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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Monday, July 5, 2004

Hawai'i on TV lacks state's racial diversity

The cast of "Hawaii" includes, from left, Aya Sumika, Sharif Atkins, Michael Biehn, Ivan Sergei, Eric Balfour and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa. The TV series, which premieres Aug. 30, has at least three Asian Americans and a Pacific islander in its core cast.

NBC Entertainment

By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer

The Hawai'i Lori Kim sees on TV these days looks like a nice place, but she wouldn't want to live there.

"I wouldn't fit in," says Kim, a 24-year-old office clerk from Pearl City. "There are no Asians."

Jack Lord in "Hawaii 5-0."

Tom Selleck in "Magnum, P.I."

Jason Momoa in "North Shore."

Advertiser library photos
Kim, a self-described "Chinese-Hawaiian-Korean poi dog," has been watching Fox's "North Shore," one of three major network series being shot in Hawai'i, and has been disappointed — though not shocked — by what she's seen.

"It's like, 'Here we go again,'" she says. "The show itself is OK, but it's all Caucasians. Where's the diversity? If this is supposed to be Hawai'i, where's all the locals?"

Kim's questions raise an issue that haunts every TV and film production in Hawai'i: How far is Hollywood willing to go in representing Hawai'i's racially diverse population to a Mainland audience accustomed to monochrome casting? What is the value of Hawai'i to a network TV show? Do producers view Hawai'i a distinct community of people, or just a pretty backdrop of blue skies and empty beaches?

The degrees to which different Hawai'i-based shows have addressed this question has been inconsistent at best. One of the earliest network shows to be shot in Hawai'i, the phenomenally popular "Hawaii 5-0," was progressive for its time in trying to represent the mix of races and cultures in Honolulu, with several Asian and Pacific islander actors making regular appearances. The core cast of "Magnum, P.I." was less diverse, but the show did include several local actors in guest appearances.

Many consider "Byrds of Paradise" to be among the best at portraying the local lifestyle — but its brief run may also serve as a cautionary tale to producers. "Baywatch Hawaii" featured Jason Momoa, who was born in Hawai'i, and local actress Stacy Kamano as part of its core cast.

Lack of local talent

Producers and casting directors say they'd love to cast more local talent but the pool of qualified actors and extras just isn't big enough to meet the demand.

"North Shore," the first of the three Hawai'i shows to air, is an ensemble drama set at a fictitious luxury hotel on O'ahu. The core cast of eight includes one actor with local ties — Momoa, who has paternal roots in Nanakuli and was raised primarily in Iowa.

"Jason is cool," Kim says, "but I don't actually get a real local vibe from him. He seems kind of 'L.A.' — no disrespect or anything."

There isn't much to go on yet, but Kim isn't alone in her dismay about the way the new wave of Hawai'i-based shows seems to be shaping up. Internet chat boards for "North Shore," NBC's "Hawaii" and ABC's "Lost" have been buzzing with criticism from potential fans about the apparent lack of diversity in the shows' casting — criticism initially based on casting moves reported in "Variety" and other entertainment media, as well as on each show's official network website.

"Hawaii," which premieres Aug. 30, is an ensemble cop drama set in Honolulu with at least three Asian American and Pacific islander actors in its core cast. "Lost" is a survival drama shot in various remote locations on O'ahu but not actually set in Hawai'i. It includes two Asian Americans in its cast.

A fourth show, "Rocky Point," a new project for the WB by "Blue Crush" duo John Stockwell and Lizzie Weiss, is set to begin filming sometime in July, with only one cast member (Billy Campbell) confirmed.

Wish fulfillment

Brooke Burns and Kristoffer Polaha star in "North Shore." The show has been criticized for its lack of diversity, but producers say they are striving to capture a mix that will truly reflect the Islands.


Nancy Usui, who moved to Hawai'i from Los Angeles two years ago, said she was looking forward to seeing how the networks would treat her adopted home. But one hour of "North Shore" left her feeling a bit deflated.

"It bugged me," she said. "Where are the Asians? I know it's a primetime soap, but I was expecting a little — maybe a lot — more diversity because it's set in Hawai'i.

Dozens of other Advertiser readers have called or e-mailed with similar comments since the three shows started casting.

