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Hollywood’s paniolo

By deftly roping in all opportunities that come his way, Brad Kalilimoku is proving that no challenge remains too great for this ascending actor and modern-day cowboy.

By deftly roping in all opportunities that come his way, Brad Kalilimoku is proving that no challenge remains too great for this ascending actor and modern-day cowboy.

Triumphs seem to come easy for Brad Kalilimoku, a former University of Hawai‘i linebacker-turned-Hollywood star. All it takes is a quick addition to his bucket list and his seemingly far-fetched dreams come to fruition. Such is the case when he landed his first-ever acting gig on Hawai‘i Five-0 in 2017. Since then, the Pauoa Valley native has taken the reins on his future in the film industry, ready for anything that comes his way.

Once guest-starring on a hit TV show was crossed off, the Roosevelt High School alum quickly replaced it with a higher goal: to see his face on the streaming silver screen. And, of course, in typical Kalilimoku fashion, he received a life-changing call not long after.

“I was in Bali and the internet was spotty, and my agent can’t get a hold of me,” he remembers. “She sends me an email letting me know that this production is trying to get a hold of me. I told my business partner, ‘Get off your computer because we need all the reception we can get.’ Then, (director) Jude Weng calls me, and … she literally does an audition with me on the spot through Skype. She asked me a few things and talked about something emotional, like family, and I thought, ‘Oh no,’ because my grandma passed away not too long before this.

“So, I’m over here in the hotel room and I bring out my emotional side. I start crying — and she loved it. My agent called me back in 10 minutes and told me I booked the role.”

The audition just so happened to be for Netflix’s Finding ‘Ohana, an O‘ahu-based film that tells the story of two New York-raised siblings with local roots. Kalilimoku plays Kua Kawena, the late husband of Leilani (portrayed by Kelly Hu), and father of Ioane (Alex Aiono) and Pili (Kea Peahu). Though he makes a brief appearance, his heartfelt presence undoubtedly leaves audiences with “chicken skin.” The movie debuted in late January to much fanfare, especially to those who can recognize the striking backdrops and catch all of the L&L Hawaiian Barbecue references.

“It’s funny that the movie is called Finding ‘Ohana because we found ‘ohana in each other,” says Kalilimoku. “Me, Alex, Kelly, Kea, Lindsay (Watson), we all became pretty close. It didn’t feel like a foreign cast, it just felt like our families all linked up and we became friends. We still talk till today.

“I really respect Jude and the whole crew, just because they were super sensitive about Hawaiian culture,” he adds. “They did their homework, they reached out to our community, and they really tried to see who was who and what knowledge they had.

“I hope that other people who watch it can see our culture in this way. It’s all about family — that’s why it’s called Finding ‘Ohana and not ‘Finding Treasure,’” he says with a smile.

Accurate representation is paramount for Kalilimoku — who graduated from UH Mānoa with a bachelor’s degree in Hawaiian language — when he considers auditioning for a part, but that wasn’t always the case. In fact, his introduction to filmdom was a shoot that took place at Dole Plantation. His character’s name? The Pineapple Guy.

When he isn’t filming, Kalilimoku can be found wearing denim jeans and cowboy boots, and chillin’ with one of his horses, Kea.

“I had a sarong wrapped around me and I had a cape with no shirt underneath, and then my hat was this pineapple-looking thing,” he recalls with a laugh. “I had to stick my hands out and catch my ‘Hawaiian goddess,’ and I thought, ‘Wow, (people) pay a lot of money for this. I could do this!’”

In the years since, Kalilimoku has been a part of countless commercials, movies and TV shows — including Jumanji, Next Goal Wins and The Naked Director — and credits his work ethic and grit to his time as a Rainbow Warrior. Under the direction of coach June Jones from 2004 to 2008, Kalilimoku received a full-ride scholarship as a walk-on.

“I’ve always pushed myself in sports, and I think it made me push myself with my career and just any sort of goals I’ve had,” he says. “The success from that made me believe that anything is possible.”

Even though he’s now under lights different from those at Aloha Stadium, Kalilimoku ensures that he’ll never forget where he came from.

Coming up, catch him in The White Lotus, an HBO comedy featuring Connie Britton, Jennifer Coolidge and Molly Shannon, and Hallmark Channel’s You Had Me at Aloha, which premieres June 5. This month, Kalilimoku begins filming a new venture on O‘ahu that’s still under wraps, though he teases it’s a “pretty big project.”

Brad Kalilimoku and his horse, Kea, were a part of a 2019 Waikīkī parade, during which he shared his message about aloha ‘āina.
PHOTO COURTESY BRAD KALILIMOKU

“It’s so awesome to even have the chance to work in Hawai‘i’s film industry,” he says. “We have a lot of local people — from the lighting crew to hair and makeup, to the guys who do the rigging — who are super supportive. They’re rooting for us. They want us to do good and go far, and I love that about our people.”

When he’s not putting himself in the shoes of a new character, Kalilimoku puts on a pair of denim jeans and cowboy boots — the quintessential uniform for his modern-day paniolo lifestyle.

“I’m comfortable dressing that way wherever I go,” he says. “And people are like, ‘Brah, you need to dress up.’ But I like taking that piece of me and walking downtown and into offices feeling like I’m the same person.”

Today, downtime for Kalilimoku usually looks like spending the day with his horses, Kea and Akau, at his Central O‘ahu stable. He learned to love the four-legged creatures at an early age, when he was his mother Roxanne’s designated pooper scooper.

“I wasn’t for it but, you know, gotta support the mom,” Kalilimoku says with a smile. “I remember one day, her and her unit were riding at Gun-stock (Ranch), and there were these two horses who were tied up — no saddles on them, just bareback — and I ended up climbing up the guardrail, and I grabbed the horse’s mane. I pulled myself on the horse’s neck and I started to slide down and got on its back. All of a sudden, my mom starts to come back and yells, ‘Oh, my God! ‘What are you doing? Get off the horse!’ But from that time, she could tell that I had an interest in horses.

“My mom sent me to Abraham Akau at Kualoa. He’s probably one of the greatest cowboys in our Hawaiian history. He kind of ‘hānai-ed’ me, and I learned everything I know from him.”

This, along with his desire to honor his culture, inspired Kalilimoku to establish his clothing line Hawai‘i Paniolo. Right now, the items are only available for purchase at Kalilimoku’s meet-and-greets, but check out his Instagram (@keku43) for updates.

Kalilimoku played Kua Kawena, the late husband of Leilani (played by Kelly Hu) in Netflix’s Finding ‘Ohana. PHOTO COURTESY BRAD KALILIMOKU

“I wanted to share my paniolo side with everyone,” he says. “I’ve been modeling for people and I wanted my own brand that I’m super passionate about. I want a brand that will bring out happiness and for people to be proud of. We think about our farmers, we think about our ranchers, the people who have land in Hawai‘i, and want to keep it that way without it getting developed, so, when people wear my clothes, I’m super proud and appreciative of it.”

To further embody this way of life, Kalilimoku is crossing all of his fingers and toes to book a role in Disney+’s Aloha Rodeo, a movie that depicts the journey of three Hawaiian cowboys who traveled to Wyoming at the turn of the 20th century and became legends. “I act, I speak Hawaiian, I’m a paniolo — I can’t say I know a better person for the role. I don’t even have to act; it’s literally me being myself,” Kalilimoku says.

Only time will tell what’s on the horizon for this up-and-comer, but if it’s anything like his other accomplishments, there’s a good chance it’ll be another item he can cross off his bucket list.

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