Before there was Hannah Montana, there was Johnny Tsunami. As the sun set on the last millennium, 13-year-old Johnny ruled the DCCU (Disney Channel Cinematic Universe) with a steady snowboard and a heart of gold. Brandon Baker was so synonymous with the 1999 movie about a Hawaiian kid stuck in Vermont—who, in a confusing twist, is actually named Johnny Kapahala while his grandfather is the one they call "Johnny Tsunami"—that he can't escape it 20 years later.
"The relationship that people have with me is one of an old friend," Baker tells VICE. "You feel like you know me because I play a nice guy in this movie, and because I grew up with you when you were 10. Luckily, I'm not a serial killer."
When Disney+ launched in November, it regurgitated virtually the entire Disney Channel Original Movie library, including Johnny Tsunami. Millennials clamored to relive the glory days of premium kids' cable entertainment, and Baker's IMDB STARmeter saw a massive spike as they subsequently googled, "What happened to Johnny Tsunami?" (And here you are.)
The now-34-year-old opened up to VICE about depression, ayahuasca visions, and kind of dating his Johnny Tsunami co-star.
Baker grew up a people-pleasing child on a quiet cul-de-sac in La Palma, California, near Anaheim. A true middle-class renaissance kid, his first love was art, then hockey, then performing in a competitive Polynesian dance troupe with his family. Crucially, he also surfed and learned to snowboard on trips to nearby Big Bear. Around age 11, he fell into acting with roles on NBC's One World and in P.U.N.K.S. with Jessica Alba.
"Acting was kind of like a sport to me. I wanted to be good at it. I wanted to get the audition and be successful," he says. "It was like why I got straight A's: I was driven to do my best, and I also wanted to make my parents and grandparents proud of me."
With one set of grandparents from Hawaii and another from the Philippines, as well as Chinese, English, Spanish, and German ancestry, casting directors deemed him "ethnically ambiguous" and cast him in parts ranging from Mowgli in The Jungle Book: Mowgli's Story to a Native American kid named Pantsuk, a troubled city slicker named Ernesto, and a turban-wearing, Indian high schooler called Mohktar.
"I think we're a lot more aware of what is and isn't ethnically appropriate now," he says. "I didn't think about it too much because I was a kid, but it was problematic because there were not a ton of [multi-ethnic] roles for me either."
Enter: Disney Channel. At the time, the network was ramping up its feature-length content with Disney Channel Original Movies, or DCOMs, that began airing sporadically in 1997 and 1998. Titles like Brink! and Halloweentown were early hits, and 1999 saw a wave of now-revered classics like Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century, Smart House, and, of course, Johnny Tsunami.
"I think Johnny Tsunami was the first time I ever played a role that was of mixed descent," Baker says. "Even then, it was a white mom [Mary Page Keller] and a Japanese dad [Yuji Okumoto], but at the very least, it was like, 'Okay, here's an actual identity that is somewhat akin to my own.'"
If you haven't rewatched Johnny Tsunami lately, here's the gist: Johnny Kapahala is forced out of his Hawaiian utopia by his uptight father in an effort to distance Johnny from his grandfather (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) due to some unresolved daddy issues. They move to Vermont for Kapahala Sr.'s job at a fancy private school where Johnny is seemingly the only student of color amid a sea of preppy skiers called the Skys, which include his new crush, Kirsten Storms (aka Zenon). Johnny is terrible at skiing but a natural at snowboarding and befriends a boarder named Sam (the late Lee Thompson Young of The Famous Jett Jackson) and his pals, all unfortunately dubbed "Urchins." Of course, the Skys and the Urchins are at war, and only Johnny can surmount the cultural prejudices deeply embedded in this small town to unite the mountain once and for all.
It's surprisingly deep and non-pandering. As Baker puts it: "It's just a family going through some shit, a kid growing up with a shitty father, and some racial and social issues."
He scored the role after auditioning with a broken arm from a real-life snowboarding injury and was soon whisked away to film on location in Hawaii and Utah. Stunt doubles stood in for most of the action scenes to prevent the maiming of their young star on the slopes. "I've gotten a lot of DMs since Disney+ being like, 'Hey dude, you're clearly not the white guy who's, like, 22 in this snowboarding scene,'" he says.
Between takes, Baker quickly became friends with Young, who he remembers as "the coolest dude I'd ever met" and like an older brother to him. (Young tragically died by suicide in 2013, and in an Instagram tribute Baker reflected on "the sweet, talented, caring man who gave joy to so many.")
