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[Only IN Hollywood] ‘NCIS: Hawaii’ helps address lack of Fil-Am roles

Ruben V. Nepales
[Only IN Hollywood] ‘NCIS: Hawaii’ helps address lack of Fil-Am roles

Fil-Ams Vanessa Lachey (right) and Yasmine Al-Bustami lead the diverse cast of 'NCIS: Hawaii.'


'It was the first time I auditioned for a Filipino character. I felt seen in Alex,' shares Kian Talan, the Fil-Am actor who plays Alex Tennant.

LOS ANGELES, USA – “It’s actually been pretty unreal. There’s not a lot of Filipino-American families on TV. So, the fact that I can be a part of that and bring representation to Filipino-Americans is crazy.”

Kian Talan, the Fil-Am actor who plays Alex Tennant in NCIS: Hawaii, declared this recently as part of the show’s panel in PaleyFest 2022 at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood. He plays the son of the lead star, Vanessa Lachey (Jane Tennant).

Not one but four Fil-Am actors in a mainstream US TV series – Kian, Vanessa, Yasmine Al-Bustami (Lucy Tara), and Mahina Napoleon (Julie Tennant) – are certainly welcome exceptions in Hollywood, where there’s some progress in diverse casting. But opportunities for actors of color are still way lacking.

In his well-written essay last year for Backstage, an American entertainment trade industry publication, Kian penned, “I’m used to being stereotyped and judged. I’m the son of two Filipino immigrants and grew up in a white, suburban town in New Hampshire.”

KIAN. ‘It was interesting coming to this show, thinking about the different sides of my life – the military side, the aspect of being Asian-American in America.’ Photo by Sthanlee B. Mirador

“I didn’t need another reason for people to stare, so I always kept my head down and never pushed myself to see what I could do. I found diversity and inclusion when I moved out to New York City, giving me freedom from my past insecurities and pushing me toward my acting dream.”

“However, I quickly realized the entertainment industry was not so different from my hometown.”

“There are very few opportunities for Asian actors, which means even less for Filipino actors. I kept putting myself in a mold that didn’t fit. My reps were sending me out for Korean, Chinese, Thai, and even Latino roles, just to get seen by casting.”

“I don’t know why, but I was willing to sacrifice anything to work, even my self-worth. I started to slip into this identity crisis and began to lose confidence in who I was because it didn’t seem like anyone wanted that.”

“These questions and thoughts would pop into my head during the casting process, which was 100% not healthy for me. I would see castings for Asian roles, mainly on two different sides of the spectrum: the thick accent, comedic, slightly racist character; or the timid, whitewashed, non-three dimensional character.”

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“I felt like I had to pick a type, whether I liked it or not – so I did, and I changed a lot about myself.”

“But rejection is inevitable in this business and it came to a point where I hated the industry, hated my work, and kind of hated myself. I took time to refocus and decided that if I’m going to fail, I needed to do so on my terms.”

“I’m auditioning the way I want, putting out work I’m proud of, making character choices that I believe in, and not caring if I fit the breakdown. I found that I had way more power as an actor because I had control over how the character would be portrayed in my auditions. If they like my perspective, great. If they don’t, then I shouldn’t be playing that character anyways.”

“Then, I got the audition for Alex on NCIS: Hawaii. It was the first time I auditioned for a Filipino character. I felt seen in Alex. I related to his story, and I was eager to throw my name into the mix. When I booked the role, I couldn’t believe it.”

“They wanted my perspective, and I didn’t have to change who I was or fit into a mold to provide it. This role feels like exactly where I’m supposed to be. And I hope this inspires other actors not to settle into a stereotype; to respect your needs as an artist because all of us can be the change we want to see in this industry.”

Speaking of diversity, Vanessa, formerly known as Vanessa Minnillo, is the first female lead of an NCIS show. She is also one of the first Fil-Am female leads in a TV series.

She was born in Clark Air Base, in Angeles City, Philippines, to a Filipina mother, Helen Ramos Bercero, and an American, Vincent Charles Minnillo, who was in the US Air Force.

VANESSA. ‘She (Jane Tennant, her character) protects her team in her work environment, and she leads with power, strength, and confidence.’ Photo by Sthanlee B. Mirador

From beauty pageants (she was the first Miss Teen USA from South Carolina), Vanessa went into TV hosting and acting. Vanessa’s Filipino heritage makes her instantly bond with many people in Oahu, where NCIS: Hawaii is mainly shot.

In an interview with United Press International, she was quoted as saying, “There are so many Filipinos here (in Oahu). I love when they’re like, ‘Vanessa! Oh, my God, you’re like family.’”

