Tia's Ode to Her Roots

Actress and Hawaii native Tia Carrere has never forgotten the rich mixture
of kahiko (traditional) cultures—Filipino, Chinese and Spanish—that nurtured her
and her love of the nani moana (beautiful sea). With a Grammy-nominated CD
of Hawaiian songs and rights to film the story of an Island hero, Carrere has
a healthy pumehana (affection) for the place she was born.

By Allan Richter

April 2008

Tia Carrere knows that parenthood can refocus priorities in a decidedly healthy way. The beautiful Hawaii-bred actress has been tapping her talents to nurture her soul and that of her two-year-old daughter Bianca by returning to her roots with a Grammy-nominated album, Hawaiiana. Carrere was weaned on some of these sweet and tender island songs; now she sings them to her daughter. The Honolulu Advertiser called it “one of the most appealing, revelatory endeavors of her career.”

Carrere has also secured the rights to produce and star in a movie about Rell Sunn, a Hawaiian surfer and the state’s first female lifeguard. Carrere has chosen a powerful story to tell. Sunn was a Hawaiian hero who never lost her cheer through a brave fight with breast cancer that ended with her death 10 years ago at age 47. Sunn was said to recognize the size and direction of swells by the sound of the water hitting the reef, and she could discern surfing conditions before getting out of bed. Sunn, an expert spearfisher, once wrote this about a dramatic encounter with a 14-foot tiger shark as she pursued ulua, a fish known to grow more than 100 pounds: “Under the deceptively placid surface was a world blind to gender... I was formed by and subjected to the rigid laws of a seemingly lawless realm that treated me and every grazing ulua or marauding shark with the same utter equanimity.”

The lapping Hawaiian surf beckons Carrere just as it did Sunn. “I want to do what I do and be able to live in Hawaii,” the Los Angeles-based actress told Energy Times, “and I haven’t quite figured out how to do that just yet.” Her Hawaiian projects are a step in that direction.

Carrere warmly recalls her childhood backyard and its kalamungai tree, whose edible, horseradish-like leaves were ingredients in family dishes. Her grandmother’s Filipino cooking reflects a branch of Carrere’s largely Asian heritage that includes Chinese lineage. “Everybody in Hawaii is four or five or six different ethnic backgrounds—Filipino, Portuguese, Chinese, Hawaiian, Vietnamese,” Carrere says. “Hawaii is a melting pot.”

Though set in Hawaii, the story of Carrere’s rise to fame is the stuff of Hollywood legend—she was discovered in a Waikiki grocery store and given the lead role in an independent movie, Aloha Summer. That led to roles on the small screen, in General Hospital, MacGyver and others, before her breakout role as Cassandra in the Wayne’s World movies. She has since been cast opposite stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sean Connery in action movies like True Lies and Rising Sun.

Music was never far. She sang for the Wayne’s World soundtrack. And Aloha ‘Oe, a song she performed on Lilo & Stitch, the animated series she helps voice, appears on Hawaiiana.

Starring as an adventurous history professor in her own series, Relic Hunter, Carrere played a strong, beautiful, smart and independent woman—a contrast to Hollywood’s Asian female stereotypes. In 2003, Philippine president Gloria Arroyo bestowed Carrere with a Lifetime Achievement Award. “Hollywood is pretty crazy, and she’s managed to not lose herself in the celebrity and craziness of the place,” says Daniel Ho, Carrere’s high school friend and a three-time Grammy winner who produced and plays slack key guitar and ukulele on her album.

Carrere is balancing her health by nourishing both mind and body. Devoted to fitness and diet, she hikes the mountains with her family and frequents health food stores for her vitamins. As for the mind and soul, her deep connection to her heritage seems to be feeding those. When Energy Times spoke with Carrere recently, she had just left a Los Angeles studio where she rehearsed Hawaiian songs with Ho for a second album.
   
Energy Times: Congratulations on the Grammy nomination of your album Hawaiiana. What were the origins of this project?

Tia Carrere: A lot of people come to Hollywood from somewhere else to become something else. To truly be happy you have to accept and celebrate who you are at the core. I’m a little Filipino girl who was born and raised in Hawaii. These are the songs that I grew up with, and I want that to be present in my daughter’s life. After having my daughter I realized that I really have to get in touch with the things that I want to have present in her life. Hawaii is important to me as a grounding influence and as a place that I look to for comfort and to feed my soul. I want Bianca to have that even though she doesn’t live there yet.

