Eric Gilliom is returning to the theater. On the surface, it doesn’t sound like a big deal, as Gilliom’s been performing on stage, playing alongside the likes of Willie K, Mick Fleetwood, and the Island Rumors Band, for over a decade. However, his new project, called White Hawaiian, is not strictly a musical performance. For the first time in 15 years, Gilliom is making an encore to his roots as an actor. White Hawaiian is Gilliom’s one-man stage show and an autobiographical look at his career, covering – among many topics – his Maui upbringing as a Caucasian with Hawaiian roots and the TV, film, and Broadway roles that followed his star-making theater turns and his return to Maui as a prolific musician. The show incorporates comedy, music, and drama, and is a deeply personal work.
The ambitious production, co-written and directed by Kuleana – Maui filmmaker Brian Kohne, uncovers eye-opening career anecdotes (like Gilliom’s appearance in one of Broadway’s most notorious musicals) and tributes to his family and lineage. When I caught up with Gilliom, he was exhausted from a long day of rehearsal but gave a rare and colorful recollection of his celebrated career, including his early acting breakthroughs in Baldwin Theater Guild productions helmed by the legendary Sue Louden and famous collaborators who have inspired him, and answering why he’s taking on such a challenging new project.
Barry Wurst: Who were the artists that made you want to become a performer?
Eric Gilliom: Stevie Wonder… mostly Motown artists. I was attracted to that style of music. Growing up in Hawai‘i, Olomana, Kalapana, and C&K [Cecilio & Kapono] were pretty inspiring for me. As I got older and into theater, it became pretty much the performers I was performing with. I didn’t have a lot of money to see shows, so it was the actors I was working with. Bill Hensley was a Hawai‘i local actor – spent a lot of time doing shows with him. Betty Green was cool. I got mostly inspired when I first started doing theater by the adults I looked up to. Maui had a real thriving theater scene back in the ‘70s. Joel Clark was another one. He was the lead in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. I was still in high school, so these were the performers who made me want to be an actor and be in theater. At that time, there was one professional show on Maui that really inspired me: It was called The Whaling Spree and Hensley was the lead. All of those actors were the best talent in the whole state. And that was the first time I had seen a professional show. It really had an impression on me. I was lucky enough to be the assistant lighting helper on that show, so I got to hang around with professional actors and be inspired.
BW: Tell me about your dad and grandmother, two key figures in White Hawaiian.
EG: My grandmother was the first entertainer I ever saw. I was 3 years old and I’d go to rehearsals for her shows. Even then, my mom tells me I was in the middle of all the dancers… I wanted to be a part of it. She was such a colorful Hawaiian and such an iconic part of Hawaii’s history in entertainment. Then of course, my dad… the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. He was a great, funny guy, everything he did was entertaining. Those are by far the two most entertaining influences in the beginning of my life.
BW: What about Sue Louden? What did she teach you?
EG: She was really the beginning. She was the spark, exposing me to the world of theater, and the most critical person who inspired me. I was shy at the beginning and when she pulled me into the drama club and made me sing a song in front of everyone, I thought, This is awesome. This is something I really want to do. She was a disciplinarian, too. You had to keep your grades up. You had to be committed. She was a huge influence on teaching me the commitment that it took to do this. I think she recognized this was something that I wanted to do. I was so obsessed with theater; I never went to one football game. I lived in the drama room. She recognized that’s what I was going to do, and she fed that. She made sure that I understood every aspect of theater, from building sets to making costumes, from lighting to sound. I gobbled it up.
BW: What was the first show you ever had the lead in or a speaking role?
EG: My first play that I did with a speaking role was Godspell… When Miss Louden asked me to sing “Day by Day,” she made a big deal about it, because I was a freshman. She said, ‘We don’t give speaking roles to freshmen or sophomores.’ But she gave me the role of Jesus, of all things – which pleased my mother!
BW: That led to your time at the Goodman School in Chicago?
EG: Miss Louden and Linda Takita, the director of the Maui Youth Theater at that time, were the inspiration and gave me the courage to audition for a performing arts school. I’d never really been outside of Hawai‘i that much. I was scared. I got these great letters of recommendation, an audition at the school, and made a good impression. It was terrifying. I’m suddenly in the middle of Chicago – I’d never been east of California – I’m 18 years old, and I’d never seen snow fall. I gave it my best shot. Fortunately, they told me that day that I was accepted. It was a hard school. The year I auditioned, there were 8,000 applicants.
It was great and I’m in a school with a bunch of kids like me, who were obsessed with theater. Every teacher was like Miss Louden. Eight to 10 hours a day, I’m in this performing arts school and that’s all I’m doing. I signed up for the four-year degree and that didn’t go well. I struggled with the classes and couldn’t get away with it, so I couldn’t keep going. And I had to audition every year, which was challenging. I was there with John C. Reilly. I was getting the leads and he wasn’t getting great roles. Well… we know how that turned out. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. It taught me a lot about life and the theater. But just being that far from home made me grow up.
After school, I didn’t know what I was going to do. My aspiration was to go to New York and be on Broadway. Once school was out, it was like, Good luck! I actually started auditioning in Chicago for some things and I met a woman who was a manager, named Lori Rodkin. She actually paid to fly me to LA, got me an agent right away, and I started auditioning. l was going to eight to 10 auditions a day, but they were for film and TV, and I had no experience. I was doing these auditions and performing way over the top. They’d say, ‘You’ve got to bring it down.’ I never really got the hang of it, because my roots were in theater. I got parts and a few films and TV stuff. I felt like I needed to be where there was more theater and LA is not a theater town, so I did my best.
