The accomplished and dynamic Sharon Omi is one actress that keeps on giving. What began as a career in theater became, over more than two decades, an impressive resume that also includes film and television. From portraying ADA Karen Hawley on How to Get Away with Murder, to Mrs. Ko on Modern Family and beyond, Omi is unforgettable in all of her roles.
Yet, few of the many characters Omi has portrayed have given us the chance to see her spread her wings quite like that of Emma in the independent film, Eat With Me. Sharon and I recently got to discuss what it meant to her to work on Eat With Me, her experiences as an Asian American actress, and what we can hope to see her in next.
You have been acting for over two decades, appearing in film, TV, and theater. How did you first get your start?
"I started acting in high school. There was a great drama department and we were sort of allowed to do whatever we wanted to do, so I directed and acted, and just had a great time doing that. And then I went to UCSC Santa Cruz and had a more difficult time there. That was my rude awakening from high school. Everything in high school was very open, as far as casting. Nobody thought twice about the fact that I was Asian. But when I got into the college system, it was a lot more racist and I had a hard time. I actually ended up quitting for about 10 years just because I figured if I couldn't get cast in college, I was never going to find work in the real world."
"Then I was in San Francisco and I connected with the Asian American theater, which was really prospering and doing incredible work at that time. I ended up working with them for a few years and loved it. I got involved again in acting and haven't looked back. Well, I have looked back, but I ended up deciding to act on a full-time basis after being there for a few years, and eventually moved to LA."
How did you get involved working with David Au on his short film, Fresh Like Strawberries, the beginning of Eat With Me?
"I think he had a casting call in LA. They have these classifieds that come out in Backstage West, and I was really intrigued by his log line. I don't usually do student films just because sometimes they're difficult. With David, I went in, I met him in this small classroom at the school he was going to and he was so kind. And his script, I thought, was so lovely. I really got the sense from him that he was an actor's director. I actually ended up dragging my husband at the time in with me because he was looking for a couple. There was no BS. We read [the script] and David was like, 'Wow. I really like you guys. Do you want to do this?' And we were like, 'Yeah!' So, it was just simple. We all just hit it off from the top."
What made you want take on the role of Emma?
"I just loved the idea of a person who was really set in their ways but who, in a really deep way, wanted to change, and wanted to grow, and wanted to see things differently. That really appealed to me. I just felt like sometimes when you do a script, especially if it's written by a man, they don't really understand the perspective of a woman as clearly as another woman might, and I just feel like David really got all his characters. It was amazing to me that he could understand the plight of a middle-aged woman, but he really did. He brought that into the writing, and I loved it."
You and Teddy Chen Culver, who played your on-screen son Elliot, have many scenes together throughout Eat With Me. Which was your favorite to film with him?
"My favorite scene was eating tacos because it was a really good taco truck! I just remember we were eating tacos and it was me asking [Elliot] if he had a girlfriend. I loved it because we were enjoying food together, and it was really the first scene where you see [Emma] reaching out to [Elliot] and trying to speak his language. It's not his language, but she thinks it might be his language. I think she asks him if he has a special friend like she can't even say boyfriend or partner but she's trying. I think for Teddy and I, it was kind of a relief for us, probably, to have a scene where we were kind of hanging out because we really like each other in life, and so that was fun."
Eat With Me is a multilayered film, particularly where Emma is concerned. What did it mean to you personally to play her?
"I think it meant a lot of things, and there were a couple of levels that I was working on. I loved that it was about a woman that was a little bit repressed trying to step out of her life, and feeling like her world wasn't enough, and wanting to find a way to be in the world, and to open up doors so that she could be more fully in her life. I feel like she's just in this shutdown place. She's in a marriage that is not quite working for her, and she's cut off. She doesn't have a really good relationship with her son and I just think she knows deep in her heart that she wants more from her life, and I love that she goes out to try to find that."
"The other thing that I love is that she has these issues around her son's sexuality but she doesn't want to have those issues. I love that she seems like a meek person but that she's actually really strong and really capable because many people cannot shift their lives, the trajectory of their lives. I think that's a really hard thing to do. That you can find that kind of courage in a woman that looks so unassuming, to me, is really exciting as an actress."