He also bonded with Storms and admits life imitated art behind the scenes. "I totally had a crush on Kirsten at that time, and I totally made a move," he says. "We never dated, but we definitely, like, kissed or hooked up. We were 13 at the time, so dating was like, 'Mom, can you drop me off an hour away in LA at her mom's house?' The actual logistics of that occurring didn't allow it to really happen."
Growing up Disney
Baker stayed in the Disney family in the years that followed, appearing on several episodes of Even Stevens and returning for the 2007 sequel Johnny Kapahala: Back on Board that co-starred A Christmas Prince's Rose McIver. (No off-screen romances ensued.) But he didn't have the same passion for acting and fame that he saw in his peers.
"I would go to auditions, and there would be kids literally practicing their autograph in the audition room," he says. "That was just not me. I felt very different."
While his Even Stevens co-star Shia LaBeouf recently explored the implications of being his family's breadwinner and his abusive relationship with his father in Honey Boy, Baker says his own child-acting experience was worlds apart.
"Luckily, I never felt that pressure. Acting was just for me," he says. "But I was there on the Even Stevens set. I definitely knew Shia's dad, and I definitely was aware at the time of the different dynamics between my parents and me and his parents and him."
Later on, Baker ran in the same circles as Miley Cyrus, Olympic snowboarder Shaun White, and Phantogram's Sarah Barthel and counts spending a random Easter at Hooters with the three of them among his favorite memories. Just don't expect any sordid tales of ex-Disney star debauchery.
"I definitely had my friends who would party and smoke weed and get fucked up," he says. "They just didn't happen to be from the Disney Channel. They were people that I met in school, and those friendships just always felt more concrete than the friends I made on set."
A midlife crisis at 25
He eventually enrolled in film school at the University of California at Santa Barbara, where he was promptly ripped to shreds for his love of Pulp Fiction and Wayne's World. And after graduation, he moved to LA where he spent his 20s occasionally acting, working behind the camera, and becoming clinically depressed.
"I was just totally lost," he says. "I was trying to stay in the business because so much of my life was insulated within that—my friends, my contacts, my livelihood—but I wasn't happy, and I was trying to come to grips with that."
Therapy helped. As did exploring other options. He bartended, worked in a wood and metal shop, traveled through Scandinavia, and spent time at a yoga retreat. Ultimately, he moved to Colorado with his then-girlfriend. They broke up. She moved back to LA, and he decided to stay in Boulder, far away from the Hollywood scene.
"I feel like what I've gone through in my life is akin to a midlife crisis," he says. "I had a 20-year career by the time I was 30. And so it's not like a quarter-life crisis where that's typically more like, 'I just got out of college and I don't know who I want to be.' This was like, 'Oh, I'm 25, 30, and I already have this identity that I'm so wrapped up in, I have to tear it apart to understand if it's who I truly am or just what I know.'"
Colorado is for lovers
When we talk on the phone, Baker is in the In-N-Out parking lot by LAX ordering a No. 1 with cheese (no onions, no tomatoes) and about to head home to Colorado after reuniting with his Even Stevens and Campus Confidential co-star, Christy Carlson Romano, for an episode of her YouTube show.
But most days you can find Baker in Boulder, fulfilling his Johnny Tsunami destiny of bringing joy to a snow-loving town full of white people.
"I get recognized all the time in Colorado, maybe just because I'm a brown guy and I stick out," he says. "There's been times where strangers are like, 'Come over for dinner,' or girls are like, 'Hey, come back to my place.' Or it's, like, three frat guys who won't stop yelling 'Pono!' across the bar."
There, he's embarked on a new career as a wedding officiant with Simply Eloped, marrying couples locally in intimate ceremonies that are often "just two people proclaiming their love and commitment to each other up on a mountain." (While he can't guarantee availability, fans can request him specifically.)
He's also in a serious relationship of his own with a woman named Karyn, who he asked out after having an ayahuasca-induced vision that there would be "a deep and vast love" between them. "I'm a pretty big believer in plant medicines," he says. "She's beautiful and brilliant and I love her. It's the best relationship I've ever been in."
Of course, it's not unthinkable that Disney could come calling with a Johnny Tsunami reboot idea (à la Lizzie McGuire) soon. And Baker isn't opposed.
"The longer I'm away from the acting, the more I'm glad I don't do it," he says. "But when people are like, 'I grew up with your movie, and I'm loving watching it with my kid now,' that's where it's just like, dude, that's super cool. If there's one role that has always felt aligned with who I am, it's Johnny Tsunami."