'Nina' treasures isle roots


POSTED: Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Despite her busy schedule as one of the principal actors on Disney's hit pre-school musical show “;Imagination Movers,”; actress Wendy Calio considers herself a country girl.

Born and raised in Wahiawa, Calio moved to California for a few years during elementary school before returning to attend Mililani High School.

“;I just sort of jumped right into the business,”; Calio said from New Orleans, where “;Imagination Movers”; is shot.

She studied with Hawaii State Ballet, became a backup singer and dancer in Waikiki's “;Legends in Concert”; show, and eventually tried to become a professional dancer in Los Angeles, an experience she described as “;rough.”;

Aside from a successful nine-month run on Broadway in Andrew Lloyd Webber's and A.R. Rahman's “;Bombay Dreams”; in 2004, Calio spent much of her time entering dance competitions and running a dance studio.

Eventually, a Disney executive friend offered her an audition. She decided to give acting another try, and “;one thing led to another,”; she said.

On the Playhouse Disney series, Calio plays a gregarious neighbor to a four-man band that helps people solve problems through song and dance. Like a musical theater production, each song progresses the story based on one specific problem that needs a solution.

“;Our target audience is 4-year-olds,”; said Calio.

Her fresh-faced character, Nina, finds every excuse to go next door and hang out with cool guys, whom she adores. But Nina is pretty fun to be around, too.

“;I love my character,”; said Calio. “;She's a purist. She's all about love and happiness and determination, and sometimes she's a little kooky. Plus, I love my fans (who shriek “;Neeeenaaaa!”; when they see her). They're just so cute!”;

She's especially excited about the second year of the show because Nina is more prominent and “;gets to spread her wings more,”; Calio said. “;Die-hard Nina fans are going to be happy.”;





        Second season premiere: 10 a.m. Saturday on Disney Channel

There's also talk of a Hawaii-focused, trouble-in-paradise episode that centers around Nina. But nothing has been solidified. After all, there are 25 half-hour shows in a season and a lot can happen.

Now that Calio lives in New Orleans for six months out of the year while she shoots the show — the New Orleans-based Imagination Movers band negotiated the location in their contract with Disney — Calio appreciates Hawaii even more.

“;It makes me really miss Hawaii's weather,”; she said. “;There's nothing like sitting on the beach in Hawaii, with a balmy breeze.”;

Growing up surrounded by pineapple fields affected Calio's career in a variety of ways.

“;At first, it did sort of hinder me in my approach to my career,”; she noted. “;You know how we're all very laid back. You never want people to feel threatened by your existence. But when you go to L.A., you have to create an edge so people respect you ... so when you walk into a room people know that you're capable.”;

But in “;Imagination Movers,”; she seems to blend that island-style, country-girl friendliness into her work to great advantage.

“;I love that I come from a beautiful place,”; she said. “;All my family's still there. Knowing I can go back any time creates peace of mind. It's not just a vacation spot for me, it's a place that I hold dear to my heart.”;