Hawaii actress Kimee Balmilero lives by a simple motto — “be yourself and believe in yourself” — but it has carried her from Broadway to her current role as Dr. Noelani Cunha on “Hawaii Five-0.”
She learned this motto from Hawaii theatre legend Ron Bright, while she was a student at Castle High School, and like other students of Bright, Balmilero took that strong belief in herself and her performing arts talents to the next level. The day after she graduated from Castle, she joined a national touring company of “Miss Saigon,” and never stopped believing.
One of the best parts of writing the “Five-0 Redux” is getting to meet and talk to Hawaii actors who work on “Hawaii Five-0.” Sometimes we only get to meet over the phone, but having a chance to connect with local actors, who often do not get the kind of media attention they deserve, is always a treat for me.
Talking with Kaneohe girl was easy — she is unnecessarily humble, full of incredible energy, and an enviable lust for life. Her happiness and almost surprise of all the attention from fans is lovely, as her resume and experience on Broadway, on stage, and on television is equivalent to the rest of the Five-0 cast. She is a great addition to Five-0, as she is an actor who has as impressive a resume as any actor who guest stars or who plays a recurring role on the show.
Balmilero plays Dr. Noelani Cunha, the medical examiner who takes over for Max (Masi Oka), while he is off working with Doctors Without Borders. Balmilero played Dr. Cunha in the first three episodes of this current season– “Mkaukau oe e Pani” (“Ready to Play?), “No ke alii wahine a me ka ina” (“For Queen and Country”), and “He Moho Hou” (“New Player”), and will return on Dec. 9 for the next new “Hawaii Five-0” “Ka Luhi” (“The Burden”).
When I spoke to Balmilero via phone last month, she was not scheduled to appear again. Or perhaps she was just not giving anything away — as Masi Oka, had not announced his departure from Five-0. While Balmilero did not discuss the future of Dr. Cunha, she was quick to praise the rest of the cast and the crew of the show, without spoiling any future episodes.
“Max is still around, so you’ll just see me keeping his tweezers warm,” said Balmilero.
I always ask Hawaii actors to tell me how they got started acting, and Balmilero spoke very fondly about her time acting and dancing with “Mr. B” at Castle. As a fellow drama student, I was curious to learn about the Castle High School program (I acted at Kamehameha a few years before Balmilero, but had many friends who worked with Ron Bright). She told me the most amazing story about how she auditioned for a national touring company of the Broadway hit “Miss Saigon” during her senior year in high school. The show is about the doomed love affair between an American soldier and a Vietnamese bar girl right before the 1975 fall of Saigon and gave many Asian and Asian American actors a shot at acting on Broadway.
Balmilero shared the story about how she auditioned in the fall of her senior year, and then about a month before she was scheduled to graduate from Castle, she was offered a spot in the ensemble cast, as well as the understudy for the lead role of Kim — and she actually turned them down.
“It was so surreal, I got a call from the casting director who told me they wanted me to join (the cast) in about a week. So I actually I told them no. I had to graduate from high school!” said Balmilero, who laughed a little at the memory.
“But they let me — they believed in me enough that they said they would wait a month. They kept saying, “You’ll be our next Kim” — and it kind of freaked me out. I had been in such a great theatre program (at Castle High School), but I was never a lead, so I was not ready for it. But if I hadn’t had that kind of moment, then I don’t think I would be where I am today. It was a good lesson, because it really pushed me to do better. It taught me that if I’m not ready now, I better be ready the next time.”
I was thrilled to realize while we were chatting that I had seen her perform in “Miss Saigon” when her company came to Hawaii and did a run at the Blaisdell Concert Hall. Balmilero spoke fondly about the several Hawaii actors who were also members of the cast. She stayed with the show for three years before she moved to San Francisco for six months, were she studied acting at Studio A.C.T. (American Conservatory Theatre), and got a little more experience under her belt. After her time in San Francisco, she moved to New York City and “did the rounds” auditioning and basically “paying her dues.”
Balmilero never stopped believing in herself and all of her hard work paid off, as she was then cast in the Original Broadway Cast of “Mamma Mia,” a musical written by Catherine Johnson, based on the songs of the international pop group, ABBA. After her time with “Mamma Mia,” she joined the American cast of “Hi-5,” the hit Australian children’s television show. On “Hi-5” Balmilero reached children around the world singing and dancing and teaching children lessons on math, reading, and critical thinking, as well as music, movement, and teamwork.
After living in Los Angeles for several years, Balmilero moved back home to Hawaii and made her directorial debut with “Mamma Mia” at Diamond Head Theatre. She continued to work in theatre by starting her own improvisational group Improvhi, a company and website dedicated to sketch and improv comedy in Hawaii. The group teaches improv classes and performs once a month at The Pagoda. They also puts on the Hawaii Sketch Comedy Festival which “seeks to expose local artists, writers, actors, directors to different audiences as well as to give them a place to showcase their work” shared Balmilero. Their next show is “The Original Jams Improv Show, Dec. 9 at 8pm at The Pagoda.
I asked her how she was cast in “Hawaii Five-0” and she spoke fondly about being asked by executive director Peter Lenkov to improvise during her audition. “The entire team is so supportive. Peter liked my audition so much that he even asked me to wear my own glasses. It really goes back to “just be yourself,” said Balmilero.
“The cast is so welcoming, it’s been a great experience. I think everyone is really stoked to see a local actor in this part. Everyone is super supportive. I’ve worked with Alex (O’Loughlin) mainly, and you can tell he really cares about the show because he doesn’t miss a beat. He notices every little detail. And he’s always down to take the time to get the scene right — he will guide you through it if he needs to– he makes everything really cool and professional at the same time. I had a pretty long scene with Alex and Scott (Caan) and they play off each other really well — it’s obvious that they like each other and get along– which is why everyone loves their bromance,” said Balmilero.
One moment that really touched Balmilero was when she attended this year’s “Sunset on the Beach” and Lenkov called her onstage to join the entire cast. “Walking the red carpet, having my name announced by Billy V, and then standing with the cast was just an amazing experience.
Balmilero may have a simple motto — but she embodies every word of it. She firmly believes in herself and that has carried her through her amazing career. So just as we wrapped up our conversation and talked about the next time we might see her on the show, she didn’t want to give anything away.
“I’m just tickled, I have no words.”
As always, Balmilero is just being herself — and while she might not want to say too much about the future of Dr. Noelani Cunha– this time, she is more than ready for this moment.
Wendie Burbridge is a published author, playwright and teacher. Reach her via Facebook and follow her on Twitter and Instagram