Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, September 12, 2004

Acting 'local'

By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer

Of the four network television series filming on O'ahu this season, none has placed itself in a more precarious position with its adopted community than NBC's audaciously titled "Hawaii."

Peter Navy Tuiasosopo, Aya Sumika and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, all Hollywood actors of Asian or Pacific-island ancestry, play the roles of locals on the NBC cop drama "Hawaii." Each sees his or her role as representing a facet of what Hawai'i is really about.

NBC Universal

And within the cop drama's talented ensemble cast, none have invited more pressure and more scrutiny than the stars who play its "locals" — Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Aya Sumika and Peter Navy Tuiasosopo.

"When you call yourself 'Hawaii,' you'd better be prepared to step up and represent all that the name stands for," says Tagawa, who plays Capt. Terry Harada on the show. "If not, you need to pack up and go home."

As far as Tagawa is concerned, that goes triple for the so-called Dynamic Trio.

"This ain't L.A.," Tagawa said. "We have a great cast, and I enjoy working with all of them, but without our characters — Aya, Pete and myself — this show could be set in any city. I think our presence gives the show some balance and some credibility with locals.

"It's a dream come true for me to represent Hawai'i," says Tagawa, who has paternal roots in the Islands and has lived here for the last 10 years. "We have characters, culture and an environment to draw on that is different and distinct from the rest of the U.S."

To Tagawa and his younger co-stars, the show's commitment to highlighting those differences will play a large part in determining its success.

Unlike "Lost," shot in various remote locations around O'ahu but not actually set in Hawai'i, Fox's "North Shore," set in the exclusive environment of a fictitious Hawai'i luxury resort, and the WB's still-nascent "Rocky Point," which follows the exploits of a young Mainland transplant living on the North Shore, "Hawaii" is thematically bound, without any mitigation, to Hawai'i's local community.

The show focuses on the officers of the Honolulu Metro Police Department. Moving beyond cliche images of sun, surf and hula dancers (although all remain in the mix), "Hawaii" attempts to depict the full range of Island life, with story lines that spring from cheesy tourist spots, urban business centers, residential neighborhoods, and rural areas.

While Tagawa, Sumika and Tuiasosopo were all born and raised primarily on the Mainland, their Asian and Pacific-islander backgrounds mark them as the most identifiably "local" characters. That makes them focal points for viewers sensitive to how race and culture are portrayed.

Viewers are weighing in on Web forums and message boards. Asian and Pacific-islander watchdog groups are also closely tracking the treatment and development of the three characters.

"Because we're set here in Hawai'i, we have a lot more on our shoulders," Tuiasosopo says. "But it's a pressure that I consider a privilege.

"I'm not trying to pull the color thing," he says. "I'm here to represent the people of Hawai'i in the most respectful way possible, and I'm just amazed and thankful for the opportunity to show the rest of the country that people like us have something valuable to contribute."

The Warrior Spirit

When Tagawa says the stakes are high for "Hawaii," he doesn't just mean the success or failure of a TV show.

Known (and sometimes misunderstood) for his independent nature and out-of-the-box thinking, Tagawa has been an advocate for the place Asians and Pacific islanders occupy in America and the world at large.

"I'm always into greater purposes," he says. "I really believe that Hawai'i is on the verge of something really significant.

"Our potential has not been reached. We will have an influence on the world as the transitory point between East and West. More than any other place in the world, we have something real to bring to the table."

With four TV shows already in production in Hawai'i and the extension of Act 221 (allowing for tax credits to qualified film and TV productions) promising a steady stream of future projects, Tagawa says now is a pivotal time for the Hawai'i film industry.

"It's almost a Catch-22," he says. "You can complain for so long (about the lack of acting jobs in Hawai'i), but then you're not prepared for this much attention and this much work.

"It's critically important that we get ready," he says. "The need is going to be overwhelming. This is just the first wave. The next will determine the real character of our industry."

Tagawa intends to approach the challenge the way he always does — with a warrior spirit.

