Lauren Tom is an award-winning actress currently starring on Disney Channel’s Andi Mack. She is also known for her voice work and for her roles in The Joy Luck Club and on Friends and Supernatural. She is the mom of two teenage sons, ages 15 and 18. We talked to her about parenting teens and about her own big leap into acting when she was a teenager.
Q: You do traditional acting, but you’ve also spent much of your career in voice acting. How has that been?
Tom: I feel so fortunate to have gotten into the whole voiceover world; it’s been my bread and butter. They’re the nicest people on the planet—there are no huge, raging egos in that world, for whatever reason. And I was able to work all through my pregnancies, practically up to the time my water broke.
It’s just been a joy. I had these voices in my head from growing up with immigrant parents and listening to them talk. Then just goofing around and playing around with different things, finding out what you could do with your voice. When people ask me for advice I always say, just have a lot of different tools in your bag and come up with a lot of different characters and really know them inside and out.
Q: How did you first get into acting?
Tom: We were the only Asian family in town at that time, so I didn’t have any other faces that looked anything remotely like me. Because I was very shy, I put all my time, energy, and focus into dancing. I was at the dance studio probably five or six hours a day. I’d express myself without having to talk.
When A Chorus Line came through town on its first national tour, my friend who had been in dance class with me and had already gotten the show encouraged me to audition. But I couldn’t sing or act. I was so quiet that they could barely hear me, but they cast me because the role required a small Asian girl, and I was a really good dancer. They trained me on the road with acting and singing coaching. I was only 17.
Q: Are your sons at the point where they are getting ready to leave home?
Tom: Yes, I’m going to be an empty nester very soon because my little one is a hockey goalie and wanted to apply to boarding school on the East Coast for hockey. And my older son is now getting ready to leave for college.
Both of my boys are quite independent—and they know my whole story about when I left home. You want to just support your kids in following their dreams. But I really take my hat off to my mother now—how scary that must have been for her because I grew up in a sheltered suburb in Illinois and then moved to Manhattan and did not know my way around the city.
Q: You have different family challenges because your younger son left for boarding school in ninth grade. Are your sons close despite the distance?
Tom: It’s been beautiful. My boys have gotten closer since my younger son left. I think because they miss each other. They text and call and play Fortnite every day. And that really warms my heart.
I just found out that my older son Oliver asked Leo to write a letter of recommendation for one of his college applications. Dartmouth allows a recommendation from a friend or a sibling. And Leo wrote this amazing letter. And I had no idea he felt that way. It was a very cool little gift out of all this craziness.
Q: How do you feel about becoming a sudden empty nester?
Tom: I am just bracing myself for heartbreak. I mean, just sending Leo off to boarding school I was in tears, and it’s been really hard. So far, we manage to see him once a month.
Q: Your kids are obviously self-motivated to succeed. As a parent, how do you keep that from veering into perfectionism?
I think you can’t help but just model behavior because I certainly consciously did not parent them in a way that they would become kind of perfectionists. I wish that I could dial that down in them because I wish I could dial it down myself. It’s not a great quality. I mean it’s good in the sense that you keep trying and you keep striving for excellence. That’s fine. But when it clicks over into feeling like you’re just not enough—at that point, it gets a little dangerous.
I have had other challenges with my kids, but homework was never one of them. I had to dial it down the other way. Like, it’s okay, go to bed. I’ve had to struggle to try to get my older one to just relax and enjoy because he just wants to be an adult so badly.
Q: How have you worked on that?
Tom: I’m just trying to encourage him to make time for friends because I want him ultimately to be a happy adult. I’m actually less worried about him making his way and being a success in the world and more concerned just about his general sense of well-being.
I do think that it’s the modeling that means more than any words that we say to kids. That camera is on 24/7—they’re watching us all the time. I try to be more conscious of how I am—we have to model the behavior that we want.
Interview by Susan Borison