Kalani Queypo has graced the screen with Hollywood’s greatest talents in award-winning projects including the Oscar-nominated Terrence Malick feature film “The New World” and Steven Spielberg’s Emmy-winning mini-series “Into the West.” He is also credited in many award-winning television series including AMC’s “Mad Men,” Showtime’s “Nurse Jackie,” FOX’s “Bones,” IFC’s “The Minor Accomplishments of Jackie Woodman” and “A$PEN: The Series.”
He has most recently appeared as the iconic tribe leader ‘Squanto’ in the National Geographic TV movie “Saints & Strangers.” In this movie, Queypo offered viewers an Emmy-worthy performance of one of American history’s most notable native leaders. In fact, only three Native American actors have been nominated for an Emmy since its inception 86 years ago, and there are hopeful rumors that with Kalani’s notable performance that he will become the fourth.
As the founding member of the National American Indian Committee at SAG/AFTRA, Queypo has lent a voice to the Native American community within the entertainment industry. He also serves on the Advisory Council for the Autry where he is an active collaborator with Native Voices Theater. Kalani was gracious enough to sit down with us at Talk Nerdy With Us to discuss his latest project as well as his thoughts about diversity in the entertainment industry.
Thank you so much for making time to speak with us this week. We’ll start with the basics. This is something I ask almost everyone I talk to, when did you know/decide that you wanted to pursue a career in acting? What was your impetus for pursuing a career in entertainment?
For me, growing up I was always an artist. There was no doubt from the beginning, I was always artistic and I liked doing a lot of different things. I was… I always excelled at artistic things whether I was sketching, or singing or dancing, or anything artistic, that’s what I loved.
Growing up there were many things that I wanted to be honestly. I grew up watching lawyers, they were in that court room and they were commanding and they’re capturing people’s attention and making a case and changing the hearts and minds of these jurors. And so I thought, ‘I’m going to be a lawyer. I know what’s right and wrong…’ you know, as a child, right? Then I thought no, I want to be a newscaster, I thought ‘oh man, to deliver the news, what’s happening now and to be this person on television that people tune into every night. I want to be a news anchorman!’ (laughs).
There were so many instances like that and so then I discovered in school… I was lucky enough to be a part of the gifted and talented program for artists and my artistic side was really encouraged and before you know it, you’re a part of the school plays and you’re a part of the chorus and all these different things. Then you realize ‘oh right, as an actor I can be all of those things! I could be a lawyer, I could be a news anchor, I could be any of these things.’ So that’s how it found me.
Most of all I think that what interested me was human behavior and the way that people related to each other and I think my family really developed a great empathy with me and the arts sort of found me, I guess.
It’s interesting that you say it that way because I, in speaking with people about various careers, but more so those who are involved in the arts, it comes up time and time again that it’s more that art, the art, found expression through them and that it was not what they necessarily went looking for, it was just always there for them. That said, as an actor you can kind of ‘do it all’ which does make it a pretty cool career!
I feel like from the outside that people who have never been around this part of acting, they always think it’s a way of escape, that you’re actually being somebody else and I think that acting is actually really tuning into your highest self, your most human self. It’s actually the opposite of escaping into someone else.
I think that early on I probably felt like I was… it made me feel good and it was a way for me to escape whatever I was uncomfortable about, but then you realize that what it truly is doing is bringing you closer to yourself and all the questions you have about our existence, about our purpose in life. So, acting… I have a huge respect for it and I have a huge respect for anybody who attempts any kind of career in an industry that is so strongly commercial. Finding a balance between getting that artistic gratification in a commercial business is really something difficult to navigate.
That’s an interesting way to phrase things, I can understand where you’re coming from. Did you have any kind of formal training beyond being in the gifted and talented programs at school? Did you pursue training after you graduated?
Yes, you know, I made the decision right after high school… throughout I always found the programs, or the programs found me, however, I really took advantage of the public school system. I came from a really challenged childhood where there was poverty involved and homelessness, which is a tough thing to deal with when you’re a kid and when you don’t have the support that you need.
My mom was a single mom, my father passed away when I was nine. I believe that this type of thing can either put your fire out or it lights one up within you and to make that kind of decision is not easy for everyone. I don’t look down on anyone who perhaps may feel like I’m saying that their fire was put out, but it’s… the human drive can bring about really strong determination. Even as a kid who’s not fully developed, who doesn’t know how to find the resources, they can and will figure it out.