BW: When did you decide to record?
EG: That didn’t happen until way later, when I came home to Hawai‘i in the late ‘90s. I saw an opportunity to play some music in Hawai‘i. I came home and ran into Barry Flanagan of HAPA. He made a comment about us playing music together. I sort of played but I wasn’t really a musician then, and he wanted to put a show together. He took me to ‘Iao Valley and over the course of two months he taught me how to play the guitar, sing Hawaiian songs, and play Hawaiian music. We sat in a Hawaiian hut for two months, three days a week. I had a 12-string guitar. He literally taught me all the chords, all the HAPA songs, and how to sing in Hawaiian. That was the first time I got into singing Hawaiian music. That set the stage for me to work with Willie K and the Barefoot Natives, which was a whole other level of experience. I’m so happy I had some skills at that point, because Willie is a deep-end-of-the-pool kind of guy. You either sink or you swim.Every moment on stage with Willie was terrifying and exhilarating. It’s like riding a ginormous wave. Willie has such an enormous vocabulary. He could sing anything. He’s got no limitations and that’s great but also terrifying.
BW: What are some favorite memories of performing onstage?
EG: I have a specific one with Barry Flanagan for sure: when Mick Fleetwood came to see us at Mulligans on the Blue for the first time and he waited in the autograph line! I was blown away. He asked if I would be interested in playing in a band he was putting together.
One of my favorite moments with Willie was in Portland, at the Aladdin Theater. Willie asked me what was the most money I’d made doing a concert and I couldn’t remember. I threw out a number, like $10,000, and Willie laughed. We got to the show and they announced us, and Willie sat down and said, ‘Let me see your $10,000 show.’ (Laughs) That was a great moment with Willie.
With Mick, playing with him is a thrill ride in itself – playing with such an iconic rock star. He’s a sweet man and he treats every show like it’s his last and he plays at 120 percent. Being with someone who plays with that intensity is very humbling.
BW: Considering your recent Purple Planet Tribute concert, what did Prince mean to you as an artist?
EG: Prince was the greatest entertainer of all time. Greatest singer, writer, producer, dancer, showman, rock star. No one will ever come close to what he achieved.
BW: What’s it like collaborating with Brian Kohne?
EG: We’ve always had great collaborations, going all the way back to high school. We have a long history of creativity. All the Barefoot Native stuff was a blast. He brings a huge amount of talent as a writer. We seem to find the same things funny. And this was an obvious choice, because he knows most of the people in this production and is familiar with my family history.
BW: What’s something that’s surprised you about the rehearsal process for White Hawaiian?
EG: It’s been a lot of fun learning about my ancestors and imagining what their lives were like.
BW: Why this show? Why are you putting yourself in this position to be so vulnerable?
EG: The most attractive part of this project, that Brian really illuminated, was creating an original story and there’s nothing more original than your own story. We are fortunate to live such a colorful and blessed life. The Hawaiian culture is rich. Over the past few years, I’ve been wanting to do theater but haven’t been inspired by pre-established shows. I wanted to create something new and original. Brian understands my life.
BW: If I were to ask Willie K what it’s like to perform with Eric Gilliom, what would he tell me?
EG: He’d laugh really loud for a long time. And then he would refer to me as “Doo-Doo Boy.” And then he would say, “He’s a work in progress.” (Laughs)
“White Hawaiian” shows at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center McCoy Theater for three days: Nov. 29-Dec. 1. Showtime is 7:30pm on Friday and Saturday, and 5pm on Sunday. Tickets are $25-$35, plus applicable fees, and available now at Mauiarts.org or by calling 808-242-SHOW.
Lightning Round With Eric Gilliom
Before we parted, I hit Eric with a lightning round, in which I asked for a quick response about some of his career highlights:
Greater Tuna – Tim Wolf was an amazing actor to work with. Betty Green was a phenomenal director. The most fun show I’ve done.
Barefoot Natives – It doesn’t get any better than working with Willie and Brian. I loved the zaniness of those shows.
Defense Play – The second worst movie I ever did.
The Rocky Horror Show – One of my favorite roles of all time. The most fun you can have with partial clothes on and working with phenomenal talent. Ed Fields – talented actor who personified a role. Huge talent. He was a phenomenal Riff Raff and is greatly missed.
The Jamie Foxx Show – The seventh or eighth gay role that I’ve played. Working with Jamie is beyond words. He’s an iconic talent.
Evita (the 1992 production at the Historic Iao Theater) – A very difficult role but one of the greatest directors I’ve ever worked with: Michael Schneider. Working with my sister in that role was a dream come true.
Hamlet (an acclaimed 1995 production at Seabury Hall) – Intimidating. A most incredible opportunity to work with a phenomenal local cast. Art Minky from the Pasadena Shakespeare company was also one of the best directors I’ve ever worked with.
Hoosiers – Just being in the same room as Gene Hackman was so incredible. He was Lex Luthor! I lucked out on Hoosiers, because my girlfriend in college was the center of the Lady Blue Demons: She was 6 feet 7 inches and, in heels, 6 feet 10 but it didn’t matter to me. The only bad part about Hoosiers was I just left Chicago and had to fly back to Indiana in the middle of winter.
Get A Job – A labor of love. Brian and I got to work together on such a wonderful project with Willie and a great local cast. It was the little movie that could. We had a ball making that movie. It was the community that came together to make it happen.
Images by Eric /Monique Feil
Cover design by Albert Cortez