At Home With ‘Kumu’
Actress Amy Hill was born in Deadwood, South Dakota, raised in Seattle and lives in Los Angeles. But Hawai‘i has always felt like home.
“The first time I came on my way to Japan (where she lived for seven years after high school), you get on the plane and you go, ‘Why wasn’t I raised here?'” recalls Hill. “Everybody looks like me. Growing up, I never felt like I belonged. I stepped off the plane and went, ‘I belong here.'”
Hill is back on O‘ahu for the filming of CBS’ Magnum P.I. season two, which premieres Sept. 27. In the reboot developed by executive producers Peter Lenkov and Eric Guggenheim, Hill plays Teuila “Kumu” Tuileta, the cultural curator of Robin Masters’ luxurious estate, where Magnum resides.
“My favorite thing about the show is being in Hawai‘i,” says Hill. “This is such a wonderful, magical place. It feels like anything is possible. Also, the group of people I’m with — the cast, crew and creatives behind it — are really open.”
Hill’s character, which debuted in the third episode of the first season, was not in the original TV series starring Tom Selleck, but she’s become an important part of the new show. Always wearing aloha attire with a flower behind her ear, she has become sort of the family matriarch, well-respected and full of knowledge.
“I think my character is evolving,” she says on what we can expect for the new season. “Last season, I had one gunshot; this season, I might be shooting an Uzi for all we know.
“What’s great about Peter is he invited all of us to the writer’s room in L.A. on our hiatus, so I went and talked to the writers about what I would love Kumu to do. I would like her to bring more Hawaiian culture into the show without being preachy. I would like to do things that are not explained that are just part of cultural life here.”
Hill, whose dad was Finnish American and mom was a war bride from Japan, lived in a small farming community in Deadwood before moving to Seattle when she was 6. She remembers teachers and the other kids making her feel like an outsider because she looked different from them. She also was shy, and credits theater for helping her open up.
“In Deadwood, there were no people to play with, so I played by myself, and I made up a lot of stories and performed all the characters myself,” she shares. “My mother at one point thought I might be schizophrenic because I did all these different voices and acted alone.
“Then we moved to Seattle, and I did sort of the same thing. I always lived in my imagination, and I would write shows. If I had friends, I would bring them over and I would direct them and do things together, and it sort of escalated into performing on the front porch for my neighbors.
“Finally, I got the nerve to do theatre in high school. At the time, I didn’t see anybody that looked like me, so I thought people would laugh if I said I wanted to be an actor. But I had a really good drama teacher and he really encouraged me.
“I was still shy, but on stage I wasn’t because it was not me. It was somebody else on stage, so I felt great. It gave me this freedom to be strong and powerful.”
After high school, Hill thought about moving to Paris, but decided to go to Tokyo, where she attended Sophia University and worked in TV and radio. It was during that time that she also discovered Hawai‘i and visited regularly.
Seven years later, she moved to San Francisco and made a living doing voice-overs (fun fact: she was the voice of Philippine Airlines for six years).
She also returned to the stage, studying at the famed Asian American Theater Co. and American Conservatory Theater, and doing a lot of improv and sketch comedy. Then, she got her first film role in Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart, directed by Wayne Wang.
Throughout the ’90s, she performed a lot of autobiographical solo shows, talking about her childhood while making it entertaining and interesting. Then, in 1994, she got what she calls her breakout role: Grandma Kim in the sitcom All-American Girl.
“It was groundbreaking in many ways,” she says. “It was the first Asian-American family sitcom. Also, the character I played was something they would never have offered me, but Margaret (Cho) was a big champion of mine. It was the grandma, and I was way too young to play that character, but I really wanted to be that character because it reminded me of my mother.
“I’ve been doing my mother for years in stage comedy and improv, so I was lucky enough to be able to do that, and that was sort of a tribute to my mother.”
Since then, Hill has gone on to add hundreds of TV and film credits to her name, including Max Keeble’s Big Move, Big Fat Liar and The Cat in the Hat. She also is often recognized for her role as Sue in 50 First Dates, and played Jason Momoa’s mom in the TV series North Shore. Currently, she’s also the voice of Grandma Panda on Amazon Prime’s Kung Fu Panda: The Paws of Destiny.
“I feel as though the thing I’ve done well is just say yes to whatever comes my way … because it usually opens doors to new paths that I hadn’t considered,” says Hill. “I never thought in my youth that I wanted to grow up and do voice-overs or animation, and now I do a lot of animation. I love it.
“At one point in my career I could never get auditions for episodics, and then I did a lot of episodics and a lot of series. It’s nice how my life and my career unfolds. I knew I wanted to be a mom, so I adopted a daughter when she was a baby, and I was a single mom and it worked out. I did it.
“Take a chance. Life is always going to give you lots of challenges, and you just have to believe they’re challenges, not blockades. They’re something you have to work your way through and get around and there’s light at the end of the tunnel. All those clichÃ©s are all true. It’s not always great but it leads to something else.”
While home is in LA, Magnum P.I. has Hill in Hawai‘i for 10 months. She’s staying in Kaka‘ako, and has become a regular at eateries Piggy Smalls and The Pig and The Lady (her favorite dish is the Smoked Brisket Pho French Dip), and Merriman’s. You also might find her shopping at Foodland Farms and Longs Drugs at Ala Moana Center, as well as South Shore Market in Ward Village.
Coincidentally, daughter Penelope Hill also moved to Honolulu last year to attend University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa.
“I used to come to Hawai‘i a lot,” says Hill. “When I was in Tokyo, once a year at least, I would stop here on my way back to the mainland or back to Tokyo. When I was in San Francisco, we would just come because it’s a cool place. And when I moved to LA, I had more friends in Hawai‘i (such as film producer Chris Lee), and I didn’t have a problem buying a ticket for the weekend. Then, when my daughter was born, I bought timeshares on Maui and Kaua‘i, so we would come twice a year.
“I love being here. Even now, one of the best things is nobody says, ‘What are you?’ — ever. Nobody questions. On the mainland I get it at least once a day.
“I just feel comfortable here. Everybody is so kind and wonderful. It feels like home.”