I started to figure it all out and there were such great educators along the way who identified that fire within me, who identified raw talent, who identified a desire and so I kept going with that and as soon as I got out of high school, because I was in all these performance groups and whatnot – there was a particular trip to New York that was happening with a performance group in my high school and I did all the fund-raising for it and in the end, I couldn’t come up with the money and it broke my heart. I told myself that I was going to make it to New York on my own and I did!
After high school I saved up enough money to buy my plane ticket, I had $500 in my pocket and I made it to New York. So, New York was where I got my training; I pieced together everything taking classes while working at a bar. I studied at Herbert Murdoch Studios, Peachtree Studios, The Barrow Group, anywhere I could afford and anywhere that I was challenged. I admit that when I walked into class I was completely intimidated by all the actors in there… amazing, seasoned, New York actors who were doing studies. I felt like I had so much to learn, I would observe, I would listen and I would get embarrassed because I couldn’t do what they could do but slowly and surely that switched for me and I learned a ton.
With your mom, being a single mom and having lost your dad so early, how supportive was she of your decision to go into acting?
My mom was an incredible force for me artistically, because early on, before my father passed away, we were all dancing the hula, traditional hula (Hawaiian dance), we were even dancing professionally, and so that was the earliest introduction to performance. Then coming from a culture where every gathering, every party that you go to it is, it would be more uncommon if it didn’t happen, that by the end of the party people start singing and they invite you up to dance, so you dance. It was not an option!
You do it when your grandmother tells you, ‘you guys get up and dance now!’ (laughs) So you do that and it is a part of your culture. My mom was always so encouraging, she always praised me and she always supported and encouraged me. She told me that I was doing good, she was always there at my school performances and she believed in me and that I think was the biggest force in my life.
My mom, she always said, ‘look, in the lowest times for our people, in the very lowest times, we always have our humor and you if you can’t find a way to laugh about things, then it’s over. You’ve got to find humor in everything.’ So I think that she protected us from the reality… you figure it out quickly, though. You’re going to school, the first day of school, and all you own are a pair of surf shorts and two t-shirts, all which you got from the thrift store – and a pair of slippers, you know, a couple of days before and you figure out, ‘oh, right. We don’t have money, we’re…’ you figure that out and you start to cope with that.
Regardless of that, my mom taught us what was important… having a roof over our head, and caring for each other. Art was a great thing because it didn’t cost you anything to sing or dance or entertain each other.
Or even to act. I mean to put on shows. Anyone can, well anyone with some talent can pull that together and it might not have a high production value, but you can do that, you can do that to pass the time, you can do it for fun, you can even do it for donations if that’s what you wanted to do. It’s a lot like basketball in many ways, which is always around and affordable for kids whether they’re in an urban or suburban environment, but also of course dance. So, don’t you feel, in some ways, fortunate that you had the gift of this kind of humor, music and art from your mother when you didn’t have so many other material things? The gift of spirit… is really so much deeper, so much more valuable of a gift that you can give to someone else. I had a more fortunate childhood and didn’t actually get the gift of spirit! Is that something that’s accurate or am I totally off-track?
I think you’re absolutely accurate. I think that if we all could choose our childhood and our upbringing that we would want to choose an ideal one. I mean, why wouldn’t we? Isn’t that what we’re all trying to choose for our adult life when we have the wherewithal and we have the chance as a grown adult? And for me, I don’t fault anybody for the way that they grew up, this is what it is, right?
For me, I feel really fortunate because early on I learned that lesson. Early on I learned the lesson of what’s truly important in life. You lose your father and you’re a kid… I know a lot of people who have to deal with their first death when they’re an adult and it’s heartbreaking, and I honestly don’t know how I did it when I was a kid. You’re forced to face it and I think my mom, she always had this strong faith. She had faith in humankind and she had faith in her spiritual beliefs and she had most of all a charge for, ‘this is most important to me, I have three normal kids and I need to take care of them.’ Trust me, she would be the first one to tell you that she made a lot of mistakes, but I will be the first one to tell you that she was incredible, that she made a lot of great decisions.
Mainly what you’re talking about, the idea of love and support and allowing… not just allowing, but teaching her children to dream big and to dream beyond the moment, beyond the limits of what’s happening at the moment and most importantly, what’s really important in life. You know, to be alive, to be able to try and do something with yourself and to have the freedoms that we have.