Tagawa's father served with a counter-intelligence unit as part of the U.S. military forces occupying post-World War II Japan. His maternal grandfather served in the Japanese Imperial Navy.

"So, I'm a warrior in full," Tagawa says. "I live my whole life from that perspective."

Tagawa spent his childhood in a series of Army posts in the American South, encountering racism and discrimination that would take years for him to reconcile. He spent most of his adult life in California, developing a sense of discipline and humility through martial arts (he eventually developed his own style, called Chuu-Shin) and expanding his world view.

Tagawa didn't start acting until his mid-30s, landing his first major role in the 1986 film "Big Trouble in Little China." From there came a steady flow of film and television work, including "Rising Sun," "Mortal Kombat" and "Pearl Harbor."

One of Hollywood's most recognizable Asian-American actors, Tagawa says many of the roles he's been offered have been poorly drawn stereotypes. Still, he says, "I take what they give me and I give them more than they bargained for."

Tagawa says the value Asian and Polynesian cultures put on humility gives actors like Sumika and Tuiasosopo an advantage in dealing with the dark side of Hollywood.

"Ego is a disease in Hollywood," he says. "We have superior ideals and purposes in a business of inferior principles.

"You have to have humility to be great," he said.

The corollary, Tagawa says, is that local actors also have to be willing to pursue their goals with passion. "We have to drop the local attitude of 'eh, why try?' " he says. "Slavery ended in 1865, but it went on longer in Hawai'i. We have to shake the plantation mentality and be willing to put forth the effort without the guarantee of success."

Tagawa is willing to put his effort where his mouth is, organizing classes and seminars for local actors and actresses.

While Tagawa would welcome a deeper exploration into his Terry Harada character on "Hawaii," he says he'd like it even more if some of the local actors who have been getting supporting roles on the show would get the chance to be regulars.

"That's the real goal," he says. "Ten is better than one."

A big but good risk

For Sumika, every good risk deserves a reward.

By her accounting, "Hawaii" producers took a big chance by casting her to be the lone woman in the show's core cast — her first significant acting role ever. She says NBC also took a risk casting three Asian and Pacific-islander actors as regulars in a prime-time series.

"When was the last time you saw this much diversity on network television?" Sumika asks. "NBC has taken a big risk, but it's a good risk. This will be something new for viewers, and I think they'll like what they see."

Raised in Seattle, the half-Japanese, half-Caucasian Sumika said she grew up highly aware of the differences between herself and her Caucasian peers.

"Growing up, everyone is always asking you, 'Where are you from? Where did you get those eyes? What planet are you from?' I was conscious of it every day."

Rather than retreat, Sumika said, she found strength in her self-consciousness. Asked what sort of ethnic or cultural description she now prefers, Sumika responds simply: "Different."

"I feel different," she said. "And it feels good to feel different. Being different is something new to network TV and it's interesting to viewers."

And while she is happy to have such close allies in Tagawa and Tuiasosopo, as well as a supportive on-set buddy in Sharif Atkins, the pressure and responsibility she feels as the show's lone female lead is hers alone.

"I think being the only female puts me into character," she says. "Linh is a strong woman surrounded by men in the workplace, and so am I off screen. It can be an intense environment with all those guys around, but it's fun, and I enjoy the challenge."

Still, Sumika takes female camaraderie where she can find it.

"We've had a few female guest stars, and when they come, I'm like, 'aloha, welcome' and beyond. It's like, I'm a woman, you're a woman. Thank God for estrogen!"

In the wave of negative reviews that followed the airing of the show's pilot episode, one of Sumika's scenes was singled out by minority watchdog groups for what was perceived as a stereotypical sexualization of an Asian female character. The scene involved Linh's fellow officers trying to find Detective John Dec-lan (Atkins), concerned that he might have been attacked by a local crime lord. They break into his bathroom only to find Declan and Linh (who was already involved with Ivan Sergei's character) naked in the tub.

Sumika says she had concerns about the scene, but went through with it because of the way her character was allowed to handle the situation.

