Welcome to this week’s installment of Geek Girl Authority Indigenerd Wire, wherein we shine a spotlight on the indigenous people in pop culture. This bi-monthly column will feature the people, shows, movies, art, books and general discussions that celebrate the progress of indigenous perspectives in mainstream pop culture.
Kaliko Kauahi is from the island of Kaua’i, Hawai’i. She is predominantly Native Hawaiian and Japanese. You know her as Sandra on Superstore and Principal Kwan on Raven’s Home. Kaliko was recently bumped up to series regular on Superstore. One of only a few Indigenous actors with such a title.
Kaliko says she avoided pursuing an acting career until she couldn’t ignore it anymore. Not that she didn’t like acting, the idea of being an actor wasn’t something she thought could happen for her. She attended school in Los Angeles, worked for a while and realized Plan B wasn’t working. It was time to try Plan A. So Kaliko enrolled in acting classes, worked her way into the union, and got some small parts on shows like The Big Bang Theory, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. And in 2015, she booked Superstore. I got a chance to interview to Kaliko about her journey.
*Warning, there are spoilers for Superstore in this interview.*
Noetta Harjo: Hi Kaliko. Thank you for taking time to chat with me today.
Kaliko Kauahi: Hi.
NH: So how did you get started in acting?
KK: I didn’t start pursuing acting until my late 20s and I already felt like I was behind. It just took me that long to admit to myself that this is what I wanted to do and to get over the fear. I never expected to be where I’m at now. When you’re an actor you’re just happy to work at all, you know, doing anything. So to be on this show is truly a dream come true. I feel very lucky.
NH: Have you done any stage work?
KK: I feel like as an actor you want to do all the different kinds of acting when you can. Stage is great because you definitely feel the energy from the crowd and you honestly don’t know what’s going to happen because it’s live. The energy is different and that’s what’s exciting about it.
NH: What is your favorite role to date?
KK: Oh definitely Sandra. This is the first time I’ve been able to portray a character at any length of time. So she gets to grow and change and go through the gamut of emotions and it’s been the most fun. As you watch her do things that are surprising to you just know that it was surprising to me, too.
The series regulars might get to meet with the writers early in the season and have an idea of the story arc. As a guest actor, you get the script and roll with it. So it was surprising to me to get to the table read and see what I would be doing.
NH: You just got promoted to series regular on Superstore! Congratulations!
KK: Thanks! I don’t expect there to be much difference because this show has always treated guest actors like myself as if we’re a part of the family. They’ve been so great that I don’t expect anything different. It’s more of a title change I would imagine than anything else.
NH: That’s so awesome. It’s very rare to see people who look like us on screen. And I feel like Sandra is very relatable. Actually, anyone who’s ever worked in retail can relate to a lot of situations that show.
KK: I’ve heard this. People come up to me and tell me the things that have happened to them. I’m always flabbergasted because when I’m reading the script it just sounds so insane. People will be like “that happened yesterday.”
NH: A lot people have worked retail, I certainly have. Sandra was pretty quiet at first, as most Indigenous people can be. We’re just generally quiet people. And then when you get to know us, we are more radical than you thought we would be. I see that in Sandra. I’ve been waiting for her to burst out of her bubble.
KK: I can relate to all the parts of her in at least a small way. For me it’s easy to tap into that part that’s shy and maybe culturally the part that’s like, ‘I don’t want to bother anybody.’ I’m the type of person in a restaurant that will hesitate to bother the waiter if they’re busy. But my cousins watch the show and when the writers give me a moment where I pop off or have a rage moment, my cousins are like, “Oh there she is…that’s you.”
With any character you play, there is a little piece of you that you have to find that relates to that character. It doesn’t mean that you’ve gone through all of the same experiences; you just have to connect to a small part of it that makes sense to you and you can bring out in yourself and into the character.
For Sandra, I feel like she has such extremes to her personality. There are parts of Sandra that she tries to hide or cover up or play it cool and she just can’t. It was an opportunity for me to take all those insecurities and doubts and just let it play.
NH: Going forward into season five, what are some things you’d like to see happen for Sandra?
KK: I got to tell you it’s so weird to think about it, because I’m so used to being a guest actor and getting the script and just working from that. So it’s the first time I’ve actually thought about what I want for her. I just think that she has still a really rich backstory which we haven’t gotten to. What makes her tick? Where did she come from? I think with everyone at this store, you have to wonder, why are you here? What’s your story? We’ve sort of discovered that with some of the other characters.
