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Reaching for the stars

KAUAI — One determined actress, born and raised in Kauai, takes her small-island talent to Hollywood’s big screen.

Best known for her role in “Soul Surfer,” Sonya Balmores from Kalaheo will star in Marvel’s Inhumans, set to premiere Friday in IMAX theaters and Sept. 29 on ABC.

She recently finish filming her role as Auran, in the upcoming television series developed for ABC based on the Marvel Comics’ characters. Next month, she will be featured in a guest role as a young CEO on the comedy series, Ballers.

“It was a pinch-me moment to meet Dwayne Johnson (The Rock), but I think my family was actually more excited than me,” Balmores said. “He’s such a great example of hard work and kindness in our industry.”

In November, Balmores has an independent feature coming to Hawaii theaters, called Kuleana. Her character is a runaway who comes back to learn her mother has been murdered. The mystery drama, written and directed by local Maui resident Brian Kohne, is set in 1970s Maui with the lead role played by Maui actor Moronai Kanekoa. Kuleana won the audience choice award at the Maui Film Fest this summer and also at the San Antonio Film Fest.

“We got to speak Hawaiian in some scenes, which was such an honor and privilege to bring to the big screen,” Balmores said. “It was so fun filming on Maui.… I hope to produce and direct an all Kauai-made film one day.”

Earlier this year, Balmores was in Atlanta filming for the upcoming movie, “Den of Thieves,” written and directed by Christian Gudegast. The film, starring Curtis Jackson (50 Cent) and Gerard Butler, is set to be released on Jan. 19.

“Den of Thieves is a bank heist action film, I got to play with the big boys in that one,” Balmores said. “It’s been a really amazing year. I am super blessed!”

Balmores’ humble roots began on Kauai, where she attended Kalaheo Elementary, Kauai High School and Hawaii Pacific University before acting roles interrupted her studies. She continued her education at Kauai Community College, graduating with her associate’s degree in 2013.

“I took a class on screenwriting there and loved it,” Balmores said. “It helped with my acting, and I completed a few TV and feature screenplays.”

In high school, she was on yearbook committee and became the editor. She played soccer for years, was on the Kauai High School swim team and joined Kauai Performing Arts Center her senior year. She also danced for Urahutia Productions and performed in luau shows at the Princeville Hotel and Poipu Shopping Center. Despite her busy schedule, Balmores managed to compete in most of the local surf contests.

“My journey into acting started with surfing,” Balmores said. “I grew up on Kauai surfing with my friends and family. As the youngest in my family, I was a natural follower. I ended up following my older sister into modeling for surf companies, because I wasn’t that great at competition surfing.”

Their print agency at the time, Jet Set, was based in La Jolla, Calif., and run by fellow Kauai “aunty” Cindy Ka’uanui. She would send the sisters out on film and TV projects that were searching for surfers or Hawaii girls.

“Cindy represented local Kauai girl Sanoe Lake, and when she booked ‘Blue Crush’ that opened the doors for the rest of us big time,” Balmores said. “All the little parts I booked were a perfect fit for me. Those were my first introductions to TV.”

“Then I auditioned for a lead role as Kai Kealoha for The Nickelodeon’s Beyond the Break … that’s where I fell in love with acting,” Balmores continued. “I loved being on set with everyone and playing in the make-believe world we created. All the work behind the cameras fascinated me too. The film crews in Hawaii are the best; it was like family. It was such great on-the-job training.”

The Hawaii-native resides in Los Angeles, but her first move to Hollywood lasted only six months.

“I was 21 and didn’t know what to do,” Balmores said. “I didn’t realize I should have went straight to an acting program or classes at least. I figured because I already was on a show someone would hire me again. I didn’t even have an LA agent… I was so lolo.”

She moved back to Hawaii to be with her boyfriend, and they soon got married. For the next few years, the couple focused on his career, while he studied at the University of Hawaii Manoa for architecture and then worked on Kauai designing homes.

“From home I booked Soul Surfer, thanks to the support of the Hamilton ohana and the director Sean McNamara, who was also creator of Beyond the Break,” Balmores said. “I had a lot of support, but I had to fight for that role. I had to audition a lot and convince people I was tough enough. After that and working with Oscar-winner Helen Hunt, I felt a new passion for the craft. I really wanted to study and learn how to play something other than a surfer girl.”

They relocated back to Los Angeles, where she enrolled in a two-year Meisner technique program at The Baron/Brown Acting Studio.

“I didn’t want to just be a model or a girl who accidentally got into acting, I wanted to get the necessary tools to get more interesting roles,” Balmores said. “With the grace of God our move was successful, and I found amazing reps in East West Artists and Don Buchwald Associates, who helped me get the chance to read for Marvel’s Inhumans. But again I have to give a big shout and thanks to Noah Hamilton, he told me about the production because they were prepping on Oahu.”

Although ABC and Marvel weren’t looking for a Hawaii character, they were seeking a talented actress who could play a fierce soldier. Thanks to her training and new confidence to go for challenging parts, they found one.

Her dedicated focus and persistent hard work contributed to her success, however it took a lot of time and rehearsal. Living on a small island in the middle of the ocean has its limitations, but the successful star encourages young aspiring actors and actresses to dream big as well.

“Read plays, learn how to write screenplays and produce your own short films, YouTube series or stage plays,” Balmores said. “Watch good film and TV and practice taping auditions. Just grab your favorite scenes from movies and tape yourself with a friend doing them. It’s great practice, and it’s what I have to do for work … So if you get started on that you’ll be ready when an audition comes your way.”

Balmores encourages interested youth to sign up as extras on Hawaii Five-O so they can watch and learn how sets are run. She also suggests traveling to see the world. If enrolling in classes is not an option, there are plenty of helpful books to read about acting according to her.

“Watch interviews of your favorite actors,” Balmores added, “and talk about their process. Copy them! Also if you want to play a mainland American, work on your best haole accent. If you look Latino, learn Spanish. If you are Asian, learn Mandarin, Japanese, Korean. They all have huge entertainment industries, don’t just think you have to go to Hollywood … There are so many other markets out there.”

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