Setting off sparks in jaded Hollywood usually requires more than two sticks and some dried dung, but not for Rae Dawn Chong, 21, the plucky daughter of joke-and-toke comic Tommy (Up in Smoke) Chong, Cheech's other half. In Quest for Fire, director Jean-Jacques Annaud's $12 million prehistoric saga, Rae Dawn plays Ika, a child-woman from a tribe that is way ahead of the film's Neanderthal men in the flame (and sex) department. Critics can throw cold water on Quest's bizarre anthropology (see box) but not on Chong's performance. With only some high-pitched screeching for dialogue and a costume consisting solely of mink oil and mud, she builds a touchingly plausible character instead of the predictable calendar-art cavewoman.
Rae Dawn is happy with her reviews ("unaffectedly radiant," raved Variety) and the film's success ($20 million to date) but is more pleased with her father's approval. The two haven't always seen eye to eye. "My father is Oriental," she explains. "They don't show emotion." Rae Dawn, whose mother is black and Indian, is sharp and sassy, groaning openly over the 17 weeks she spent alternately freezing and frying in the buff on location in Canada, Scotland and Kenya. "It wasn't the Flintstones, it was a bitch," she says. The rape scene with actor Everett McGill left her "scratched, bruised and crying. They shot it nine times. I counted." The nudity, however, was no hassle for her, her dad or Owen Baylis, 27, the New York stockbroker she wed on Valentine's Day and the father of the child she's expecting "any minute." Recently Rae Dawn adorned Playboy unadorned and later posed pregnant in the nude as a gift for Owen. "There's nothing coy, Hollywood or Bo Derek about it," defends Rae Dawn. "I'm not a centerfold."
Rae Dawn, who has worked since 12 as a model in commercials and as a TV actress in shows like Walt Disney and Lou Grant, sees Quest as her "big break." Before the film she had felt slotted in black roles, though socially she says she was oblivious to racism. "I had a father who was always 'in,' " she reports. Real prejudice didn't enter until she started modeling. "They'd hire me for two weeks and then make me watch the same blonde get used for every picture. It hurt."
Rae Dawn credits her upbringing with helping to overcome. "I learned very young that my parents were human," she says. Born in Edmonton, Canada, Rae Dawn didn't find out who her real mother was until she was 12. It seems father Tommy was living with Maxine Sneed (now an editor of a black radio magazine) in 1960 when he went on the road and had an affair with another black woman, stenographer Gail Toulson, who gave birth to Rae Dawn. Tommy, however, married Maxine and won custody of Rae Dawn in a legal battle with Gail, who was only 17. "The lion's ego," chides Rae Dawn. "He brought Maxine this baby and said, 'Look, this is what I did when I was away.' Maxine took me in. Then she and Tommy had their own daughter, Robbi [now 18 and a model], and we grew up together in L.A."
Except for missing Tommy, who was touring a lot with Cheech, Rae Dawn says her childhood was happy. But when Tommy finally told the truth about her mother, a shaken Rae Dawn moved to Edmonton to be with her natural mother. She loved Gail, but not Edmonton, and returned after eight months to Maxine. On Tommy's orders, she entered boarding school in Ojai, Calif. "She saw it as a lack of love," he says, "but I wanted her to get the discipline I couldn't give." By then Tommy had left Maxine for 17-year-old Shelby Fiddis, the blond babysitter next door, with whom he now has three children and no marriage plans. "It was a regular Peyton Place," quips Rae Dawn.
Admittedly rebellious, she is now fast friends with the women she calls "my three mothers." Despite her dad's pothead humor, Rae Dawn also credits Tommy with steering her away from hard drugs. "My father makes fun of people who do coke," she says.
Rae Dawn found her fun in sports (especially wind-surfing), reading, writing journals and dating. "I mostly went out with white guys," she says. "No preference, just geography." Even after a two-year relationship with record producer Richard Perry, Rae Dawn says, "I always saw the end until Owen." She and Baylis, a native Californian who had never dated a black woman, met last year at a Manhattan fashion show. "It was love at first sight," says Owen. Soon it was more than that. "I knew I was pregnant the day it happened," recalls Rae Dawn. "I said, 'We have done it.' " She gave Owen a month to decide whether he wanted to share responsibility for the baby or not. "I was so happy he said yes," she reports. But she kept rejecting his proposals. "Babies are natural, marriage is not," she states. The deciding factor was a balanced home. "I never had one, so I thought it would be a nice gift for a child."
Rae Dawn and Owen live in his bachelor SoHo loft, where they're making plans for a family reunion (all but Robbi missed the Manhattan wedding). Rae Dawn still hasn't met Owen's conservative grandmother. "At first poor Owen couldn't even tell her I'm mostly black," she laughs.
Waiting for the baby and a new role to match Quest, Rae Dawn is relishing her new life. "I've found the perfect partner," she says of Owen. With the help of Christian Science, her faith since 18, she's also come to terms with her father. "My anger at his not being there was driving him to hate me," she confesses. Now they share a mutual pride. "Like my father, I'll survive," says Rae Dawn, "I'm an alleycat."