Laura Kai Chen grew up in the northern suburbs of Chicago near Lake Michigan. When we spoke, she gushed about how beautiful the city is, and one of her favorite restaurants as a child, “There was a Japanese restaurant called Akia Hana near where I grew up, where we used to go quite a bit. And then there was a fondue restaurant in Chicago. Downtown. I cannot for the life of me remember what the name of it right now. And of course, there is so much great pizza.”
After graduating as a theater major with a master’s degree from NYU in 2003, she thought that she would only get to do regional theater. With a fire in her belly, Chen relocated to Los Angeles and began working in television. She booked roles on Law in Order: SVU, Hawaii Five-0, and One Life to Live. In 2013 Chen appeared on NBC’s Days of Our Lives as the strong, tough-but-wickedly funny District Attorney Melinda Trask. Chen explains, “It started out as 18 or 20 episodes. And then, I just sort of kept coming back over the years.”
As a kid, Chen rarely saw many Asian-American women that looked like her on TV, so when the opportunity came around it really was a dream come true. “So, its been wonderful and very unexpected. I feel really honored that the fans are interested in Melinda and that my wonderful writers and producers — who I really cannot say enough good things about — have been rooting for Melinda and have kept bringing her back over the years.”
A normal day on the Days set for Chen starts at 6am and ends by noon. She begins with a costume fitting, then goes in for hair and makeup which normally lasts about 45 minutes to an hour. Chen often gets to choose how she wants Melinda to look for each scene — except for her shoes, “I have all these gorgeous outfits and you rarely see my feet. You basically will never see my feet. I have one pair of black pumps that I’ve worn in every single episode I’ve ever done.”
A rehearsal happens afterward and if things are good to go, the scene can be shot in one take, and then its on to the next one. “Working on Days has taught me to work very quickly. And it has taught me to make decisions quickly. It also means that you have to trust the people you are working with,” explained Chen. “I really love the people that I work with. They’re some of the nicest, kindest most generous people that work in Hollywood. They really are some of the best. I feel very lucky.”
Chen’s character is running for mayor of the fictional town of Salem. “Melinda is nobody’s pawn and she’s nobody’s fool,” Chen explains. “It’s an interesting storyline to me. I really enjoy playing such a strong, unapologetic character.” Since the arrival of her sister, Haley (Thia Megia), her character has shown a softer side, having to choose between her sister and her own career goals.
Chen lives bicoastally between Los Angeles and New York with her husband and fellow actor Manu Narayan. While in LA, she enjoys hiking or going to the beach with their dog. In New York, she loves taking in anything that has to do with the visual or performing arts. In her downtime, she’s food enthusiast, and one of her favorite desserts to make is a Momofuku Milk Bar Cake, which she likes to call a unique creation.
Days of Our Lives has been renewed for a 55th season. Upcoming projects for Chen includes a neo-noir thriller series created by Mike Kelley titled What/If, where she stars alongside Renee Zellweger.