ET: You’re also harkening back to your roots with your new project on the Hawaiian surfer Rell Sunn. What was it about her story that resonated with you so strongly?

TC: She was number one in longboard in the world and got breast cancer so it’s a very inspirational story. She’s a mother and had a daughter. She passed away on my birthday in 1998. She was told she only had a few months to live when she was diagnosed, and she prevailed for another 14 years. She fought it tooth and nail all the way. The Rell Sunn project is the focus and thrust of everything I’m doing, and I’ve been talking to her family for about 2 1/2 years. They have agreed to trust me with her life story so that’s a big deal to me. We could be shooting within the next year.

ET: You obviously are committed to health and fitness.

TC: I have a gym in my house. I try to train four times a week. I just worked out with my personal trainers that I’ve been with about 15 years. They just came to my house this morning, a husband and wife team, so if one gets tired or sick I get the other one. I don’t get any time off. I use free weights and the treadmill, and I run. In a perfect world I like to run three miles in the morning and three miles in the evening. Sometimes I can only get three miles in the morning, sometimes I only get two. Sometimes I go hiking for an hour and I’ve got free weights and I’ve got the rubber bands. I’ve got the walking lunges down my long driveway. Fitness is part of my life. It always has been ever since I moved to Hollywood.

I love to eat. I love eating any kind of food. I think it’s one of the true joys and passions in life. Unfortunately most of the people in my line of work don’t eat, or they eat very badly, and smoke and drink coffee and have eating disorders. I work out to support my eating habit. It’s very simple—exercise. There’s no secret.

ET: You’ve taken on a number of physically challenging roles, like in True Lies and your appearances on Dancing with the Stars.

TC: That was incredibly physical. The dancing was very difficult. I’m not a dancer; I’ve never danced in my life. I danced one tango in True Lies but that does not a dancer make, so it was very, very difficult for me, especially after having my daughter the month before. It was a little crazy.

ET: How do you prepare for that?

TC: You just dive head first into the deep end of the pool. I thought that I could practice a few times a week and it would be fun. I didn’t realize how difficult it was going to be. It’s quite an achievement. You have a few weeks for your first two dances but after that in essence you have four days to learn an entire choreography. I don’t have the mind for that. I can sing. I don’t dance. The whole thing is very challenging, mentally and physically. Also, once you’ve got the dance down, moments before you go on you feel like you’ve forgotten everything completely and you just have to trust in your muscle memory. Learning how to trust is another thing.

ET: Muscle memory?

TC: That’s what my dancer was telling me. You just have to trust that you’ve practiced it over and over again, and that your body is going to take you once the music starts. It knows where it’s supposed to go. Trust your muscle memory.

ET: Did you get fitness tips from any of your co-stars? I’m thinking of Arnold Schwarzenegger in particular because of his fitness background.

TC: I just went to his big birthday party. Can you believe he’s 60? He’s in terrific shape. He had a gym on set. One of the trailers was a gym, and it impressed upon me how important it is during lunch time to work out because you eat during the day and there’s [food] services on set. When I was on an action series [Relic Hunter] for three years I would run off during lunch and go and work out. That was his influence. That was my most physically challenging role because I had to maintain that for three years. I shot 66 episodes all around the world.

ET: Earlier you said you work out to support your eating habit, but your diet can’t be entirely unregulated. What are some of your favorite healthy dishes?

TC: I try to have salad with chicken. When I was on Dancing with the Stars I was on one of those food delivery systems. I wanted to make sure that I ate properly because I was nursing at the time. I didn’t want to deplete myself. I was putting myself under a lot of physical difficulty, trying to be able to sustain myself and my energy as well as being able to feed a baby. I was best with my diet at that time.

ET: What were those meals?

