With Her Young Son at Her Side, Rae Dawn Chong Reaches for Success and Finds a Commando-Size Hit
Blessed with the grace of a gazelle, the confiding smile of a child and a cloud of black gossamer hair, Chong can let it all hang out and still be taken seriously. Okay, she's not an Oscar contender yet, but Chong's got something almost as good to brag about: She's in demand. She just finished a juicy role in The Color Purple for Hollywood kingpin Steven Spielberg, and she has three movies (American Flyers, City Limits and Commando) in release. Commando, in which she plays Arnold Schwarzenegger's stew sidekick, is something she's never had before—a box-office smash. "I knew Arnold would make the film a hit, and I wanted to be part of that," says Chong. "I want studio executives and producers to start to say to themselves, 'Rae Dawn is bankable.' I am here to make money, but I am also here to make every part I get special."
Still, landing the Commando role took a lot of convincing. "The producers were looking for someone with blond hair and blue eyes," says Schwarzenegger. "But Rae Dawn gave this terrific reading that blew them out of the water." A frown creases Chong's forehead as she sips black tea on the patio of her Malibu Canyon home. "I have to work 20 times harder for a part because I have brown skin, black curly hair and big lips," she says. "I know there are certain actors who won't work with me romantically because I am ethnic." The crease disappears when Chong saucily adds, "Although there are some people who find my lips luscious."
The mysterious alchemy that is Rae Dawn Chong: Her mother is black and American Indian; her dad, comedian Tommy Chong, 47, is part Chinese, French and Scotch-Irish. "In Hollywood they can't figure out who I am," she says. When pressed on whether being racially mixed has caused problems, she switches to sarcasm. "No," she jokes. "As a child I was a blonde with blue eyes, but I thought, 'How boring, how conventional.' After high school I switched to my present exotic look."
That acerbity, no doubt, springs from the trauma her mixed parentage did cause. Born in Edmonton, Canada to a 17-year-old stenographer with whom Tommy had a brief affair, Rae Dawn was soon taken to Vancouver to live with her father, a not-yet-famous nightclub owner, and his wife, who became Rae Dawn's stepmother. A half sister, Robbi (now a model), followed. In search of success Tommy Chong moved to Detroit and later L.A.
In none of those places did Rae Dawn find acceptance. As a seventh grader she made an extended visit to her mother in Edmonton. "I was sneered at and ahem'ed at because I was black," she says. "But in school in L.A. I had a different sort of racial problem. Since I was relatively light skinned, the really black boys would develop crushes on me. Consequently their girlfriends would beat me up."
After Tommy and Cheech Marin found success as doper comics extraordinaires, everything changed. The counterculture's Bob Hope packed his eldest off to a boarding school in Ojai, Calif., which she grew to love. "I was no longer too black or not black enough," says Chong. "I was just another kid with a sparkling personality."
Chong remained in touch with her father by supplying background sounds on his albums with Cheech. Today she rarely sees her dad, who is based in Paris. "We haven't talked in ages," she says. "I live for the day when the press gives me the honor of not asking me about my father."
Right now Rae Dawn is busy caring for her son, Morgan Baylis, 3. Married to stockbroker Owen Baylis in 1982, Chong found herself pregnant at 21 and later living alone with her 4-month-old son when her marriage essentially dissolved. She says that motherhood changed her life dramatically. She found she couldn't party hard, then wake up at 6:30 a.m. and read Morgan The Cat in the Hat three times in a row.
For almost two years, Chong shared her rustic, three-story Malibu retreat with actor John (North and South) Stockwell, now 24. The two currently live apart because, Chong says, she had enough of all that togetherness when she was married. She won't wed again, she insists, though she still believes in relationships (Chong and John are still a couple) and wants at least one more child. She met Stockwell two years ago when they made City Limits. "We hated each other at first," she says, "but hate is not the opposite of love, indifference is." Says Stockwell: "We both have strong personalities; that's what the attraction is." Chong admits that it wasn't just Stockwell's personality that attracted her. "I like blonds," she says. "Most of my boyfriends have been tall, blond and handsome. Hardly any of them have been black." The two often attend screenings but skip the postmovie parties because, says Chong, "three hot girls whomp on John, three hot guys whomp on me, and afterward we look at each other and say, 'Do you still love me?' "
Unlike Stockwell, Chong has been acting since childhood when a Walt Disney talent scout spotted her singing at her sixth grade graduation. Her first big role was in 1982's Quest for Fire. Stark naked—save for a slathering of mink oil and mud—Chong scampered across the big screen as a cave-woman. "It was horrible, cold, dirty work," says Chong, "but the exposure was worth it."
Sometimes there is too much exposure. She did a Playboy pictorial and such film fizzles as Beat Street and Fear City, in which she played a lesbian stripper ("I got the girl, then I got murdered"). But displaying her body didn't embarrass Chong until she went to Brazil last year to work with Mick Jagger on a 90-minute, "really graphic" video, most of which, she says happily, remains unreleased. "It's icky," says Chong. "Just sex scenes, pure and unadulterated. I'm not at all against love scenes as long as they are tasteful. The scenes in this video are not tasteful." Contrary to reports, they were not the real thing either. "Sex is the nature of both Mick's and my personalities," says Chong, "but we were never romantically or sexually involved."
Curled up on the tan couch in her den, Morgan's sleepy head in her lap, the erstwhile partygoer displays a budding maturity. "I think if it had not been for the birth of my son I'd have gone right over the edge," she says. "It's an old problem in this town." Now she's asking some hard questions. "What if Morgan woke up in the middle of the night and his mommy was out of it on drugs? What if he needed me right then?" Chong cools out after work these days by carting Morgan around to the playground or to buy sensible foods at the grocery. "You know what?" she says, breaking up at her own transformation. "I've discovered I'm quite the big square."