I made a pledge, I have a dry erase board that I bought and I thought I’m going to write different quotes on it and you know, I really wrote just one thing on that board that’s been sitting on there for a year and a half. You know what I wrote? I wrote a question, ‘What have you done for your dreams today?’ That’s what I look at every day and that’s enough. That’s a great reminder to say, ‘follow your dreams, dude! You’ve got your life! You can breathe, you can move, you can shake, go do it!’ I try to really take advantage of the fact… I learned that lesson early on, that there are so many worse places that you could be. Going to bed hungry sucks; let me tell you, it sucks. But not being able to wake up the next day? That’s the ultimate suck!
Oh for sure, any day you spend on this side of the dirt… (laughs) Bottom lining it, is a good day. Plus, we’re really on a journey… this is something I picked up on while listening to you. Even your mother valued and instilled in you and your sisters this fact that life is a journey and you take what you have today, value what you have, rather than spending your time saying that at some distant point in the future, I’ll be happy, right?
Right! I think that that’s the way I approach diversity. I don’t know if you know, but I had a panel discussion on Friday. It was a screening panel for “Saints and Strangers”, the subtitle is “Conversations with Hollywood’s New Generation of Native Americans in the Industry”. We showed a bunch of clips and our executive producer and casting director from “Saints and Strangers” came. I had the director of the SAG/AFTRA National Native American Committee; the chair of the Writer’s Guild of America: American Indian Writer’s Committee. It was an amazing panel and I’m so thrilled that it sold out – we even had a waiting list!
What I started to say was that I feel like that’s my approach to diversity. I’m articulating it now, thinking about it, that that is the way that I approach diversity in a positive way. It’s easy to pine for, long for the things that you don’t have. So growing up the way I did there were a lot of things I knew ‘I don’t have that’ but the bigger challenge is to hope for and identify the things that you can have, the things that you can dream of. I think that’s what diversity means to me.
There’s a lot of people regardless of what group you identify with, African-American, Asian-American, Middle Eastern, Native American, we all… there’s activism and there’s advocacy. There’re people who say, ‘this is not happening, these are the things that we don’t have’ and I’ve been to a lot of different get-togethers and panel discussions and we can all easily identify – we’re all very strong on what we don’t have in the industry.
What I try to approach it with – like with Friday’s panel discussion – is what we DO have in the industry. When a production like “Saints and Strangers” had such an incredible, driving force of Native content and Native characters and their storylines; where they present them with such integrity, I acknowledge it and I am so grateful to be a part of that and I want people to know how much I stand for that.
How much I appreciate that and I want people to see it because it changes their minds and it changes their hearts about Native people when they see film and television projects that portray Native Americans in such a multi-dimensional and full colored way. With all the nuances and humanity that they deserve, just like any other group that’s represented on film… on screen whether it’s TV or film. Does that make sense?
I did an interview last week and that was one of the comments that my interviewer made, she said ‘you’re really positive’ and I said absolutely (laughs). There are a lot of things we can identify that aren’t going our way, but you know what, by golly, I’m going to identify some of the things that are triumphs, they’re victories!
This project that I have done was one of the most gratifying roles in my entire career because it was everything I’ve worked for and everything I believe native portrayals should be like. I want other Hollywood projects to look at it and fashion themselves in this way. I want them to look at it and say, ‘oh, there is a way, there is an opportunity to not only find the resources that we need but also find the audiences who will be interested.’ Native people using language, having political issues among themselves and not just with the white people who are the enemies – which has been largely presented in the past.
I think I definitely have a positive approach and not just hoping for the best and crossing my fingers, but getting in there and making a difference. When I show up on set I have a huge responsibility, not just to the project, but also to the Native American community; it’s to all the people who came before me and for all the kids who will come after me, who will see me in my legacy and say, ‘I want to be like…’ This representation (“Saints and Strangers”) means that it is an absolute possibility for me.
Exactly, and I think – I hope – we as people, all of us across the world and the United States where art is being made are starting to break out of very stereotypical ideas; the idea that only this type of person or this ethnicity can be, can play this type of role; even as far as gender assignment.
There are some forward-thinking projects out there now. I don’t know if you’re familiar with a Netflix Original Television production called “Sense8”. This amazing work has blended all these different people from different areas of the world linked together psychically in a ‘Sense8’. These eight people have to learn to utilize each other’s talents in order to survive. I just loved what the show was teaching us, that we need to be open to other people in order to enhance our own strengths and increase our chances of survival.
