Recognizing Pacific Islander Actors and Content Creators

May 22, 2024

From The Wind & The Reckoning to Whale Rider, visual artists with Pacific Islander heritage, or individuals who identify as Fijians, Marshallese, Native Hawaiians, Guamanians or Chamorros, Samoans, and Tongans have contributed essential narratives to audiences around the globe. Film festivals such as the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, Pacific Island Film Festival of NYC, Sacramento Asian Pacific Film Festival, as well as Hawaii International Film Festival and Nuku’alofa Film Festival showcase excellence in filmmaking year after year, enabling up-and-coming filmmakers to share their unique voices. 

In a video for Character Media, Angelique Kalani Axelrode, Lindsay Watson, Peter Filimaua, and Tiare Ribeaux express the importance of this representation, discussing their desire for Pacific Islanders to have more opportunities in film, media, and entertainment. 

Recognizing Pacific Islander Actors and Content Creators

Famous actors like Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson, as well as content creators like Iam Tongi and Drew Afualo, continue to introduce vital narratives to audiences. While there’s still a ways to go in terms of representation, there are established and up-and-coming Pacific Islander filmmakers, actors, producers, and screenwriters actively working in the industry.

Here are just a few examples:

Cooper Andrews in The Walking Dead, Image via EDNA

Cooper Andrews

From hit television shows like The Walking Dead to Shazam! and Shazam! Fury of the Gods, Cooper Andrews is a beloved character actor with an expansive filmography. Additional titles include Hailey’s on It!, The Last Butterflies, Justice League: Cosmic Chaos, and Halt and Catch Fire.

Kaliko Kauahi

Kaliko Kauahi is an emerging actress who started out in films like Not Evelyn Cho and Hall Pass. She dazzled in the hit TV show Superstore alongside Barbie star America Ferrera, Ben Feldman, Lauren Ash, and Colton Dunn as Sandra. She has also appeared on the iCarly reboot, Ghosts, and American Auto.

Award-winning writer Taika Waititi. Image via UPI.

Taika Waititi

The Oscar-winning writer, producer, and actor Taika Waititi continues to make his mark with upcoming films and television shows such as We’re Wolves and Interior Chinatown. Known for his work on Jojo Rabbit, Our Flag Means Death, The Mandalorian, Thor: Love and Thunder, What We Do in the Shadows, The Suicide Squad, and James and the Giant Peach with Taika and Friends, Waititi continues to make memorable and compelling entertainment.  

Waititi, who is very vocal about representation in Hollywood, issued a poignant statement in a speech at a Hollywood Reporter-hosted luncheon.

“I don’t want to see one token Polynesian character in your show. What I want to see is a fully Polynesian-controlled, Polynesian story that’s written by and show run by [Polynesian people].” Waititi said. “Don’t give us a white showrunner to tell us the rules and tell us how to do things. Let us figure it out.”

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson

“The Rock” or his real name, Dwayne Johnson, is a household name, with credits that include Moana and Moana 2, Young Rock, a television show based on his childhood, San Andreas, The Other Guys, and the cult classic The Scorpion King. He’s also set to star in a new version of Big Trouble in Little China.

pacific islander actors
Keisha Castle-Hughes in Whale Rider. Image via Plugged In.

Keisha Castle-Hughes

Actress, producer, and art director Keisha Castle-Hughes of FBI: Most Wanted, Star Wars: The Bad Batch, The Almighty Johnsons, The Exceptional Squad, and Roadies is also known for her roles in Whale Rider, Thank You for Your Service, and Game of Thrones. She was nominated for an Oscar for Whale Rider and won a Critic’s Choice award for the role.

KJ Apa

KJ Apa originally got his start on the TV show Shortland Street, followed by The Cul de Sac, as well as the film The Hate U Give. Ultimately, he snagged the role of Archie on the series Riverdale, which ended in 2023 after 137 episodes and seven series. Opposite Lili Reinhart, Cole Sprouse of the 2022 film Moonshot, and Camilla Mendes, the show was known to swap genres and balance teen drama with mystery, magic, and sci-fi. 

An image from Moana 2 via Disney.

Auli’i Cravalho

The last few years have been great for Hailey’s on It! actress Auli’i Cravalho, who originally started with the TV series Rise and voiced Moana. She’s gone on to voice Moana in several films and video games and starred as Janis in the movie musical Mean Girls, based on the popular 2004 film. She’s set to reprise her role as Moana in the upcoming sequel.

Tia Carrere

Actress Tia Carrere, known for her role in the cult classic Wayne’s World, also voiced Nani in the animated film Lilo and Stitch. Her extensive filmography also includes appearances on television shows such as Dollface, NCIS: Los Angeles, Blue Bloods, Hawaii Five-0, CSI: Miami, and Curb Your Enthusiasm. She also voiced Nani in the Lilo and Stitch series and provided voices for animated shows such as Duck Dodgers. She is set to appear in the Lilo and Stitch live-action (not playing Nani, unfortunately!)

Jason Momoa

Jason Momoa’s career has exploded with his role as Aquaman in DC films like Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom, The Flash, and Zack Snyder’s Justice League. He also appeared in Dune and the 2024 hit The Fall Guy starring Emily Blunt and Ryan Gosling.

pacific islander actors
Simone Kessell as adult Lottie in Yellowjackets. Image via IMDB.

Simone Kessell

Actress Simone Kessell got her start with small roles on series such as CSI: Miami, Reaper, and Fringe, eventually working to star in films like San Andreas and Muru. She has been featured in recurring roles on Wonderland, The Crossing, Reckoning, and most recently, the hit Showtime series Yellowjackets, where she plays Lottie as an adult. She’s set to appear on the TV series Critical Incident in 2024.

Courtney Eaton

Courtney Eaton of Parachute and Mad Max: Fury Road has also found fame on Yellowjackets, sharing the role of Lottie with Simone Kessell. Eaton has been on the series since the beginning, setting the tone for Lottie’s mysterious and unpredictable nature. She also starred in Gods of Egypt, Line of Duty, and Perfect.

Films and TV Series Reflecting Pacific Islander Culture

  1. Boy (2010)
  2. Tanna (2015)
  3. Sione’s Wedding (2006)
  4. Moana (2016)
  5. Lilo & Stitch (2002)
  6. bro’Town (2004–2009)
  7. Jilel: The Calling of the Shell (2014)
  8. Mr. Pip (2012)
  9. The Casketeers (2018–present)
  10. Vai (2019)
  11. Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016)
  12. Whale Rider (2002)
  13. Leitis in Waiting (2018)
  14. The Dead Lands (2014)
  15. Tatau (2015)
  16. For My Father’s Kingdom (2019)
  17. Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen (2018)
  18. The Tattooist (2007)
  19. The Strength of Water (2009)
  20. Crooked Earth (2001)
  21. Tongan Ark (2012)
  22. The Wind & the Reckoning (2022)

(Did we miss any? Let us know on Letterbox!)

Bring Your Story to Screen at NYFA

For filmmakers looking to hone their craft and bring their passion project to fruition, NYFA is a great place to get started. From our in-house Film Festival Department to our various degrees, certificate programs, and workshops in filmmaking, media arts, and performing arts, NYFA offers classes for visual storytellers of all ambitions. Ready to learn more? Request more information from our admissions team today!