FROM THE HONOLULU STAR ADVERTISER
If you want to call Willie K a reluctant actor, it would probably be all right with him. Even with roles in two recent local feature films – “Get A Job” and “You May Not Kiss the Bride” – he doesn’t view acting as having much of a place in his future.
The 50-year-old Maui native is an entertainer first – a Na Hoku Hanohano Award-winning singer, songwriter and musician.
“I am not hunting for a gig, but if you have something for me to do, great,” he said. “Even if the part is small, I am willing to serve – provided you are not wasting my time.”
Willie “Willie K” Kahaialii lights up the screen and his work in both films could introduce him to a whole new fan base whether he likes it or not.
In “Get A Job,” he was the classic beleaguered straight man to his zany co-star, Eric Gilliom, who happens to be his partner in the musical duo Barefoot Natives. In “You May Not Kiss the Bride,” he brought good-natured humor to the part of a Tahitian chief.
Neither film has had a theatrical release, but “Get A Job” has done well at several smaller film festivals this year and “You May Not Kiss the Bride” is scheduled to screen in Hawaii starting Sept. 2 at Consolidated’s Pearlridge 16.
For audiences familiar only with his successful music career, this will be an unexpected side of Kahaialii.
“He’s an entertainment savant,” said Brian Kohne, writer and director of “Get A Job” and the producer for Barefoot Natives. They’ve known each other six years.
“Willie can take on anything and pull it off,” Kohne said. “But above all else, Willie K is fun to look at. The camera absolutely loves him. He’s got a presence. He as a soul and the camera picks it up.”
When he was approached by the producers of “You May Not Kiss the Bride,” a romantic comedy featuring Rob Schneider, Tia Carrere and Katharine McPhee that filmed in 2009 on Oahu, Kahaialii said “no thanks.” He had already been rejected at every audition he attended for the last 15 years.
But Honolulu film producer Rann Watumull told the musician the part was his for the taking.
“As soon as it was created, I knew there was only one person for it: him,” Watumull said. “ I didn’t know him personally. I had seen him on stage. He looked the part and he sings. I thought he would be just perfect.”
Although it was his first acting role, Kahaialii handled it with ease, Watumull said.
“He got dressed up in costume and got shot at and got pineapple in his eye and never complained,” Watumull said. “People are going to get a kick out of seeing him. They will love him.”
Kahaialii’s background is in music, not acting. He was 10 when he started performing. He did take a drama class at Lahainaluna High School, though it went badly.
“I am the only person in the world, in the history of high school, who flunked drama,” he said.
One of Kahaialii’s lesser-known passions is his life-long devotion to martial arts, which he began learning at home from his father. He compares the discipline to making music and has even found a way to combine it with film through his 50th State Film, Music and Martial Arts Festival, which will take place Sunday.
The event, now in its second year, is eclectic in design. There won’t be any music this year and the film component consists of a lifetime achievement award he will bestow on his friend, the late actor Pat Morita. (Last year, the award was given to James Hong.)
Morita, who lived off and on in Hawaii in the 1980s and -90s, was a close friend of the musician’s and represents a favorite martial arts character, Mr. Miyagi of the “Karate Kid” film series. He died in 2005.
His widow, Evelyn, will accept the award from Kahaialii and will later hold a private scattering of the actor’s ashes in Hawaii waters.
“He would have cherished this moment of recognition and it would have been extra special coming from the Hawaiian people… who he loved,” Evelyn Morita said in an email.
“It will be closure for me as well as a blessing and a celebration of his life.”
There’s no way to predict what will happen when “Get A Job” and “You May Not Kiss the Bride” start connecting with larger audiences – assuming they have the chance – but the reluctant actor isn’t opposed to the newfound attention.
It’s fun when moviegoers laugh at the right moments, Kahaialii said.
Does that mean more screen time?
“It was fun,” he said. “I’m a character as an entertainer. Standing in front of a camera and portraying myself as a different person is easy. I live to entertain.”