Yasmine, on the other hand, was born in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. Her mom is Filipino while her father is Jordanian-Palestinian. She grew up mostly in Texas.

YASMINE. On her character’s LGBTQ+ relationship: ‘Whenever people come to me and write letters and I hear that the story touched them because it is the community that it is, then it reaches a whole other level of meaningfulness.’ Photo by Sthanlee B. Mirador

In the recent PaleyFest, an annual TV festival featuring screenings and panel conversations with stars and creatives in front of a live audience, Vanessa, Kian, and Yasmine were joined by their co-stars, Alex Tarrant, Noah Mills, Jason Antoon, and Tori Anderson; and creator-writers Matt Bosack, Jan Nash, and Christopher Silber.

Nischelle Turner, Entertainment Tonight co-host, moderated the panel.

Asked by Nischelle how she relates to Jane Tennant, a special agent in charge of NCIS Pearl Harbor and a divorced mom of two kids, Vanessa, who has been married to actor-singer Nick Lachey since 2011, answered, “I say that Jane Tennant is a badass with a warm heart. The thing that gets my blood flowing is not only this amazing team in the show. It goes without saying, this is my family.”

“Everybody here is my family because they are literally stuck with me on a rock in the middle of the ocean. But she protects her team in her work environment, and she leads with power, strength, and confidence.”

“And then she goes home. She’s a single mom and she wants to go on a date. She wants to feel beautiful and loved. And she doesn’t know how to parent her 16-year-old son and her 10-year-old daughter (Julie, played by Mahina, whose dad is Filipino) who is just sweet as pie.”

FAMILY. A Fil-Am family on ‘NCIS: Hawaii’: Vanessa Lachey with Kian Talan and Mahina Napoleon, who play her children. Courtesy of CBS

“For me, it was just that you can have all of these worlds existing. One of my favorite pictures on the internet that someone sent me is this woman sitting there and she has her eight arms; one arm has her work phone, the other arm has a baby bottle, another arm has a friendship bracelet.”

“It’s about having all of these hats and wearing them all, which is what Jane does so well. And the beauty of the NCIS franchise and all of you fans out there is that you’ve allowed us to continue evolving the franchise.”

“I believe that NCIS: Hawaii is able to evolve into a more family and team-based personal story because of you.”

Creators Jan and Chris talked about the beginnings of the latest installment of the long-running NCIS franchise and how they have always set their sights on a strong female lead from the get-go.

Jan said, “I remember the moment quite vividly after Chris and I had an initial discussion. We just turned to each other, like, ‘Why isn’t there an NCIS in Hawaii?’”

“And he’s like, ‘I don’t know. That’s weird. Isn’t it? Like somebody should do that.’ Then literally like in six months, he goes, ‘That thing we talked about, we should do that.’”

“I give personal credit to his next comment, ‘It needs to be different from the others and a female lead seems like the way to go. Doesn’t it?’ And it’s so obvious when you say it out loud.”

“Ultimately, it was more challenging than you think because we had to find somebody to embody Jane Tennant, who would be able to play both sides in that. As a woman in the workplace, I take it very seriously the notion that you can be both strong and compassionate.”

“I may not succeed all the time but that is my goal. And to find an actor who can embody that. We saw a lot of really talented actors who could do half of it and the show wouldn’t work. Without Vanessa, the show doesn’t work.”

STRONG. ‘NCIS: Hawaii’ co-creator Jan Nash on lead actress, Vanessa Lachey: ‘We saw a lot of really talented actors who could do half of it and the show wouldn’t work. Without Vanessa, the show doesn’t work.’ Courtesy of CBS

Chris added that he remembers that conversation with Jan: “Oh, I do. Mostly because Jan and I, at that point, were deep into COVID. It was the only conversation we had that wasn’t with our kids.”

“We had worked together for a couple of seasons and had this great connection. So, when we started talking about this, there were no arguments about it.”

“There was like, this is obvious. It was obvious to her; it was obvious to me.”

“As we put the pieces together, there were some key elements – a strong female lead and having a real sense of what Hawaii is. Not just have it as a postcard, which is why we needed someone like Matt (Bosack) to be part of this, to bring that beginning of the team together. Then, of course, it turns into this amazing group here.”

Jan stressed that casting that truly reflected Hawaii’s diverse population was vital. “That was important. It was important to the three of us. And it was really important to CBS. Because they were committed to the idea that this cast was going to be the first and it was going to reflect Hawaii.”