We’ve discovered so many things about Sandra that are surprising that I know that there’s more. The crew and I have joked about it from the beginning. We didn’t know anything about her at first and through the seasons there are little glimpses of her life that pop up. So we have all of these different theories about who she was before. I’m actually waiting to see what happens with her.
NH: One of the things I like about Superstore is how diverse the cast is. A lot more shows are introducing characters from diverse backgrounds and people of color. How specific was the character description? And what attracted you to this role?
KK: This role came along and the description was ‘sad sack, plain Jane.’ I was like, “What time do I show up?” (laughing) I was ready. The description didn’t have an ethnicity or an age. It said ‘Sandra’ and ‘female, but Superstore never really gave any more of a character breakdown besides that. They were just open to people. They wanted to see what people brought to the part which was very refreshing. The auditions scripts were actually funny. And that doesn’t happen that often. So to read part of a script that was funny and smart, I was happy to go in and read.
Within this entire cast, there’s someone for everyone. I thought all of the other characters were so funny and so good, I was so happy to be a part of it. So I watch it and I just laugh to myself. I don’t always get to see the other scenes being filmed. You go in, you shoot your scenes…you know what happens because you read the script, but when I watch it on TV, it’s the first time I’m seeing it all edited together. I know they’re my friends, but I watch them and just think, “Oh my God, they’re so great!”
NH: Was it a part that you really wanted?
KK: I never go in and think, “I gotta get this job.” There are so many factors that go into casting that I’m just happy to read and see what happens. There’s a lot of ways to look at it, but for me it’s healthy to just go in, do your best and try to leave it at the door.
I learned early on to try to have a life outside of it. You will have days when you’re just hung up on it and you can’t help but think about it and replay it over in your head. You might think about what you could have done different, but if you can, leave it at the door and go on with your life.
NH: What’s like to get that call that you got the part?
KK: I was obviously really excited because I thought that this part was funny and interesting and the script was good. A lot of times you go in to audition for something and the casting breakdown might say ‘possibly recurring’ for a character. Yes, there is a possibility that you could return but it doesn’t always pan out. Superstore breakdown didn’t say that but I could see potential to come back.
I don’t like to get ahead of myself. If I get that call, I want to do the best job that I can on that day that I’m there. And then maybe they will call me back. I’m just so grateful and so fortunate that I did get to come back and again and again.
NH: And now Sandra and Jerry are getting married!
KK: Apparently yeah. Season Five will tell. I never thought that was going to be something she would get to do, but…you know what…she has surprised me from the beginning. We’ll see what happens.
The proposal was not in the script. Justin (Spitzer) was there that day and was like, “why don’t we do a take where Jerry (Chris Grace) proposes.” So I didn’t think about it and I watched the finale and was surprised we kept it. That happens a lot on our show. The writers will be on set and think of something in the moment. There’s a lot of improv too. Those alternate scenes can often make the final cut.
NH: Let’s talk about Raven’s Home. You’ve been on this show for about a year. Tell me about your character Principal Kwan.
KK: Principal Kwan is… a lot of the time she’s the authority, just doing her job. She calls the kids to her office either to reprimand them or to reward them and keep order. She’s very rules oriented, but I think on a personal level, she’s kind of this quirky, weird lady, who’s really into school spirit. She went to school there as a kid and it was her dream to come back as principal. So there’s that super excited kid inside of her, too, that sometimes comes out at school events and it has been so much fun to play. Everyone on that set is so talented. Those young kids are so great. And Raven-Symone is unbelievable! She’s been acting since she was literally a baby and she’s so good! I think she’s hilarious.
When I first started acting I wanted to be on a Disney show because I had young nieces and nephews. And I could not book a Disney show to save my life. That’s just how it goes. But I’m so happy to have this show, in between Superstore. It’s a lot of fun.
NH: What’s the difference between Principal Kwan and Sandra?
KK: Good question. I think Principal Kwan actually has a true air of authority. She is in charge. She has made it. You know this is the pinnacle of what she had dreamed about for so long. So she is an authority figure, but she also thinks she’s cool with the kids. In her world, Principal Kwan is living her best life.
