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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 2, 2010

Local star rocks out with Mr. Clooney

By Lee Cataluna

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Karen Hironaga

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If you've seen a play at Kumu Kahua Theatre, you've probably seen Karen Kuioka Hironaga.

She gets cast in so many local shows, not only for her acting depth and brilliant comedic timing, but also because everyone knows she'll bring the sushi platter for the opening night party, give the best pep talks to calm backstage jitters and make everyone laugh until they cry telling funny stories in late-night after-show dinners at Zippy's.

You can always count on her, on stage and off.

So when word got out that Hironaga had been "discovered" and was shooting a movie with George Clooney, the general reaction was that it couldn't have happened to a better actress or a nicer person.

Hironaga was in the cast of the wildly successful run of "The Joy Luck Club" at Diamond Head Theatre earlier this year. The casting director for the movie "The Descendants," from the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, saw the play and wanted to meet her. When she got the message to call John Jackson, who was also the casting director for the 2004 movie "Sideways," her first move was to ask her husband what he thought she should do.

"I was so scared so I called Denny and he is like, 'are you nuts or what? Just call!' "

She auditioned for Jackson, who sent the tape of her tryout to director Alexander Payne. She was told if the director liked her, she would be called back for another audition.

"So I check my e-mails every day ... so sad ... and after like two weeks I say, 'Oh well, that's it.'"

But the call finally came. She auditioned for Payne, who told her he had enjoyed her performance in "The Joy Luck Club."

"Wow, he actually came to see the show," she said. "We read through all the scenes and after we finish, he smiles at me and says, 'Congratulations, you got the part, welcome aboard!' I immediately make the 'Home Alone' position with my hands on the side of my face, ahhhhhhhh!"

As thrilled as she was, her husband might have been even more excited for her.

"All weekend Denny was yelling out 'whooo hoooo, this is so insane!' He was doing this like every hour."

While her husband was whoo-hooing, Hironaga was worrying.

"I was really frightened of being in a film because of the weight thing," she said. "But Denny is the one who made sure to wake me up. He said, in his lecturing Denny way, 'Karen get over that. Remember, there IS a place for chubby actors ... look at Kathy Bates; she won an Academy Award!' I'm like, OK Denny, thank you, enough of the flattery."

Last month, she shot for two days with Clooney at a house in Kaimukī that just happened to belong to her relative. She came prepared, but how does any woman truly prepare herself to meet George Clooney?

"When I first met him, I couldn't talk," she said. "I was floored to the floor."

But anyone who knows Hironaga knows she doesn't stay tongue-tied for long, and soon, she and Clooney were talking story about things like their theater experiences and their pets.

Clooney has a pot-bellied pig named Max that he said was very smart but required a lot of attention. He told her he wanted to get one of those goats that faint. She told him she didn't know what he was talking about. He grabbed his iPhone and looked up "goats that faint" and showed her a video. She worried that there was some reference she missed to his recent movie, "The Men Who Stare at Goats."

"Denny told me, 'See? Now he knows you didn't see that movie!"

In all, she had five pages of lines, including two pages of a voice-over where her character is talking to Clooney on the phone. In this part of the story, Clooney's character's daughter has tangled with Hironaga's character's daughter, and she demands a face-to-face apology. This was not an extra or a walk-on part. This was an honest-to-God movie scene with George Clooney.

There was a lot of waiting around for things to be set and adjusted, but Hironaga didn't mind hanging out and talking story with GC, who she says is even more handsome in person, and besides, the director was very nice.

Cameras weren't allowed on set, so Hironaga didn't get a picture of herself with Clooney. She didn't want to bother him for his autograph, either. But she did come away with a keepsake from the shoot.

"George Clooney was really a prankster, getting rocks from the rock garden and going around to people on the crew going, 'Can you hold this for me?' like it was something important," she said. One crew member held the rock carefully for a long time before she realized she had been had.

"So I asked George Clooney, 'Could I have a rock, too? Could you choose me a nice one?' " He played along and picked out a rock and gave it to her. "I figure ah, that's my cousin's house. I can take the rock."

Since then, she hasn't let anyone touch that rock.

"For real. And when I tell people the story, Denny goes, 'Yeah, she, she won't even let me see it!"