Kim and Usui shared their comments before the airing of the third episode of "North Shore," which executive producer Bert Salke called "a big Asian episode."

Salke says he and the show's other producers are committed to portraying Hawai'i in a positive, realistic light.

"Of all the shows done in Hawai'i, this one really attempts to capture the beauty of Hawai'i," Salke says. "There is a big element of wish fulfillment in the show, but we also want to ground it in the reality of what Hawai'i is."

To hit its target audience of 18- to 35-year-olds, the show has assembled a cast of attractive, young stars — headed by Brooke Burns and Kristoffer Polaha — to play up-and-coming professionals living and working in a tropical paradise.

The upscale hotel guests have an understandably Mainland look (no Japanese tourists?), while the background actors and extras are pulled from a mix of local and Mainland talent.

Salke said Momoa was cast, in part, because of his ties to the Islands.

"As best we can, we want to try to stay with local actors and local traditions," said co-executive producer Chris Brancato. "Writing in L.A., it was very important to us to get local crew and to try and cast as many people as we could that had ties to Hawai'i."

Local workers

In fact, the show has invested heavily in local workers. About 90 percent of the behind-the-scenes crew is from Hawai'i, and, in the first few weeks of production at least, the show has bought in as many as 100 extras per day.

The problem, Brancato and other producers say, is the pool of qualified talent in Hawai'i is shallow, a result of the long paucity of film and television work here.

Henry Lee ("Nash Bridges," "Race the Sun") is one of many journeyman actors who have left the Islands in recent years to try and build a career in Los Angeles.

He says he's hopeful the unprecedented amount of television work now available in Hawai'i will mean more and better opportunities for Asian and Pacific islander actors, but experience has taught him not to assume anything.

Lee boasts an 80 percent success rate when reading for parts. The problem is there just aren't many parts for Asian men in television or film.

Like other professional actors, Lee tries to put himself in the best position to make the sort of contacts that can lead to a casting opportunity, whether that means working at a restaurant frequented by producers and directors (he was a manager at Sushi Roku in Los Angeles) or letting his wife, a masseuse, drop a bug in one of her client's ears.

Casting decisions

By all accounts, "Hawaii" is pushing to properly reflect the state's diverse population in its casting decisions. The core cast includes veteran actor Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Aya Sumika, and Peter Navy Tuiasosopo.

Sumika, who was raised in Washington and has family on Maui, plays police officer Linh Tamiya (originally Linh Dias).

"She's a very tough, very strong woman surrounded by men," Sumika said of her character. "And she has goals. She wants to be a detective."

Producers intend to show a decidedly grittier side of Honolulu than has any show previously shot here.

Where "North Shore" operates primarily in the closed, rarefied environment of a luxury hotel, and "Lost" in isolated jungle and Mainland flashbacks, "Hawaii" will bear the burden of trying to depict the range of urban Honolulu experience in as realistic a manner as possible.

"There's a responsibility we have to be true and respectful to what Hawai'i really is," Sumika said. "For me, it's an honor to be an Asian American representing the people of Hawai'i.

Sumika, who is half-Japanese, and half-Caucasian, said finding work as an Asian actress is difficult but not impossible.

"There are a lot less roles for Asian Americans but people make it through with hard work and focus," she said. "There is a shortage of good, qualified Asian American actors, but this can be good and bad. It's not like trying out for a role in L.A. that calls for blonde hair and blue eyes."

Sumika's role on the show did not come with a ethnic designation when she read for it.

"A lot of roles are being written now without specifying race," she says. "They go with the person who can come in and blow them away."

Sumika says the success of one or more of the Hawai'i-based shows will mean only good things for local actors in the long run.

"It's our time to have a voice," she said. "I hope that more Asian Americans will get the opportunity to work and get jobs. I need the support of my people around me."

Momoa, who plays bartender Frankie Seau on "North Shore," echoed the sentiment.

"I encourage every brother and sister to just go out there and do it," Momoa says. "Go to acting school, get to know the casting directors, go to L.A.

"The talent has to step it up," he says. "These shows need Hawaiians and Asians, so the opportunity is there."

Reach Michael Tsai at mtsai@honoluluadvertiser.com or 535-2461.