“The images were most horrendous,” says actress Lauren Tom, her voice rising indignantly on the phone. “They made me really angry. I wanted to gag.” Tom, who’s best known for her role as Lena in The Joy Luck Club, has just watched a short documentary by Valerie Soe titled Picturing Oriental Girls, which catalogs some of the most ignorant and offensive portrayals of Asian American women in Hollywood cinema. This Friday Tom will comment on the video at a benefit for the Asian American Institute, a local think tank and watchdog group.

Tom’s visit will be a homecoming of sorts–she was born and raised in Highland Park. On the paternal side, she belongs to a prominent Chinatown clan. Her father, a restaurant supplier, once served as a community liaison in the Carter Administration. An uncle, Ping Tom, is a real estate developer and civic leader. Her brother Chip, also a businessman, is known for his contemporary-art collection. Her mother, Nancy, a product of the city’s northwest side, is active in arts and philanthropic circles.

Tom knew early on that she wanted to perform. “I was very extroverted as a child.” Her mother agrees. “Lauren’s bedroom was like a small stage. And I was an audience of one.” But in high school Tom turned shy. Why? “I realized that I was a bit different. And I got some of that racist ridicule. But I thought most of it was directed at people behind me. You see, I felt more Jewish than Chinese. My parents wanted us to–that’s why we moved to the burbs. I still don’t speak Cantonese. Besides I was totally into dance.”

For five years in the mid-70s she took lessons from Margot Grimmer, who remembers her as “that spectacularly charismatic Chinese girl everybody talked about.” Tom also studied with Lou Conte and briefly joined his fledgling Hubbard Street Dance troupe as an alternate. Then, during her freshman year at Northwestern, she won a spot in the national touring company of A Chorus Line. She quit school, packed her tap shoes, and went on the road. A year later she became a member of the Broadway cast.

“Then my buddies said, ‘You should be in acting.'” Tom lets out a peal of laughter. She pursued their suggestion in earnest, and her timing was right. By the early 80s many New York theater directors, newly aware of ethnic typecasting, had begun seeking out minority actors. “I auditioned for all kinds of roles. Some people might have said, ‘Oh, that part doesn’t call for an Asian.’ But I didn’t care. I suppose that’s what being a pioneer means. I was so ignorant I wasn’t even aware of any racism. I don’t believe I got offers because I was Asian.” Except perhaps in the plays about acculturating Asian Americans written by her friend David Henry Hwang.

Tom started off-off-Broadway and eventually landed in the Broadway production of Hurlyburly. Time named her a promising newcomer in 1984 for her role in Doonesbury. Four years later she won an Obie for the Public Theater’s American Notes, directed by Joanne Akalaitis. And she’s been back to Chicago, in the Goodman revival of ‘Tis Pity, She’s a Whore three seasons ago. But just in case her acting career didn’t pan out, Tom went back to college and got a degree in “deafness rehabilitation” at New York University. So far she hasn’t had to rely on those skills, though she says they did “come in handy when Peter Sellars cast a deaf actor in the title role of Ajax and I played the wife.”

Tom believes theater directors like Sellars and tend to be color blind. “They are more concerned with whether an actor is the best they can hire for the part, less with image. After all, plays are 60 percent words, and you have to say them with conviction.” Not so the movies. “What you look like is 90 percent of what filmmakers are concerned with.” Tom got her first big movie break in Cadillac Man, a 1990 Robin Williams vehicle. Her character originally had one line. “‘You like shu mei?’ or something like that,” she says with a chuckle. “But Robin and I hit it off right away. So we improvised a lot, and the scriptwriter added more lines for me. I used my grandma’s accent, and it worked out quite well.”

Tom’s screen debut, as a wisecracking waitress, caught the attention of Roger Ebert, who singled out her performance for praise on the Tonight Show. Soon after she was booked for an appearance herself. The repartee between her and Johnny Carson put Hollywood on notice. “Offers started coming in, so I moved to LA,” she says. She made several appearances on TV sitcoms, including Anything But Love. Fox decided to develop a series with her, then she moved to CBS with a similar deal. Now she’s back at Fox. “My friends call me the highest-paid unemployed actor. Five deals, and I never worked a day. They couldn’t come up with quite the right script for a pilot.”

Tom likes to work with a scriptwriter to shape a character, which she did on The Joy Luck Club. She’d enjoyed Amy Tan’s novel and was persuaded by friends to audition–along “with thousands of Asian American actresses nationwide.” But she was called back. “Wayne [Wang, the director] asked me which part I wanted to play. I said Lena, the quiet one who was stifled by her cold, manipulative yuppie husband. He asked why. I told him I was struck by her line about ‘the pain of being invisible.'” Tom and the film’s other actresses collaborated closely with Tan and writer Ron Bass to capture the nuances of mother-daughter relationships across two cultures. “We drew from our own experiences to get away from stereotypes. It was not Caucasian writing with Chinese accents.”

Bass liked working with Tom. so much that he changed the part of a strapping Swedish singer in the upcoming When a Man Loves a Woman to fit her. “I play a 19-year-old nanny for Meg Ryan’s kids. The character is Asian and has an accent, but Ron and I turned her into someone recognizable from real life. The role I had in Mr. Jones–that movie came and went–was written for a Caucasian actress. They gave it to me, and I ad-libbed through the whole part so that it became my own. And the fact I look Chinese doesn’t figure in the story at all.”

Hollywood has come a long way in the last couple years. Producers are at least aware that the extreme stereotypes of China dolls and dragon ladies cited in Picturing Oriental Girls are no longer acceptable. But sophomoric directors like John Hughes are still milking crude comedy from ethnic cliches. “If I get scripts that make my stomach turn, I’d rather not audition,” Tom says. “But I think maybe it’s easier for me because I’m not interested in stardom. I don’t want to be an ingenue. I prefer character parts in movies that offer depth and reality. I want to go back and forth between theater and film.”

Whatever her next career move is–she’s slated to return to the Goodman next fall in a project directed by Sellars–Tom is already part of a Hollywood vanguard. Actors like Keanu Reeves and Phoebe Cates, who are part Asian, may be getting plum non-Asian roles, but it’s up to Tom and other gifted, hardworking Asian actors, including the entire ensemble of The Joy Luck Club and the versatile Jason Scott Lee, to fashion convincing portraits of Asians. “In the end it’s your craft that really matters,” says Tom. “That’s what I tell the newcomers. Don’t get depressed by any racism. Keep your self-esteem and work hard on your craft. Once you have clout, you can make the breakthroughs.”

The Asian American Institute’s benefit gala starts tonight at 6 PM at the Chicago Historical Society, Clark at North. It includes a showing of Praying With Anger, a 1992 feature by the young Indian American M. Night Shyamalan, and a panel discussion with Tom, Shyamalan, Valerie Soe, and composer Edmund Choi. Tickets start at $35. On Saturday and Sunday the institute will sponsor three free screenings of recent short works by Asian American filmmakers and two free panel discussions with Soe at Loyola University’s Crown Center, 6525 N. Sheridan, and the Holiday Inn O’Hare, 5440 River Road in Rosemont. For more information call 508-3334.