Like a moth to a flame, some souls are drawn towards the light. Others seek solace dancing amongst the shadows. Actor Kalama Epstein walks a fine line between the two. ‘Bearer of Light’ is an appellative he honours - though he knows himself enough at eighteen to accept the ocean-deep currents within him that find comfort in the darkness. Photographer Monroe Alvarez captures the young artist at golden hour: a time when the sun, a sphere of glowing embers, sits low enough in the sky to strike that happy balance between light and dark - the perfect time for Kalama to come out and play.
Kalama is photographed around Venice Beach, California - incidentally the location for one of his earliest projects, the short film The Kid. He returns freshly an adult: though ‘man’ by society’s standards is an illusion the actor rejects in its entirety. Aware of the weight on this generation’s shoulders to ignite change – and light the way – Kalama sometimes catches himself at odds with his consciousness. Shooting on a mixture of digital and film, Monroe plays with the light and temperature as she entices him out into the open streets and sunshine, where he will navigate independence and identity: the next step in his journey.
Stylist Amanda Hipperson channels this energy into Kalama’s looks. Black for comfort; black for integrity. There is an inexplicable romance about someone so young, so open to the world. This romance is rendered tangible through wide cuts and high waistlines, conjuring a retro dream which is idyllically caught on film. A Renaissance man in every sense, Kalama writes/directs as well as acts and has a couple of shorts currently in development. Kalama now appears in Netflix series No Good Nick - Part 2 of which will be out later this year.
I understand that Kalama means ‘Flaming Torch’ in Hawaiian.
Yeah, so the full meaning is ‘The Bearer of Light’ or ‘Light Bearer’. Flaming Torch is not a direct translation but a close one.
Is that an accurate description?
In certain ways, absolutely. There are times when I definitely either want to or feel the need to take the lead. I wouldn’t say I am a control freak or anything like that but I do enjoy lighting the way.
Well, my next question is, who is Kalama?
Kalama is… I don’t know. I mean, I’ll say I’m unique. I am a mix of things. I am a relatively bright, happy person; I am constantly making jokes. I talk too much. I am constantly talking and saying crazy stuff; a very mouthy person. A lot of people that know me, like my mum, see this ball of life and laughter - but you only catch me in black jeans, black boots, and a black metal t-shirt. I like very dark stuff. I’m a big horror buff. I feel like my personality contrasts because on one side I am a very light, happy person, but on the other hand, I tend to gravitate towards the darker aspects of life.
You said that you talk too much. Was that a problem growing up?
It was. I was probably pretty annoying to a lot of people. Some people took to that and that’s why I have friends, but a lot of people didn’t like me too much because I was a talker. I’d always be making a joke - regardless if it was appropriate or not.
A lot of energy.
Yes, a lot of energy. Which definitely channels into the creative side.
What makes you happy?
My friends. My girlfriend. My family. Also, film. Television. I wouldn’t say that video games make me happy - I’d say I have an interesting relationship with that. I spend a lot of time - I think borders on too much time - playing video games. It’s one of those things where it is momentary happiness, but once that goes away, I think some of that then leads the way to much darker pits. There are some long-lasting effects that aren’t so great. But having good, loving people around me is what fulfils me. And also surrounding myself with acting, directing, writing - that’s another big source of what fuels me and makes me ‘me’.
Let’s talk about your birthplace. What was it like growing up in Hawaii?
Hawaii was a very unique location to grow up in, something that will always be a part of me and who I am. On top of that, having Hawaiian blood in me - I am so very proud of my heritage and where I come from. It is a very unique and specific culture. It is a cultural melting pot - you go to Hawaii and it’s just crazy: every single race, village, and culture have all grown together in a really beautiful way. Being surrounded by the ocean and constant nature is very affecting and I think that the amount of time I spent in the water growing up, and hiking, it gives an immediate better sense and appreciation of what we are surrounded with: of the earth and of the ocean. Especially with the ocean - it provides more caution. There’s definitely a big sense of respect growing up in Hawaii and being surrounded by surf culture.
How did you find the adjustment to LA?
