How Novelist Kaui Hart Hemmings landed a role opposite George Clooney in “The Descendants”

The statistics are daunting: less than two percent of all the books optioned for the screen ever enter production. Far fewer make it into theaters. My first book, The House of Mondavi was optioned twice, but never came close to becoming a movie.

That’s why it’s been a vicarious thrill to watch Kaui Hart Hemmings’ first novel, The Descendants, approach its release date of Nov. 18th as a  movie from Fox Searchlight.

Novelist Kaui Hart Hemmings, author of "The Descendants"

The Descendants was Kaui’s debut novel. A dark comedy about a dysfunctional family, it was first published in 2007 to critical acclaim. The New York Times called it “refreshingly wry.”

Around the time her book came out, Kaui was working out of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto and writing a hilarious blog called “How to Party with an Infant.” (Check out her excruciatingly funny post on bikini waxing, if you dare!) Her collection of short stories, House of Thieves, is stunning, particularly the title story.

I first met Kaui when I moderated a panel at Book Group Expo in San Jose. The theme of our panel was fractured families (under the title “Tales of Ruin and Renewal, even Triumph!“) I had just come out with my book on the Mondavis, and the panel also included Rich Cohen, who wrote the 2006 book on his family, Sweet and Low.

The Descendants was optioned by Alexander Payne, the director of the unexpected hit, “Sideways.”  Originally, Payne had not planned to direct the film. But, in chatting with Kaui by phone last week, she told me he’d emailed her sometime in 2008 to let her know he’d decided to direct it himself. He also offered to meet her in Hawaii that coming weekend.

“I was nervous about what wine to order,” Kaui told me. Sideways was the 2004 movie about a troubled oenophile, played by Paul Giamatti, who takes a road trip through Santa Barbara’s wine country involving too much wine and some romantic misadventures.

Kaui and her husband were headed to a birthday party the next day for Kaui’s aunt, held at her grandmother’s house. She invited Payne as well as set designer Jane Ann Stewart along “to hang out and see how these particular locals party.” That was the start of a friendship, as Kaui helped Payne scout locations, particularly after he decided to rent a home in the lush Manoa Valley, a few miles inland of downtown Honolulu, for about eight months.

“He almost approached it as if he were making a documentary,” she says. He met with the island’s big landowners, visited the Outrigger Club, a key setting in the novel, and met Kaui’s famous step-father, the champion surfer-turned-politician Fred Hemmings, Jr. (Kaui was adopted by him when she was 11 years old.)

“I had expected someone to just parachute in and write the screenplay,” she says, but found that Payne took his task of translating her novel, set in contemporary Hawaii, seriously — allowing him to add such details as the sounds of the geckos chirping in the background. Payne talks about this in a Q&A following a screening at the recent Hawaii International Film Festival.

The novelist and director struck up a friendship and Kaui ended up reading the screenplay and reviewing the casting videos, as well as discussing details down to the wardrobes that key characters would wear.

“I felt like I haven’t had the typical experience” of a novelist whose book becomes a movie, Kaui told me. She was free to visit the set every day, if she wanted to, and she ended up landing a bit part as the secretary of Matt King, the character descended from Hawaiian royalty and sugar plantation owners that George Clooney plays.

Her big moment?  “Matt, your cousins are here.” Thinking back on it, she recalls that she needed to work on her intonation and deliver the line more naturally. “It took a long time to say a few lines,” she says.

To play the part, the film’s hairdresser styled her hair and its makeup artist brushed rouge onto her cheeks and mascara onto her eyelashes. Someone from the wardrobe department picked her outfit for her. It felt “surreal” to her to be a non-actor playing a role in a movie modeled after her real world.

“It was just me and George in this room. What am I doing here with George Clooney, I kept asking myself, I’m not supposed to be here, but thanks!”

She, her husband, and her mother were hired as extras for a party scene in the movie, playing themselves. Scenes that took place at the Outrigger were moved to the Elks Club next door, since the Outrigger wouldn’t permit Payne’s crew to film there, Kaui says.

But aside from not having the party at the club itself, other details were spot on – including party-goers dressed in aloha attire and the food including poke (a raw tuna salad, usually made with soy sauce, green onions, and sesame oil) and chicken long rice, a dish brought to the islands by Chinese workers contracted to work in the sugar fields and a Hawaiian luau staple.

The movie’s production designer, Jane Stewart, credits Kaui for helping her get the local details just right. One example was that Kaui introduced her to the pune’e, the casual Hawaiian daybeds often used as sprawling sofas.

Much of The Descendants’ soundtrack is by local musicians, including slack key guitarist Gabby Pahinui, Keola BeamerOzzie Kotani and Daniel Ho, as well as many others. There’s even a song in it written by the last queen of Hawaii, Lili’uokalani, the central character in my next book, Lost Kingdom.

Kaui’s six-year-old daughter made it into the film, too, as an extra in a beach scene in Hanalei Bay. “She was very proud of the $100 she made,” Kaui recalls. But that’s nothing compared to what her talented mom might earn from sales of her book following the film release.

Random House has published a new edition of the book, with none other than George Clooney himself on the cover, looking thoughtfully towards his character Matt King’s daughters on the beach. The word is that they’ve printed 80,000 copies of the paperback for their initial print run. Kaui must be getting chicken skin!



  1. Diana cleve says:

    Only about half way through the book, loving it so far. I went to HPA. : )

  2. Just saw the movie and LOVED seeing Hawaii again. We moved to the East Coast for work and have not been back in almost 5 years. 🙁 One of the things I loved the most about the movie was the interiors of the homes. I loved all artwork on the walls. Does anyone know how I could find out the artist on any of those prints?

  3. I think it’s seriously awesome how “human” Kaui seems. Seeing her in interviews and everything, she just appears to be so grateful for such an incredible opportunity and almost startled by her own accomplishments! I saw this interview the other day and thought it was adorable that she couldn’t even recall the designer she was wearing at the Writer’s Guild Awards. America could learn a lot more from a woman like this as opposed to the majority of people we see on Reality TV!

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