COURTESY WALT DISNEY
Local boys Thomas Morinaka, second from left, and Ova Saopeng, far right, with fellow "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" actors Aaron Takahashi, left and Billy Loa at Universal Studios. CLICK FOR LARGE
Farrington alum tell of 'Pirate' life
THERE may be 15 men on a dead man's chest, but it turns out that two are from Hawaii. Ova Saopeng and Thomas Isao Morinaka, both graduates of Farrington High's T-Shirt Theatre, have featured roles in the third part of "Pirates of the Caribbean," opening today.
Look for the rough-looking characters, one in a straw hat with a port wine stain birthmark splashed across his face, the other with a red headband and over-the-shoulder leather chest belt.
Let's get right to it. How did T-Shirt Theatre prepare one for yo-ho-hoing'?
"I'm very proud of myself and Thomas for continuing to pursue our passions as actors and representing Kalihi, Hawaii," said Saopeng, currently rehearsing in Redondo Beach,* Calif., for "Refugee Nation," which he wrote with wife Leilani Chan. "In eighth grade during lunch recess, after watching T-shirt's 'Casey at the Bat,' I crossed paths with Mrs. Watanabe, my social studies teacher, who said 'Mr. Saopeng, I want you to report after school today' to try out for T-Shirt Theatre. A few months later I'm acting in a musical production of 'The Lady and the Tiger.'
"I graduated in 1991 from Farrington, and the experience built confidence in me and trust in my own talent to consider pursuing an acting career in L.A. I continue to be amazed at the power of performance and how it can affect people's lives. It's nice to connect and make people laugh and cry."
As for Morinaka, he recalled that "it was fortunate for me that Ms. Zimke, an English teacher at Kalakaua Intermediate, suggested me as a company member. I was a real problem child back then! She felt it would be a good outlet for my hyperactiveness, and it pretty much determined the rest of my life. I've been acting ever since."
Morinaka describes himself then as a "black sheep" and Saopeng as a "golden boy," and although they worked together in high school, pursued acting careers after graduation and both lived in Los Angeles, their paths never crossed. Then Morinaka was cast as an extra in "Pirates."
"When I got to set on the first day, wouldn't you know it? I saw O there!" exclaimed Morinaka. "We got to talking, and it seems that, out of the people in T-Shirt, we're the only two to get this far, getting our first major roles at the same time on the exact same project."
They had to leave Hawaii to do it, and success didn't come overnight. "It would have been nice to build an acting career in Hawaii first, but you go where the opportunities lead you," said Saopeng.
"Unfortunately, doing theater doesn't pay the bills. Not anywhere, and especially not in Hawaii," said Morinaka. "It was hard starting out, but I've gotten a rhythm, and things seem to be going OK. That ball can continue to roll. Moving was ironic, because as soon as I left, 'Lost' started shooting, and all my friends started to get work. Ai-ya! Bad timing!"
DO THEY miss Hawaii?
"No better place to grow up," says Saopeng, who misses his family and "the island pace. The aloha smiles. I DON'T miss the limitations and the traffic! Ho, getting worse every time I visit home!"
"I mostly miss the food," said Morinaka. "They have Hawaiian restaurants here, but it's just not the same. I also miss the beach. When I come home I want to go to the beach every day.
"The attitude here is completely different. An actor colleague said she noticed the Asians who come to the mainland from Hawaii are much different from the Asians born here. Mainland Asians get programmed from childhood to fit in, acquiesce to the fact they're a minority. Asians in Hawaii are the majority, so when we go to the mainland, we're shocked into being a minority, making us even more passive, or we still claim ownership of our surroundings, making us take chances that mainland-borns wouldn't. That seems to be generally correct. But truly, it's a mix. The people here can be very cut-throat, but they can also be very, very kind."
How's the acting market for guys with "ethnic" looks?
"Fine! I never had any problem," said Morinaka. "Cary Tagawa said he has as good a chance to make it into a film as some random Caucasian guy, because when a Caucasian guy auditions, he's competing with thousands. When an Asian guy goes out, he's competing with hundreds. Thanks to shows like 'Lost' and 'Heroes,' the Asian male market is opening up some. I have a better chance to hit the big one!"
"There is work out there but it's good to learn the business by working hard, networking and knowing what's up and what's going on," said Saopeng.
"Don't let anyone ever tell you that you can't, in anything," said Morinaka. "Anything is possible, even for someone from Hawaii. Look at all the people from Hawaii who succeeded. Bette Midler, Kelly Preston, Tia Carrere, Mako, Clyde Kusatsu, Mark Dacascos, Kelly Hu, Keiko Agena. Even Nicole Kidman was born in Hawaii. Just have faith, keep your passion, and don't listen to anyone who's giving you negativity. Use it to empower you."
EVEN WITH all their free-booting akamai confidence, "Pirates" is such a huge production that these two minor characters could only see their small corner of it.
"It was a very long and interesting ride," said Saopeng. "I was cast in 2005 and worked sporadically until late last year. I can't believe it's taken this long. Huge budget. Lots of waiting. Lots of hard intense work.
"There would be times on the Black Pearl out on the ocean with more than 200 people on board, plus equipment, and no place else to go. How we navigated so a certain shot could be done boggles my mind. We were like sardines, all on one end of the ship. I tip my hat off to director Gore Verbinski, who knows how to captain a ship as gargantuan as 'Pirates.'"
"Judging by my costume in 'Pirates,' you can imagine how hard it was!" said Morinaka, who also worked under extreme conditions in "Letters From Iwo Jima." "Making movies is making movies, and no one said it was easy. If the film is a romantic comedy in an office, then you won't have to stand out in the sun all day."
Not to mention that big chunks of the movie are created by computer artists.
"The conditions can be difficult if you have no imagination. It's just you and an empty room with a blue screen background," laughed Saopeng. "You've got to be able to act silly! The end result is always a surprise. What came out, and what I imagined on the set, were quite different."
"It was kind of gray for us working on 'Pirates,' because they didn't want anything to leak," said Morinaka. "We didn't often get a chance to see any pictures of it or anything, so we had to use our imaginations. Still, getting told, 'OK, now you're looking at this huge thing and that thing over there explodes!' -- that's kind of weird. Fun, but."
"My first shoot was in the Caribbean at St. Vincent and the Grenadines, which is similar to Hawaii," said Saopeng. "We filmed on a black-sand beach which really reminded me of the Big Island. We stood out as the only Asians. Dominica is a very lush and beautiful nature preserve, difficult to navigate as roads weren't paved. The Bahamas in Free Port were very touristy and cold. We also shot in Central California coast in Guadalupe dunes and Palmdale in huge airplane hangars."
"There was this one week we shot in Redondo Beach,* and the boats were shuttling us out to the Black Pearl," said Morinaka. "About 30 people wandered up and asked what was shooting. The very next day, at 5 in the morning, there were literally HUNDREDS of people. Then the next day, THOUSANDS. It was surreal. They were all screaming for Johnny and Orlando to come out.
"One young girl came up to me as I was heading to my car and shyly asked if she could have my autograph. I said to her, 'You don't want my autograph, dear. I'm nobody.' She got all misty and said, 'Yes I do! You're in the movie!'
"I signed it. Probably the only one I signed. She made me feel really special. Like a true movie star."
Monday, May 28, 2007
The original version of this article incorrectly cited the movie filming location as Santa Monica. Thomas Isao Morinaka asked that we amend it to say Redondo Beach, which is where filming took place.