Tanaka tripped all the way to a role in last year's Rushmore, a comedy directed by Wes Anderson and starring Bill Murray and newcomer Jason Schwartzman. Tanaka has received solid reviews as Margaret Yang, Shwartzman's charming classmate, yet when asked how she landed the part, she laughs and says, "Wes asked me to take off my glasses. And I was so blind without them I went a little cross-eyed. He thought it was so cute that he cast me."
So far, Tanaka's tinsel success has not diverted her from her first goal: becoming a doctor. When she talks about the ambition she once thought was "just a childish dream," she's referring to medicine, not acting. "I've always envisioned myself as a doctor," she says. At Brown, Tanaka is pre-med with a concentration in human biology. This summer she hopes to beef up her medical experience by working in a lab.
Fortunately, Tanaka's professors have for the most part allowed her to balance her thespian and academic ambitions. "I tell them it is how I pay for my college education," she explains. "If they look at it from a financial standpoint, they see that it's not only a joy and a hobby of mine; it's also a useful, practical thing." She pauses and adds, "I mean, it pays well!"
Once her parents had placed her and her brother in acting school, auditions led to parts in commercials and, eventually, to her first film role, as a solar-car-racing high school student in the 1994 Race the Sun. A lull followed. "I was planning to give up professional acting," Tanaka admits. "It was okay when I was young and cute, but acting is so fickle. It wouldn't be an anomaly in Hollywood for someone to have two large roles in feature films and then never work again." Then came Rushmore.
Her success in that film has, not suprisingly, led to more auditions. "This week," she explains, "I have a mid-term on Wednesday, but I have to be in New York for an audition Monday and Tuesday." She pauses before adding, "It wasn't so bad before Rushmore. I used to audition at the most once a month. Since school started I've already had three auditions." And Tanaka, who is Asian American, says she is not typecast as quickly as she once was. "Previously," she says, "all the roles I auditioned for required me to have an accent, to be a typical Japanese girl. But I think things are changing." Although Tanaka says her dual careers have cut into her social life, her campus friends - whom she invited to a theater in Seekonk, Massachusetts, for Rushmore's local premiere - have been a strong source of support. "It meant a lot to me that they all came out," she says. Apparently, it meant a great to deal to them, too. One Brown junior got so excited she carried Tanaka around the theater in celebration.
To others harboring dreams of celluloid stardom, Tanaka offers this advice: "I think people have to be aware how difficult it is. But try. I mean, I did it."