And with Sandra, she’s just trying to get her footing and get some kind of acknowledgment and be a part of the gang. She’s trying so hard and it just never really comes together for her. Sandra is trying really hard just to get people to come over and watch TV and have snacks with her. So maybe season five.
NH: I like that you are in two kinds of comedies. I see that on your IMDB page that you’ve done a lot of comedy actually. Is there another genre that you would like to work within?
KK: I would love to work in every genre I possibly could. I think comedy was just more prevalent and certainly maybe easier for me. But I welcome the opportunity to do all kinds of work. I am a fan of action movies, even though it’s seems so uncharacteristic for me to be in one, but you never know. I enjoy a Western. It all goes back to what I was watching as a kid. Or anything like an epic…I don’t know where I would fit in, but things are changing and maybe there’s a possibility to be in an epic story like Lord of the Rings, those kinds of big stories. I’m happy to do any of it really. If you think back to the feeling these movies gave you as a kid or when you first saw these movies, you want to feel that again. You want to capture that excitement and awe of these stories.
NH: Do a lot of people recognize you in the real world?
KK: All kinds of people do, but kids don’t question it. Adults aren’t so sure that it’s you or they don’t want to bother you. I don’t mind if they want to come talk to me. Kids are 100% sure that it’s you. They are so sure because they don’t have that filter of uncertainty and discomfort. They’re just like, ‘yes, it’s Principal Kwan and we need to go talk to her.’
NH: Who inspires you most as an actress?
KK: I’m not inspired by anyone specific. It’s role to role for me and it’s not always the biggest roles. A lot of times it’s the small parts. I’ll watch something and someone will just be so real or interesting. And I’m like, ‘who is that!?’ Then I have to go find out who this person is because they’re so great and I seek them out in other things. So it’s never just one person. I do like the discovery especially with theater. It’s so moving when you’re present for that performance. There’s sort of an energy. I’m always inspired by that
When I started acting, I didn’t think I was just going to start and then get a lead role. What I hoped for was that I could be a character on the side that’s interesting. So when I see people doing the work and disappearing into the role, that’s my favorite. It’s like that actor was so good that I forgot I was watching a show.
NH: In talking to other Indigenous actors, there’s this sense that, for some, they want to just play a person. Not necessarily an identifiable indigenous role that possibly perpetuates stereotypes, but just a person, living their life and telling a story. How do you feel about playing stereotypical roles?
KK: With Sandra, they didn’t identify her ethnicity at first. And didn’t mention her last name until somewhere around season three. Being Hawaiian is a part of her story, but it’s not everything. She is who she is…and that’s mostly her being strange and interesting.
We don’t want to play the stereotypes or what you imagine us to be because we’re people. We’re all kinds of different things within being an Indigenous person. And as an actor, you just want to do the work and hopefully that will include stories about an indigenous person. We exist in this world so why couldn’t we be just your neighbor, your friend or your boss?
I love that we’re getting more opportunities. Before the only opportunities were type-specific because we look a certain way. And I’m guilty of playing the stereotypes of different things because I just wanted to do the work. But I’m excited about the opportunities moving forward for Indigenous people.
NH: Do you have any advice for any actors who may may be getting their start or may be thinking about getting their start?
KK: I think you just have to have perseverance. And don’t be too hard on yourself. Work hard, train, prepare yourself and be open to opportunity. There’s going to be setbacks but that’s all part of it. It’s really more about the journey than it is about the job. It’s about the greater experience. What I’ve learned in doing this so long is that it’s also about relationships. And if you find at some point that this is not where your passion lies, then that’s okay too. Go find out where that passion is and do that.
In the beginning, I didn’t see myself on screen and thought maybe there wasn’t a place for me. How would I fit into this because I don’t look like anyone? For Indigenous people, we are different and there are so few of us, that’s what makes us special. And instead of trying to conform to the parts and be like everyone else in the waiting room, be yourself because no one else is going to bring that to the role. That’s all you have.
Thanks Mahalo Kaliko for taking time to chat with me and answer some questions.
We had a very interesting conversation about her journey. I’m such a huge fan of Superstore and in particular Kaliko’s character Sandra because I do see a lot of myself in Sandra. Kaliko has such a healthy and inspiring outlook on being an actor. She has learned to keep her career separate from her home and family life. Keeping her culture and her joy intact and never letting her career affect her happiness. I’m excited to see what else Kaliko will do.