Tamlyn Tomita's father was one of 110,000 persons of Japanese descent imprisoned by the U.S. in California during WWII, but that isn't what moved director Alan Parker to cast her in the lead role of Lily, the second- generation Japanese-American whose family is interned in Come See the Paradise. What appealed to Parker was her ''impressive dignity'': At 24, Tomita already emanates the luminous poise of a veteran. Born in Okinawa and raised in Los Angeles, Tomita herself learned of her father's past by chance. ''I remember reading one of those big history texts in elementary school,'' she recalls, ''and in that whole book there was one paragraph that mentioned that Japanese-Americans were interned. I went home and asked my father, 'You weren't, were you?' He said, 'Yes, I was.' I was shocked.''
Paradise deals with the trauma of Lily's American husband (Dennis Quaid) being drafted and her family relocated to a camp at Manzanar. The set evoked painful memories for the cast (''There was a lot of crying,'' Tomita says), but it also represented a break from stereotyping for her she gets to speak in her own American accent. Since her debut as Ralph Macchio's girlfriend in 1986's The Karate Kid, Part II, Tomita has played a string of Asian women on TV, most recently in the movie Hiroshima: Out of the Ashes. Now, she says, ''I'm looking for projects where race is not an issue.'' The search is going well enough. She's currently rehearsing an L.A. theater production of Molière's Don Juan.