TC: For breakfast it would be scrambled egg whites and one strip of turkey bacon, or a vegetable egg white frittata or a blueberry muffin and some fruit with it. It’s more about portion control and the timing of your eating. What’s great is if you have the luxury of doing that it gets you back in touch with what size your portions should be and how often you should eat throughout the day. It’s so easy for us running around to forget to eat. Then you’re starving and you eat the wrong thing. That’s the biggest problem. Everyone should strive for three meals and three snacks in between. But often you wake up, have a cup of coffee and then you don’t eat because you’re not hungry anymore. It’s a constant battle. I think it is for most people. We have become addicted to sugar, and eating improperly becomes this self-perpetuating cycle of addiction. It throws our bodies out of balance chemically. I like educating myself and being aware. I want to be able to raise my daughter properly so that I don’t impose upon her any bad habits that I’ve had.

ET: How are you doing that?

TC: I’ve never been someone that cooked, but if she loves rice I’m going to cook rice. But I’m going to try and get her to eat whole grain or brown rice, and when I buy bread I’ll buy the whole grain bread and the whole wheat tortillas. She goes to activity classes, and kids see the things that their other little friends eat—chicken nuggets, corn dogs, that sort of stuff. I’m not a vegetarian, but I’ll get vegetarian bacon and veggie corn dogs and things like that for her. They’re much lower in fat and a much healthier approach than the junk food. Bianca loves those veggie corn dogs. I have to say they’re terrific and they taste just like a corn dog on a stick without all the saturated fats.

ET: Our children are powerful motivators for us to become better people. How else has that manifested itself in your life?

TC: At the heart of it I think that having my daughter has made me a better person all around. She made me more thoughtful of things that I always took for granted. The strange thing is that growing up in Hawaii, you’d think that we would have the healthiest diet in the world. But, as with most other Pacific island cultures, we inherited a lot of bad habits from the West: Canned corned beef and Spam and a whole bunch of vile meat byproducts have become great delicacies in the South Pacific. I spent a lot of time in Samoa where my family lived for a period of time; my half sisters are half-Samoan. There even was a name for canned food—pisupo, which came from American soldiers. Sailors would come over with these tins of things, and no matter what was in it, “Oh, that’s pea soup.” So there became a Samoan word for it—pisupo—for any sort of canned, savory food that was not necessarily pea soup. It’s kind of bizarre that we’ve got this love for these really bad foods when we’ve got fresh fish and vegetables. I could go back to the basic diet without the pisupo, the canned meat. Just a little bit of rice and the fish and the vegetables in a light broth—that’s the healthiest way to eat.

ET: What are the main staples or ingredients of Filipino food compared with other Asian foods?

TC: I love Filipino food. Filipino is a lot of pork, and fatty pork at that, so that’s why I really don’t eat it that often. It’s very dense, heavy, salty and savory, but it’s delicious. My grandmother makes a mean pork adobo. You chop it into square cubes and sauté it with garlic, soy sauce, vinegar, peppercorn, Chinese spice. Then you’ll have that with chicken long rice, which is long glass noodles, those clear noodles, with a chicken broth, and it’s somewhat moist but not necessarily soupy. Bitter melon is supposed to be very good for you, and I remember growing up eating that. We also had mung beans—it’s a pasty sort of bean side dish. We had a kalamungai tree in our yard, and I used to go out with my great grandmother and pick the tiny round leaves off the tree. We cooked that with onion, garlic and mung beans.

ET: It sounds like much of what’s behind your diet is simply eating more of what is good for us and less of what is not.

TC: I read a piece on how diet and the science of nutrition have made us fatter and less healthy because, really, the heart of it is eat real food. Mostly vegetables and not too much really is what you should be following in your daily life. That pretty much sums it up. We’ve become obsessed.

Remember in the 80s everyone was eating pasta and not eating too much meat because they thought it would be healthier? I remember my sister eating bowls of pasta and wondering why, when she worked out, she was still gaining weight. It was because pasta turned right into sugar. I think we make ourselves crazy with all these different approaches to what we should be eating or what we shouldn’t be eating when at the heart of it, it’s simply: Eat whole foods and just don’t eat too much of them. I take a multivitamin that I buy at a health food store. Eat your vegetables, just like mom said.

The common sense approach to health and fitness is the best because if you enjoy food, if you enjoy living, if you find things that you enjoy about exercising, do them. If you don’t like running on a treadmill indoors, go hiking up a mountain. I live at the top of a mountain and strap my daughter in a baby carrier and hike up the mountain. We just went hiking with her, and most of it is just running after her and chasing her so she doesn’t fall. Find your joy and follow what you love. It doesn’t have to be so hard.

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