“And there were discussions about some of the choices that we made. But ultimately, they let us follow our hearts. I give CBS a lot of credit.”

KIAN. Kian Talan plays the son of his fellow Fil-Am and co-star Vanessa Lachey in ‘NCIS: Hawaii.’ Courtesy of CBS

“A lot of networks would have been very frightened. They were all in. And it shows in the stories that we tell; it shows in the viewers that are tuning.”

On the show’s Hawaii setting, creator Matt said, “We’re so lucky to be the fourth installment of this amazing franchise and bring NCIS to paradise. We also knew that if we were bringing NCIS to paradise, we had to bring some of the other characters to paradise as well.”

“And so, a discussion early on about how do we crossover. We always understood this. And of course, Wilmer Valderrama and Katrina Law (from NCIS) were so game and amazing when they came and just worked so well with the cast.”

“In terms of crossover in the future, we have our official pick-up (for the next season) and the call was pretty much like, ‘Hey guys, you’re picked-up.’ The second sentence was, ‘So what do you think about another crossover?’”

So, will there be another crossover? Matt could only quip, “I’m saying the question was asked.” But for now, the good news is that NCIS: Hawaii will be back for a second season.

On the possibility of a reconciliation between her Tara and Tori Anderson’s Kate, Yasmine replied, “I don’t really know.”

LOVE. Will they reconcile? The relationship of Lucy (Yasmine Al-Bustami, right) and Kate (Tori Anderson) is beloved by the show’s fans. Courtesy of CBS

For her part, Tori said about the romantic relationship which many fans still gush over, “I had conversations, guys. They’re all trying to tell me the same thing and I just need to settle into Lucy’s…”

When Nischelle turned to the audience and said, “Well, then let’s take a poll. Who wants a reconciliation?” The fans of the show broke into cheers and applause.

Yasmine said about this LGBTQ+ aspect in the show, “I absolutely love it. For me, what I really appreciate about the world that we have created, that we live in, that we play in, is everyone around all these characters that are involved in are seeing this relationship for what it is: a relationship, just two people who love each other with some ups and downs.”

“And that’s what it comes down to – it being a relationship. Whenever people come to me and write letters and I hear that the story touched them because it is the community that it is.”

“Then it reaches a whole other level of meaningfulness. So, I’m grateful to be a part of that story, for sure.”

Tori added, “I feel incredibly grateful to be a part of it. A healthy society reflects a variety of experiences. That it really is imperative that we embolden everyone.”

“This has been done beautifully since the beginning of this show. What you see on TV should reflect the world you live in. It’s really exciting that we’re doing that.”

“Love is love, and it starts and ends with that. I feel so grateful also working with Yas. It has been the highlight of everything. She’s a prepared professional. She’s there, we’re in it together and I’m a fan of our love.”

Noah, who plays Jesse Boone, the second-in-command, talked about his field agent character, a man who stands by Vanessa’s Jane.

“I love that,” Noah said. “And honestly, so much is just natural. Vanessa is a leader and is generous, funny, and is mom. When we all got there, she led that and it was really natural to fall in.”

DUO. Vanessa Lachey and Alex Tarrant in ‘NCIS: Hawaii.’ Courtesy of CBS

“And as everybody’s fallen into these positions, it’s like, ‘Yeah, I got you back. I don’t want to be in front of you. I want to have your back. That feels natural.’”

“It’s been so much fun to play and we’ve gotten these moments and action when we’re in the field together, literally having each other’s back with guns and stuff. Also, there are moments when she’s going through her investigation and I show up with her favorite sandwich.”

Kian harked back to the diversity in the show and cast, inherent in the location.

“I’m a third-generation military family,” Kian shared. “For as long as I can remember, my family’s had some sort of assignment on the Pacific or Hawaii so I’ve always had one foot on the island.”

“More than that though, it was nice for us because as a mixed-race American family, it’s really the one place in the world where my family felt like we belonged. So, it was interesting coming to this show, thinking about the different sides of my life – the military side, the aspect of being Asian-American in America.”

“Having Vanessa as our lead gave us so much opportunity to tell really deep stories while also talking about Navy crime. Obviously, on the islands, there’s an incredible military presence.”

“And so, we could tap into all these different things. It’s such a wonderful opportunity and I’m so grateful to do it. I’m so grateful to everybody on the islands who welcome and help us make this show.” –

Ruben V. Nepales

Based in Los Angeles, Ruben V. Nepales is an award-winning journalist whose honors include prizes from the National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards, a US-wide competition, and the Southern California Journalism Awards, presented by the Los Angeles Press Club.