I was going back and forth from LA to Hawaii for four and a half years, and for the past one and a half year I’ve been in LA for the majority. Because it was over a five-year period it was easier - still not easy because you’re slowly spending more time away from your friends in Hawaii and your home to a place that is completely new. It was a very interesting and scary experience, but we stuck it out over time and I’ve made some really great, close friends here. I started to create a life here and I transitioned over time. I am still really appreciative of my life back home and I try to cherish those friendships even though I don’t go home often. I try to keep in touch with as many people as I can.
In your latest project, No Good Nick, you play the elder son of Melissa Joan Hart and Sean Astin's characters. How was your experience filming this? What was the family dynamic like?
It was pretty crazy. I remember one of the first days: we were in pre-production and Sean invited me to his trailer for lunch. That was so surreal, just sitting in his trailer eating pizza listening to him talk about filming Lord of the Rings. I literally feel like from the moment I got the project to the first 5 weeks of shooting, I was disconnected and my eyes were in my brain. I was on autopilot because I was in such shock about what was going on around me. It was just nuts.
They are such amazing people: Sean and Melissa are great. You have an idea in your head about how it’s going to be when you work with someone you really want to work with, and I was expecting like, ‘okay it’s going to be awesome working with them but they have worked on so many projects that at the end of the day, although we are spending 7 months with each other, this is just another project for them’. But they were so open, caring, loving, and generous; we really just formed this beautiful family on set. They were very motherly and fatherly to me.
My parents would come and visit me on set for a week here and there, but they are in Hawaii. We are still very close and they come to stay with me all the time, but this whole living independently thing is still pretty fresh.
What do you and your character Jeremy have in common?
We are very different people when you look at us from the outside… But the more I think about it, we are actually quite similar. We are both very loving people on the inside. Jeremy more so than me is very harsh on the outside: very conservative, closed off, and suspicious. He is very much an overachiever. I wouldn’t say I am suspicious or anything like that. To people that I feel comfortable around, I definitely have a ‘joke’ facade; I tend to be very self-deprecating and also make fun of everything. But then I am a very sensitive - a very overly emotional soul. And Jeremy is too - he’s just covered up with a very hard, conservative exterior. At our core, we are both sensitive people but we just don’t really show it that much.
No Good Nick is a classic American sitcom. How does this role/experience compare with previous projects?
I’ve done a few multi-cam shows in the past with Nickelodeon, so production-wise it is similar to what I’ve done in the past. But this is the first project I’ve done where I am a series regular - where I’ve shot 20 weeks in a row. You know, that was just crazy in itself.
Also, in the sense of the show’s format. It has these darker, more dramatic moments. There’s a few of them sprinkled throughout the first 10 episodes but then it gets a lot heavier in part two, which is out later this year. I wouldn’t say it gets more serious, but because of the content going on, it gets more dramatic. That was a big difference for me: jumping between these really funny, very sitcom-y moments with big acting, and then finding places to tone it down and get it a little more down to earth for those other moments to land.
You wrote, directed, and starred in the short film Silence! - what was that like and are you interested in pursuing writing and directing further?
That experience was amazing. I didn’t plan on acting in it. I had the idea in my mind and then I ended up sitting down and writing it in one sitting. The entire short is about me sitting down and having a talk with my insecurities personified as another living being. I sent it to my friends, and they said no one else can do this. And then I was like, ‘great, I have to direct and act’, but the problem is it’s one actor playing both parts. We shot it over two days and we did one character per day because the character ‘The Voice’, the insecurities personified, has tonnes of makeup and I had these thick black contacts that I had to put in. Trying to watch playback of the footage was an interesting experience. Luckily, I had my closest friends around me - my girlfriend was my first AD - and I really put a lot of trust into them.
I learned a lot from it. Before acting, writing and directing was the passion. Acting is a by-product of that. That is what really fuels me. I have written a couple of shorts and I am in the process of trying to plan them and figure out what resources I need to get together. If not two, I’d like to shoot at least one by the end of the year. That is the goal: to pursue that and explore as much as I can down that road. That is a big, big thing for me.
