LOS ANGELES >> The topic of Hollywood awards diversity can be both dismaying and clinically dry: so many fine minority actors ignored, so many statistics proving the stubborn whiteness of the Oscars and other honors.
But Kalani Queypo chooses to be optimistic. The Hawaii-born actor was glad to earn critical acclaim for his role as Squanto, a Native American who helped the newly arrived Pilgrims survive, in National Geographic’s miniseries “Saints &Strangers.”
Sweeter still would be hearing his name announced as an Emmy Awards nominee for best supporting actor in a movie or miniseries Thursday. As a person of color, he said, he has faced the daunting challenges of any actor — and then some.
“How do I ingratiate myself into this industry that has, historically, just not been thinking about us? How do I infiltrate myself, get noticed and get valued?” Queypo said.
An Emmy nomination would deem his portrayal of a complex Native American something “to sit up and pay attention to,” he said.
“But it’s not just for me as an individual. It’s for all native performers who have come before me. And I think about native kids who are watching, and an experience, like a nomination, especially a win, it creates an opportunity for them because the dream doesn’t seem so far-fetched. It’s within reach, you know? It’s someone who looks like them.”
Emmy recognition would place him in an exclusive club, one occupied by the small number of minority actors nominated in the Emmys’ 68-year history. Asian-, Latino- and Native Americans especially are lagging.
Queypo, who traces his mother’s side of the family to Native American roots, said his career experience and determination have given him reason to hope for more good fortune.
He worked in “The New World” (2005) with director Terrence Malick, appeared in TV series including “Nurse Jackie” and “Mad Men,” and has been cast in the upcoming drama series “Jamestown,” from “Downton Abbey” producer Carnival Films. He wrote and directed the independent film “Ancestor Eyes.”
Queypo also is a stage actor, including a decade-plus working with Native Voices at the Autry, which develops and produces new works from native playwrights and is connected to the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles.
From the start “he was fantastic to have in a room because he brought so much immediacy and life to a character. … He was always prepared and had good questions, so the playwrights adored working with him,” said Jean Bruce Scott, the theater’s producing executive director.
Queypo has been consistently cast in plays and workshops since then, and in a variety of roles, said Scott and Randy Reinholz, producing artistic director with Native Voices.
“That’s the exciting thing about Kalani: He can play the hero, he can play the best friend, he can play third guy from the left,” Reinholz said.
For the actor it’s all a far cry from his previous life in Hawaii, which superficially sounds idyllic: As a child in Waikiki, he danced in a hula act with his two sisters (“I was adorable,” he confirmed, smiling), and his father was in a band called the Tikis.
But his dad’s death left the then 9-year-old Queypo and his family struggling to survive, an experience he’s developing into a screenplay about “growing up in paradise but in poverty, and the juxtaposition of that existence.”
His dream of becoming an actor pushed him to New York at age 18, with $500 in his pocket and a friend’s offer of a place to stay.
Singled out at an audition for his grace, Queypo threw himself into dance classes — while also studying acting and voice and working two jobs — and performed with, among others, an indigenous dance company. But acting remained his strength and his passion, he said, although he struggles to name a performer who inspired him as a youngster. “Growing up, I didn’t see a lot of people (on-screen) who looked like me or looked like my family,” he said.
He’s upbeat about the opportunities he’s found since moving to Los Angeles, while at the same time acknowledging that he’s often been cast in roles that put his ethnic appearance — he’s found that “people want to label you” — as well as his talent to work.
“I look almost with envy at Johnny Depp or Ewan McGregor, who have access to these incredible roles. I think, well, it’s a possibility for me but a slim one,” Queypo said. “But I’m always thinking positive. We have our own path and our own things.”