Connecting with Ka'iulani
• Photo gallery: 'Kaiulani' filmed at 'Iolani Palace
BY Mike Gordon
Advertiser Staff Writer
Even though she was only acting, Q'orianka Kilcher felt the weight of royalty.
As the mesmerizing star of the new film "Princess Kaiulani," Kilcher knew every nuance of her performance would be compared to the Hawaiian princess who is still beloved by her people more than a century after her death.
"It was a bit scary," Kilcher said. "My biggest challenge was to do the memory of Ka'iulani justice."
The film about the life of Ka'iulani, whose story is largely unknown outside Hawai'i, opens in theaters on Friday. Audiences in New York, Los Angeles and Hawai'i will have a chance to see a lush reproduction of 19th-century Honolulu, complete with scenes shot inside 'Iolani Palace.
It's the first big effort from Island Film Group, the fledging Hawai'i movie company that co-produced the film with Matador Pictures.
'STEP IN HER SHOES'
While "Princess Kaiulani" features veteran actors Barry Pepper, Shaun Evans and Will Patton, Kilcher, who was only 18 when the film was shot, is the undeniable heartbeat of the picture.
Her role as the Hawaiian princess could prove to be a bigger breakthrough than her role as Pocahontas in the 2005 epic "The New World," in which Kilcher — then only 14 — starred opposite Colin Farrell.
Both parts are historical, but Ka'iulani's life had less room for interpretation than the 17th century Virginia Indian princess.
"With Pocahontas, there is nothing set in stone," Kilcher said by telephone from Globe, Ariz., where she is working on a new movie called "Shouting Secrets."
"I had to read a lot and at the end of the day sit down and decide who she was," she said.
"With Ka'iulani, it was different. There were a lot of letters. I read her own words. There were actual thoughts, the way she felt sometimes and little things she would say."
That connection made Ka'iulani's tragic story all the more personal for Kilcher.
"You had to step in her shoes and imagine what she was feeling at the moment and be delicate about the way you bring her to life," she said.
"It's a dark chapter in Hawai'i's history that has been pushed under the rug. People, when they think of Hawai'i, they think of palm trees and paradise, and many people don't know about the overthrow."
The overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893 offers the tense historical backdrop for the movie. It prompted Ka'iulani to mount a campaign to restore Hawaiian self-rule in the Islands. She traveled to New York and Washington, D.C., to plead her case before congressmen and presidents.
Ka'iulani won converts, but her effort failed. In 1899, she died at the age of 23.
A ROLE MODEL
Kilcher felt "a strong responsibility" to convey Ka'iulani's message, in part because the 20-year-old actress lived in Hawai'i as a child.
Born in Germany to a Peruvian artist and a Swiss human rights activist, Kilcher was 2 when her family moved to Kaua'i. By 5, she was acting on O'ahu, and at 9, her mother moved the family to Los Angeles.
"Ka'iulani had so much love and aloha spirit, which is something I have tried to carry and preserve within me while living in Los Angeles," Kilcher said. "I think she is an amazing role model, especially for young women, because she had such courage, compassion, diplomacy and a dignity that made her such an extraordinary young woman."
British filmmaker Marc Forby wrote and directed "Princess Kaiulani." He was inspired by a photograph of the princess during a visit to 'Iolani Palace in 2003.
In Kilcher, Forby saw the same, soulful eyes he had seen in Ka'iulani. During filming in the Islands in 2008, the director even described the actress as "regal."
Kilcher's performance wowed audiences when the film premiered last October at the Hawaii International Film Festival, said Chuck Boller, executive director of the festival. Enthusiastic applause, screaming and even tears marked five sold-out screenings.
The film received the Audience Choice Award for feature films from HIFF last year, tying with "Precious."
After the first screening, at the 1,400-seat Hawai'i Theatre, people stood up and thanked Kilcher for the way she presented Ka'iulani, he said.
"I was extremely impressed by Q'orianka's performance," Boller said. "It was very sophisticated, and many people can be proud of what she has done. She was a good choice for the role."
The film's producers are hoping that box office success will replace the controversy that has dogged the movie from the start. Ever since March 2008, when they announced the film would be called "Barbarian Princess," Native Hawaiians have registered angry protests.
The title changed several times: Within days of the first announcement, it became "The Last Princess." By fall 2008, it was called "Princess Kaiulani." A year later, at its premiere, it was again called "Barbarian Princess."
And when the film's producers secured their distribution deal last fall with Roadside Attractions, the title was changed again.
But the distribution company was not concerned as much about cultural issues as it was about potential audiences thinking this was an action film, said Roy Tjioe, co-founder of Island Film Group and a co-producer of the movie.
By using a title that focused on the princess, they could say something about her royal birthright and note a Hawaiian connection, Tjioe said.
"We were open to new ideas," he said. "It's very hard to come up with one that isn't too long or isn't too hokey. 'Princess Kaiulani' is pretty classy."
Kilcher is happy with the current title. When the film premiered in Honolulu last year, she couldn't bring herself to call it by its "Barbarian" title, she said.
"I am very glad they decided to go back to this title," she said. "I think it is respectful. I think the film is strong enough and the movie is beautiful enough that it doesn't need the irony of the title."
She hopes her role as the princess will inspire audiences who have never heard of Ka'iulani.
"I basically hope it inspires them to want to learn more about Princess Ka'iulani and Hawai'i," Kilcher said. "She was such an extraordinary young woman. I can only imagine what she would accomplish if she had lived to a ripe old age."