdie.” I was like, “Wow!” As a young kid. I was kind of a weird kid. I liked Katherine Hepburn. I loved her as an actress. Who were my idols? “I Love Lucy,” Lucille Ball. I watched every night. In New York, the reruns of “I Love Lucy” played every night at 7 p.m.
Did you always want to be funny?
JL: No, I didn’t want to be funny at all. I was a dramatic actress.
Because of Katharine Hepburn, right? But some of her best movies are funny. The one she did with Cary Grant and James Stewart — “The Philadelphia Story.”
JL: That’s true. When I was growing up it was “The Lion in Winter” and that movie she did with Laurence Olivier. They were more dramatic. They had funny moments in them. I was going to be a classical dramatic actress.
I’m assuming that you learned to write and produce while studying for your BFA, because you used those skills for the documentary “Long Story Short?” How did that come about?
JL: It was not my idea, actually. I was just going into Flower Drum Song, the revival that David Long had written. I played Madam Liang and I won an Ovation Award for it. Right before it all started happening, we were in rehearsals. My girlfriend Sally Nemeth, who’s a screenwriter and a playwright …. I was having dinner with her one night. She said, “You know, I think this is such a great story. Your dad did it 50 years before on Broadway, and now here you’re doing it again. You should do a documentary on this.” I looked at her and I just said, “Oh, my God, I’m not a filmmaker.” I said, “If you think it’s so interesting, you should do it, right?” I was just joking.
The next day she called me and said, “You know, I think I want to do this.” I had forgotten and I said, “What are you talking about?” She said, “I want to chronicle you in Flower Drum Song. I want to do a documentary.” I said, “You’re kidding?” She said, “No. I want to interview your parents and blah, blah, blah.” Anyway, she started the process. She had 47 hours of tape of my family that I had accessed. At the time, my parents had never seen “The Ed Sullivan Show” that they had done. We didn’t even know what year it was, but we found out it was 1950 — before I was born.
Because of Sally and because of Flower Drum Song, I went on this hunt for “The Ed Sullivan Show.” I found it through the company that owns it now. “Long Story Short” is finding the “The Ed Sullivan Show” and finally showing it to my parents. But Sally ended up running out of money, and I’m the kind of person through my mother, I finish things.
I said to her, “So, what’s happening?” It wasn’t in my court. She would go, “Oh, I’ll get to it.” Then finally she called me one day and said, “You know what? I’m never going to finish this. I’m going to give you all 47 hours of tape and, if you ever do anything, then we’ll figure it out, but it’s yours.”
It sat in my closet, all these boxes of VHS tapes that had been transferred from the original mini DVs, can you believe it? We don’t even deal in this kind of technology anymore. I ran into Christine Choy, who is a filmmaker who was nominated for an Academy Award for “Who Killed Vincent Chin?,” I guess it was back in ’91. I said to Chris, “Are you still making films?” She said, “Yes, I’m making films.” I said, “Well, I’ve got this footage…” “Send it to me.” So, I sent it to her. My God, it was not even a week later she called me up and she said, “I watched all the footage, and most of it is crap because it’s shot so bad, or the sound is so terrible, but what a story. I want to help you do this.”
Between her and me, we raised some money to do a little rough cut of what was there. My dad was still alive then. He’d actually had a stroke. She shot some more footage. Then we raised the finishing funds and got the film complete.
It was quite a process. Sally started it at the end of 2001. Because 9/11 happened while we were in rehearsal for Flower Drum Song at the Taper. The completed movie did not come out until 2008.
Interview conducted by Paulette Cohn
“Sullivan and Son” airs Thursday nights at 10 p.m. ET/PT on TBS.