Cooking Up A TV Hit

Keiko Agena didn’t plan on living in L.A., but she’s been there for 13 years, the past five as co-star of WB’s ‘Gilmore Girls’

Melissa Moniz
Friday - June 03, 2005
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Keiko Agena’s idea of whipping up a meal in the kitchen is coffee, toast and bananas, but she can cook up a good scene on WB’s hit show, Gilmore Girls.

“I’m a terrible cook. The only thing I cook is coffee, toast with almond butter and bananas — that’s pretty much it,” she admits. “I have to cut the bananas, so I think that counts as cooking because it takes preparation.”

So cooking isn’t one of Agena’s strong points. Luckily she has many other talents that make this Hawaii girl not only a blast to be around, but an inspiration as well. You know, little things like winning an Ammy Award for Best Female Actor in a television production, nominated in the company of Lucy Liu (Ally McBeal), Ming-Na (ER) and Tia Carrere (Relic Hunter) — yes, it’s for Asian- America actors.

Agena as her character Lane Kim

Born and raised in sunny Honolulu, the bright lights of Hollywood is a reality that Agena never really expected to experience.

“I know that I always loved acting, but I didn’t know that I could make a living at it,” she says. “So that has been a surprise that I’ve been able to make a living at what I love to do.

“I think I just ended up in Los Angeles. I didn’t plan on living there, but I visited there for a summer and the people that I met there were very supportive of me.”

That was 13 years ago, and since then Agena has appeared on Felicity, Beverly Hills 90210, ER, Sister Sister, Renegade and for the past five years, Gilmore Girls. She also had a role in the made-for-TV movie, Terror in the Shadows, the independent feature Hundred Percent, the romantic lead in Red Thread, Nickelodeon’s Nightmare Room, and Lifetime’s Strong Medicine. Her most recent movie credit is a co-starring role in Hair Show with Mo’Nique Imes- Jackson (The Parkers), Kellita Smith (Bernie Mac Show) and Taraji P Henson (Baby Boy).

Not bad for a girl who says she began acting when she was 10, mostly because she wasn’t athletic enough to play sports. But don’t call her a girly girl.

“I’m kind of more a guy’s girl. I think I have more in common with them,” says Agena. “I’m not so much tomboy because I’m definitely not good at any sport. I don’t know, what’s in the middle of tomboy and feminine? Whatever that is, that’s what I am.”

Keiko Agena learned to play
drums for the show and it’s now
something she loves

In between her morning cereal, which is usually Grape Nuts, and night cereal, where Lucky Charms reigns as a favorite, Agena spends most of her free time hanging out with the guys to play poker, working out at the gym, doing yoga, watching movies or, more often, drumming.

“I take drumming lessons half for the show and half for fun,” says Agena. “They did initially want me to learn to play drums for my role, and I knew that they wanted me to get better and I wanted to get better. So it’s turned into something I love doing.”

Besides a love for drumming, being Asian, wearing glasses and being obsessive, Agena says she has little in common with her character Lane Kim on Gilmore Girls.

“My mom was nothing like Mrs. Kim. She was always supportive of my acting and my creative pursuits — so I feel blessed by that,” says Agena.

In a nutshell, Lane Kim is a secondgeneration Korean American girl whose mother is extremely strict. Lane’s struggle over the past five years has been trying to balance her life and desires with what her mother expects of her.

Another notable difference — Lane Kim is Korean and Agena is Japanese. It’s a common obstacle that Agena accepts as part of the job.

“I expected, to be honest, a lot of flack from the Korean American community, which I completely understand and I support,” says Agena. “I wish there were more roles for all of us, but there aren’t that many roles out there.

“We play different ethnicities because you don’t really have a choice if you want a job. It’s sort of common in some ways to all actors because you’ll have actors who are English who will play Irish, and Irish who will play Southern. With Asians, however, it’s a little bit more of an issue because there are so few roles, that Korean Americans — and I totally understand this — want to see a Korean person playing them to accurately describe their lives. I think that’s where all this pressure comes from.”

You bet, Keiko Agena is happy to be back
home in Hawaii for a visit

Agena doesn’t let the pressure of being Korean enough steer her role, but instead focuses more on the dynamics between her and her mother.

“I think a lot of people can relate to the parent who expects you to behave in a certain way,” says Agena. “And so I think there’s a connection that many have with my character.”

As for Agena’s childhood, she describes it as “normal” — a statement she says she can only make after years of getting to know people and discovering that no one has the typical Leave It To Beaver kind of upbringing.

“Everyone has their own story and their own struggles,” says Agena. “I think in that way I had a normal childhood — normal, but very interesting.”

Agena attended Mauka Lani Elementary School, Pearl City High School and later graduated from Mid-Pacific School of the Arts. She is the oldest of four girls, with sisters Stephanie, Michelle and Ashley. And in case you’re wondering where the name Keiko fits in that list, well, it doesn’t exactly. Christine is her formal first name and Keiko is her middle name. It was in high school that she realized how many Christines there were and decided on the unofficial switch.

The cast of ‘Gilmore Girls’—that’s Keiko
Agena at far left

As for who calls her what, she says pretty much everyone in L.A. calls her Keiko and in Hawaii it’s about half and half.

And when she is in Hawaii, which is a few weeks every year, Agena is quick to head to some of her much-missed eateries like Zippy’s and Yummy’s.

“I love everything at Zippy’s — I love the chili or teriyaki, hamburger, zip plate or chicken, everything, or Yummy’s — there’s no Yummy’s in L.A.,” says Agena. “There’s also no place that has good mac salad like they do.”

Spending time with family is also a must-do on her list. Since she’s been back this year,Agena says most of her time has been spent going out to dinner with family, hanging out with her sisters and relishing in the warmth.

“It’s hard to not be in Hawaii — every time I come home it kind of breaks my heart a little,” says Agena. “All other things being equal, I would definitely be here, mostly because my family is here.

“My sisters and I are close — well, now that we’re all old enough to hang out with each other and now that we’re not all young and bickering.”

At 31 years old, Agena says she likes to think that she’s grown up a little from being on her own for so long. As she puts it, “I was a kind of a mess back in high school, kind of crazy, and so I think I’ve calmed down a bit.

“As for the television thing, that hasn’t changed me at all.”

She’s still a fun-loving local girl, who can’t cook saimin because boiling water takes too long.

Figure that one out.

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