How did you relate to your character?
"The issue of dealing with your child's sexual preference was really fascinating to me because, I mean, that was something that I actually had to do a little research on. I'm a mother myself, and I had a really hard time just actually feeling and understanding, in my gut, what it's like to be estranged from your child for his sexual preference. That, to me, is –– I can't quite imagine it."
"So, I went out to a lot of PFLAG meetings. They had a group out in San Gabriel Valley that was primarily Asian; Asian immigrants and Asian American parents. I met the most inspiring people and it just puts you in touch with that energy. If you're willing to change your hard-wired prejudices, your world becomes so much richer. I had this experience."
"I went to a couple of marches with the PFLAG group, and there was a Korean couple there. I was standing next to this Korean dad who was watching this parade going by and weeping and saying, 'I am so grateful that my son is gay because if he hadn't been, I would never be right here, right now, feeling what I'm feeling.' Korean parents can be so rigid and hard about what they expect. I mean, probably, across cultures that's true of certain families. But, [it is] really true of this guy who looked like such a hard-ass, and he's sitting there on the street corner weeping. I was like, 'Oh my God. This has been an amazing experience. I'm so glad I'm here witnessing this and I'm so glad I get to do this movie, because it's so important.'"
What was one of the more difficult scenes for you to film?
"We were filming in this big loft in downtown LA, which was really cool, but also kind of disgusting. So we were in there, people were in and out and we were setting up for the scene where Emma comes back after walking all over the city to talk to Elliot about what he was like when he was a kid and what she wants for him. They're on the steps and she's just bearing her soul to him. We got halfway through that scene and it was magic. [Then there was] this horrible ruckus [from] the loft next door. The girl was having a bachelorette or some kind of shower and they had male strippers over there."
"So as we're doing the scene and as we got to the really emotional point, it just got so loud with the screams and the laughter, that David had to yell cut and we're like, 'Oh, shoot.' It was one of those takes that was perfect and was right. So we went back to the beginning and we started to do it again and [the noise] was even louder. David looked at me and said, 'I am so sorry, but we cannot shoot this tonight. We have to come back and do it another day.' That was really tough because it's the kind of thing where you're just really working on getting yourself to the right place, and then you're there and it's like, 'Okay, this can't happen tonight.' It all worked out in the end, but it was kind of heartbreaking."
As an actress with so much experience under your belt, what do you feel is your biggest career challenge?
"The biggest challenge about being an Asian American actor of my age in Los Angeles is being okay with unemployment and being okay with the downtime between jobs. That's the hardest part. Working on stuff is always just such a blessing when you get there, getting the opportunity, especially a role like Emma in Eat With Me. It's just like, 'Oh, I've been starving! I'm thirsty! Thank you!' So the work is always just –– well, it's not always as fun and rewarding as it was with David. Sometimes it's hard, but nothing's more challenging than the time between roles."
What projects have you been a part of since Eat With Me?
"I have been doing little co-star things here and there. Nothing as big or as fun as David's film. I did a really sweet short film called 'Song on Canvas' that I really enjoyed doing, about a Korean mom and her son. It was actually similarly themed to David's, so I'm always happy to do roles like that. The other stuff has been just small TV appearances here and there and just waiting for the next good movie. I hope David writes one soon."
What can we expect to see you in coming up next?
"The one other thing that I am working on is –– and this is a weird departure for me –– but a friend of mine has written what I think is kind of an amazing story about a young man coming of age in South Korea during the Korean War. It's fascinating because the kid grows up and he's involved in black market-type stuff. But he's a good kid. It follows him through his life. I mean, I read this thing, it was 265 pages, and I'm reading it and going, 'God, this is kind of like 'The Godfather' for Korean actors.' We've been shopping it around and I don't know what's going to happen with it, but it's a lot of fun."
Be sure to watch Sharon in her many fantastic roles, including that of Emma in Eat With Me, which is available on iTunes and Netflix.