"The No. 1 priority for me was that she was able to walk away with strength," Sumika said. "This was one of the worst moments of her life, to be caught in that situation by people whose respect she's had to fight so hard to earn, and yet she was able to walk out with her head up.

"The scene wasn't about sex but the conflict that situation created between the characters," she said. "Conflict is fun to watch."

Still, Sumika understands people's sensitivity to the scene.

"I think people are quick to judge sometimes, and you really can't judge a character by one scene," she said. "At the same time, I think people were just being protective of Linh. I think they're supportive of her and what she represents."

Busting stereotypes

Tuiasosopo's Kaleo character has also been a hot topic among local viewers. In one of the first scenes of the pilot episode, the size XXXL Kaleo snatches a bag of chips away from a criminal he's processing, quipping that "Crime doesn't pay, brother."

The brief scene drew chuckles when the pilot was screened at Sunset on the Beach, but several people pointed to that scene and others involving Tuiasosopo as reinforcing the stereotype of Polynesians as overweight in stature and lightweight in character.

"A pilot is a pilot," Tuiasosopo says, echoing the cool appraisal the episode has received from other cast members. "I'm very thankful that it was enough for NBC to give us the green light for the series, but what we've done since then — it's like night and day. I really like the direction we're going in now, and I'll never go back to that point. You'll never see Kaleo go lower than that level."

Tuiasosopo is effusive in his praise for creator Jeff Eastin and the show's writers, but he acknowledges that it takes time and continued exposure to the local culture for everyone to see beyond all of the stereotypes associated with Hawai'i and its people.

"The direction they were going in the early scripts (of the pilot) was a lot goofier," he says. "There was one scene where I felt (the dialogue) was making fun of pidgin. Pidgin isn't just a way of talking, it's a way of life. It's a style. And it's not something to be made fun of — especially by me, a Polynesian.

"It would be different if it came from a (Mainland) haole because the expectations are different," he says. "It's not natural for them, and you can just discount it. But from a Polynesian, it's different. No. 1, you look stupid. No. 2, you should know better."

Tuiasosopo says that by being a part of the cast and having opportunities to give input and demonstrate ways of speaking and behaving that are consistent with local and Polynesian customs, he, Tagawa and Sumika are able to offer something that will make the show ring true both in Hawai'i and on the Mainland.

Recent episodes have featured Tuiasosopo in an increasingly prominent role, a role that will continue to expand as he is paired with Sumika.

"I'm not in a position to demand anything," he says. "But now that I've shown that I can go beyond the potato-chip bag and do something with more substance, I think they'll want to use that to their advantage."

Tuiasosopo was born and raised in San Pedro, Calif. He says his was one of only three Samoan families in an area made up primarily of Italians and Yugoslavs.

He says his early experiences growing up in the predominantly white community provided him with the mentality he needed to succeed, first as a football player and later as an actor.

"Being in a class with all haoles, I was the only brown thing in the room," he says. "I didn't want to be the one to fail.

"We had FOB (fresh-off-the-boat) parents, and they weren't up to date on the educational system in the U.S., so when we had homework or stuff like that, they didn't really understand," Tuiasosopo says. "As kids, we just had to suck it up. I paid attention in class, and if I got lost, I asked for help. I had no pride. I was not going to be a failure."

Tuiasosopo carried that same sense of determination to Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, where he was a football standout.

He got his first acting break in 1991 in "Necessary Roughness." His recent work includes "The Scorpion King," "Austin Powers," and "Charlie's Angels II."

But Tuiasosopo says his latest gig with "Hawaii" is the most exciting thing he's done to date.

"It's been years of pilot after pilot after pilot in Hawai'i, and they all missed the mark because the networks and producers didn't have enough trust and belief in people like us to develop and establish us as regular characters.

"This show has really latched on to the understanding that having people like Cary and Aya and I gives it a nice balance," he says. "The more locals are trusted to take on these roles, the more producers will see that we have the talent and we're willing and able to take on the responsibility of representing our people."

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

• • •