Growing up here in the US I learned my history as presented in the books available at the time. I am loving the shows and films that have been coming out that show us, teach us what life is really like in other areas of the world. So the more projects of this type and like “Saints and Strangers” that come out, the closer we will be able to come to each other because what we’re seeing is real, it’s not some fabricated fiction. I think that this will be how we will be able to grow together as a world people instead of all these separate little colonies and I think that together is where we will eventually have to be.
So this diversity project that you’re on is really important and I love hearing that people are pushing for that in various industries. Particularly in Hollywood because that is a way to reach a large number of people through one project.
When we were on press tour there were people that… we were in the New England area, Boston. There were a bunch of people who had come to one of the screenings and they were all descendants of people who were on the Mayflower. One woman came up to me and held my arms and she said, ‘all my life I’ve heard stories of Squanto and I finally get to put a face and a voice to him. I’m so grateful that you did this.’ So then you realize the impact of what you’re doing, you know, it’s an incredible thing… the reach that film and television have is incredible. You can reach so many people and over and over.
I’ve done a lot of live performance, and I love live performance, but the difference is that you are reaching just whoever happens to be in the audience that night. When you have something recorded on film you have the ability to reach so many different people and truly change their minds about what they think they know. Especially when you do a historical piece like this that has such integrity, you can literally change their minds on what they think they know and that’s an incredible thing to do.
It is, it’s really powerful and it’s so special that you have the chance to reach out to people and help change their perceptions of life and of other people. It is people like you who are going to be the ones to push change and help realize this global community. We have to want to and be able to share that with other people – and you have that talent. I’m so impressed with what I’ve read about you and now talking to you, your passion for what you are doing is great – it’s very moving. I am so honored to have been able to speak to you today.
I have one more question for you. What would you say to a young Native American who approached you and said, ‘I’m really interested in getting into acting’, what kind of advice would have for that person?
Believe it or not, that’s not a hypothetical, it is something that happens all of the time, especially with social media, people reach out to me all the time. Sometimes they’re young people and sometimes they’re people who are a little lost and that question always ends with, ‘I don’t know where to start. I don’t know how to begin.’
So the first thing I say is to begin with the internet, the way you’re contacting me is the same way that you can reach out and find out everything that you need to do. How did I put it…? I said, ‘it’s like any other business first and foremost, you have to go and educate yourself and study and do the work and learn the skills and the trade, but don’t do it because you can picture yourself doing it, do it because you can’t picture yourself not doing it.’
I’ve got to remember that because people say all the time, ‘oh, I could do that. I could see myself doing that. Everyone tells me I’m really funny. Everyone says I’d look really great on camera,’ and they can picture themselves doing it. I would encourage them instead to have the motivation ‘I can’t see myself doing anything else in my life.’ Then, that will give you the fortitude, the drive, and the persistence to keep going.
The other thing I would say is that I was very fortunate with all the great critical mentions, critical reviews and now with this Emmy buzz… someone asked me, ‘what would that mean to you if you got an Emmy nomination?’ And what I would say is that for me, of course as an individual that would be an amazing experience, right? It would open up doors and offer opportunities for my career, but beyond the individual gain and individual acknowledgment for me, I think about all of the people who have come before me. I think of all the Native kids who are looking and then when they see someone like me being acknowledged and being valued by the industry it gives them the message – the permission – that it is within reach for them. That they can dream big and that it is an absolute possibility instead of an impossibility.
If you look at the statistics, in 67 years of primetime Emmy awards, only two Native actors have been nominated and zero have won. Those are startling, stunning kind of statistics, so I believe for me, an Emmy nomination for myself, or for any Native actor, would be a huge victory because it brings about a consciousness to people not just within the industry but to people who are dreaming, people who are reflecting back on their careers who can say, ‘this is a victory for Native people.’ That’s why for me there’s a huge passion and drive along with huge gratefulness and humbleness that comes with ‘wow, Emmy buzz,’ it’s incredible!
So for me, it’s already a victory and I intend to see it all the way through because that’s how I am and I see this as an opportunity to create and produce an event like the panel discussion we did and it brings us together.
Thank you again for your time. You have such positive energy and drive, I’m sure that you can achieve anything you set your mind to! Of course, all of us here at Talk Nerdy With Us will be wishing you the very best of luck.
If you are interested in learning more about Kalani and his role as Squanto in the film “Saints and Strangers” there are links included below.
This first link is to an article written by Kalani about Thanksgiving from a Native American perspective.
This second link is to a clip of Kalani in his role as Squanto in National Geographic’s “Saints and Strangers”.
Follow Kalani on social media:
*Featured image photo credit: Sunny Khalsa Photography