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Balmilero as Dr. Noelani Cunha in Hawaii Five-0 (photo © CBS 2018)

Believe it or not, there was a time when local actress (and singer dancer) Kimee Balmilero never imagined she’d land a lead role.

Before she joined the main cast of Hawaii Five-O in the show’s eighth season as medical examiner Dr. Noelani Cunha; before she starred in the original Broadway production of Mamma Mia!; even before she was selected for the national touring company of Miss Saigon as an understudy for the lead role of Kim, Balmilero was just a high school kid nervous about auditioning for parts on stage.

“I didn’t get my first speaking line until I was a sophomore,” Balmilero says. “I was surrounded by this amazing local talent; kids whose singing and dancing skills blew my mind so I was always hesitant to put myself out there to audition for roles.”

Since she was nine years old, Balmilero had been part of the locally renowned Castle Performing Arts Center in Kane‘ohe, led by director Ron Bright and 24-7 Danceforce founder Marcelo Pacleb. The duo demanded the best of the students in their program but Balmilero rose to the challenge; her childhood dream was to become an actor and a teacher.

After landing her first speaking line in 10th grade (and her first singing role in 11th grade), Balmilero joined other aspiring performers across the island in auditioning for the touring company of Miss Saigon.

“Everyone auditioned, it was kind of like a rite of passage that Mr. B’s kids did. The musical would come to the Islands to find Asian-American talent and Mr. Bright’s students were often booking the show,” says Balmilero. “Every musical theater actor auditioned because for Hawai‘i performers, how often do you get that chance to be seen by New York casting directors? But I just went because I thought it would be fun.”

Balmilero thought she might follow in her auntie’s footsteps and work as a cater- ing manager at a hotel after she graduated high school. Instead, Miss Saigon invited her to join the touring company in the spring of her senior year. With no agent and no experience negotiating with a theatre company before, Balmilero asked if she might be able to finish high school and attend her graduation. Miss Saigon said sure, they’d wait for her for a month. “Which is crazy,” Balmilero says. “Nobody is supposed to ask that, you just take this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and go! But I had no idea. I didn’t even know I was getting paid.”

Balmilero literally flew out the day after her graduation that June, to join the company where they were currently performing, in San Antonio, Texas. She spent a week going over songs with the musical director, learned the blocking and choreography on her own, and watched news footage from the Vietnam War. She performed as part of the ensemble with Miss Saigon for three years, traveling to cities across the country for months at a time. When the company closed, Balmilero made the decision to continue trying for shows and to land at least one more. “I had to prove to myself that this wasn’t a fluke. That they didn’t pick the wrong girl,” says Balmilero.

She took classes at the prominent American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco (her first time reading plays and getting actual stage voice lessons as an adult) and booked a new role as a performer in the Broadway debut of Mamma Mia! in October 2001. During this time, Balmilero was also signed to the American spin-off of the popular Australian children’s television program, Hi-5, star- ring on the show, recording albums with the cast, and going on live tours.

After Mamma Mia! and Hi-5 in 2003, Balmilero was living in Los Angeles when she fell in love with improv comedy after taking classes at the Upright Citizens Brigade. She also fell in love with her future husband, tech guru and guitarist John LeBlanc, who she met through friends in San Francisco. LeBlanc would later move to Hawai‘i for work while Balmilero remained in Los Angeles. “During a slow time in L.A., John asked me why I was waiting around for someone to tell me when to work, which was so true,” the ac- tress says. “I decided to return to Hawai‘i, to see what could happen there.”

Balmilero moved back in 2012. That year, she founded ImprovHI, a casual company of improv comedy performers (and non-performers alike, including people simply seeking to build confidence or improve their public speaking), and she began teaching at Mid-Pacific Institute. First as a summer school drama teacher, then managing the school’s entire extended learning program full time. She had finally become both the actress and teacher she had hoped to become as a child.

While at Mid-Pacific, Balmilero also read for a guest role on Hawaii Five-O. The actress previously had a guest role as a bad guy in Five-O’s second season, so an opportunity to return to the show was a welcome surprise. Her appearance in one episode turned into 11 episodes in that seventh season—which turned into Balmilero becoming a series regular in season eight, taking over as the show’s medical examiner. “[Showrunner] Peter Lenkoff trusted and supported all of us. Hawaii Five-O is a huge deal for the local acting community because not only could you appear on the show but local actors, like Taylor Wiley and Dennis Chun, have be- come regulars. I’m beyond thankful.”

Today, in addition to her role on Five- O and hosting weekly ImprovHI events, Balmilero founded a new local theatre company, Stage Fish, and she also organizes the annual Hawai‘i Sketch Comedy Festival, a night of original musicals written by local artists. (This year, scheduled for Wednesday, Oct. 17, at the Honolulu Museum of Art’s Doris Duke Theatre.) After years of performing on the road, the important thing for Balmilero now is being back in Hawai‘i with family.

“It’s so easy to get caught up in work but my family and husband are what grounds me,” says Balmilero. “On the day of the Hawaii Five-O season nine blessing, I went from filming on set to picking up my grandma a few hours later so I can take her to the dentist, because she can’t drive there on her own. I love that.”