Your character Noah in TV-series The Fosters
was the son of a pastor, 15 years old and openly gay. How did people respond to Noah’s story?
It was really cool the number of people that connected to that character and the way they did… You have the series’ writers who've created this awesome character with a really great storyline, and I just get to jump in and figure out how to portray him. The main thing for me was making him as human as possible.
The response to the character and what the writers did was crazy. I had people DM’ing me saying: "Hey, this character gave me the confidence to come out to my conservative Christian family". A lot of people have very similar, very parallel lives to Noah’s - in how close his family was to the church. I think what the writers and producers did with crafting this story that dealt with these religious themes, and how religion and sexuality go together, was done in the sense of, ‘hey, here’s a kid whose openly gay and his mum's a pastor, and he’s openly talking about his sexuality at youth group and everyone is so supportive.’ It really went against the stereotype in television of ‘all Churches hate gays’. There is still a lot of homophobia in churches, but it was really cool to see that portrayed on television in a positive way.
Did you anticipate that people would respond that way?
I had no idea what I was getting into. It was a big surprise.
Which role of yours do you consider the most challenging so far?
I did a short film in 2012 called The Kid. So far, nothing has beaten that. It’s been the one thing that I wish we could go back and remake, and I could get another stab at because it was such a challenge.
It was challenging in a few ways - the production and the content in and of itself. We shot it very guerrilla-style on the streets of Venice, CA. It is about a 12-year old poet who falls in love with a prostitute, whilst dealing with his abusive father. Very complex and beautifully written. I loved that project so much. It was a crazy learning experience for me as a 12-year-old. Specifically, the emotional challenge - especially as that was one of the first projects I ever did. There was one really difficult abuse scene with my father that was very draining but it’s still to this day one of the performances I am most proud of.
But honestly, No Good Nick wasn’t a walk in the park either. Specifically, with sit-coms, there are certain jokes where there is a barrier. Like you can see the joke, you can understand the punchline, but there’s just something in the delivery that’s just not working. But that’s also one of the coolest things with sitcom work is that it almost feels like a puzzle; trying to figure out the best delivery is a really cool challenge. Besides that, there’s some stuff that comes up in part two that I can’t talk about but that I needed to make sure I got right. I’m excited for people to see; I’m excited to see it myself to see if I’m happy with it or not. But, we definitely have some difficult storylines coming up that were pretty challenging.
When was the last time you cried?
Recently. I don’t shy away from crying. I’m a very emotional person - I don’t hold stuff in. I don’t know if you’re a Marvel fan, but I cried six times during Avengers: Endgame. Actually, just before that, I was close to crying too. I was the ticket guy for Endgame so I bought the entire friend group's tickets because it was assigned seating. I waited for two hours in an online queue. A week before our movie date, I realised I had counted everybody except me: I hadn’t bought myself a ticket… Movies are my everything. I needed to see it in IMAX - I’m such a freak about that. I need to see movies in the perfect seat in the biggest theatre I can find - I am very specific about how I watch things. My eyes started watering; I was so upset with myself.
Did they all go without you?
My girlfriend and my best friend said they wouldn't go if I wasn't going. I was like, 'okay great, thanks for making everything so much more difficult!'. But then my roommate said that he wasn't going, so he insisted I take his ticket as he had already bought a ticket for another showing. I later realised he hadn’t bought another ticket... He was very sweet; he’s a good friend. But yeah, it all worked out in the end.
What is your personal experience with mental health?
Well, that is what my short film is about. I had a specific moment where a couple of things happened. I broke my collarbone and I was on heavy narcotics for a week or so. I had a giant ball of medicine that fed down into my spine and delivered me pain medicine. During that time, I didn’t do anything besides sitting in bed: I couldn’t shower and I was in excruciating pain. I’d just had a metal plate with six screws put into my collar bone so I couldn’t move my shoulder. I basically sat in my bed, played video games for 7 days straight. Then I ended up getting an infection in my armpit because I couldn’t move my arms. I was in so much pain, on heavy narcotics… So that really messed me up. After that, I started using Accutane for my skin and a side effect of is that it can lead to depression - so that was pretty rough.
I think the biggest thing, and I know I’m not alone in this, is crippling insecurities about oneself. There is this lyric from one of my favourite bands - and it’s literally the reason why my short film is called Silence! - the film is based around the three words: "silence the voice". And those three words are very powerful to me. The first time I heard this line was very impactful. I go through these ups and downs of thinking I know myself, and then I’ll do something that is so against everything I think I’m about - or I’ll do something that I can’t really make sense of in my mind and it’s like, ‘oh my god, I don’t know myself'. It’s a battle trying to figure out; ‘okay, today I love myself and I love who I am’, and the next day ‘I hate myself. I hate everything. I don’t want to be in this skin anymore’, but then the next day you’re like, ‘Kalama is great’. It’s that constant up and down of good and bad things.
I think one of the good things is that mental health is being talked about a lot more. I don’t think it’s being talked about enough, but there’s definitely a rise in acknowledging the importance of mental health. I was just at a concert for a band called Architects and their frontman Sam Carter actually stopped the show halfway through for a great speech about masculinity and mental health. There definitely is a problem with the idea of masculinity and dealing with thoughts of ‘I can’t be open; I can’t cry; I can’t show weaknesses'. I think those are partly instinctual things but also brought on by generations before.
What does ‘masculinity’ mean to you?
Well, truthfully, it doesn’t mean shit! ‘Masculinity’ is a very toxic viewpoint on how a cis-gendered man should be. It’s all just testosterone, you know. The bigger you are, the stronger you are, and the less emotion you show.
Do you think attitudes towards gender are changing?
In a lot of communities they are, but in a lot of others they are not. I’ll scroll through my Twitter feed and I’ll think 'yeah, views on gender are changing', but then you step outside your Twitter bubble and no, it’s still the same naïve viewpoints.
I think there is more attention being brought to ideas of gender and what gender means, but I think that there is still a lot of work that needs to be done. The second you step outside of the people you surround yourself with, there are so many people that are not informed or educated on those subjects. I try to stay hopeful but at the moment it feels like nothing really is changing.
Besides film - what are you passionate about?
I love snowboarding. I have been snowboarding for about 5 years now, but I haven’t been able to go this entire season because I’ve been filming. I’ve also been getting back into parkour and free running. I have been getting into building Lego sets - I love Lego sets. Recently I just built my full Star Destroyer which is a lot of pieces. My nephew destroyed my Millennium Falcon but that's okay.
Even though I say bad stuff about video games, it is something I am passionate about. I spend a lot of my time playing so I can talk about video games for hours. But it’s also something that transcends playing and the narrative experiences they provide are similar to film and television. I’m all about that.
Oh, I’ve also been playing a lot of Dungeons and Dragons. I play every single weekend with Hayden Byerly who plays Jude on The Fosters. He’s my Dungeon Master.
I guess something else I’m really passionate about are roller coasters and theme parks. My entire bucket list is literally made up of different parks and roller coasters. That’s like everything - it’s a huge thing for me. I know a lot, but I used to have a lot more roller coaster knowledge. I am obsessed with theme parks. For my 19th birthday, I'm actually going to Ohio, Cedar Point which has one of the best amusement parks in the world. It has the roller coaster that is the number one on my bucket list, so I have been waiting to go since I found this thing 10-11 years ago… I finally get to go to Cleveland, Ohio! My best friend Austin, his impression of me is ‘Kalama at an amusement park’.
Do you consider yourself a dreamer?
Hell yeah. The majority of what I do is that. Especially when it comes to film: it’s a lot of mental stimulation and projection of things I’d like to do in the future.
What is THE dream?
The dream is to be able to make the films I want to make. Something I would kill for right now is, if not act, to write or direct something for the production company A24. That is the one production/distribution company that I would get tattooed all over my body. I would have trouble putting into words - what they have backed, what they have put out - how much it has inspired me, and pushed me, and changed my perspective of film and how I want my films to look and sound.