Twenty years after the premiere of “Johnny Tsunami” — one of the Disney Channel’s most popular original movies ever — Brandon Baker, who starred as surfer-turned-snowboarding high school student Johnny Kapahala, still gets recognized on a daily basis.
“It’s one of those things where simultaneously it’s a lifetime ago, but also feels like yesterday to an extent,” Baker, 34, told Page Six. “It’s like very much like a fabric of my everyday or weekly life to be talking about ‘Johnny Tsunami.’”
Three years ago, in true Johnny fashion, Baker moved from sunny California to Boulder, Colo., with his then-girlfriend. When they broke up, she moved back home but Baker stayed in Colorado.
“The last couple years have been trying to unlearn my old life,” he explained. “I think for a while I was really toying with the idea of being in this industry or not, whether that’s acting or in some role on production, things of that nature. And being out here in Boulder has been a very distinct, ‘No, you’re not doing that anymore,’ which is really nice.”
Baker began acting as a young kid, landing the lead role of Mowgli in Disney’s “The Jungle Book: Mowgli’s Story” (1998) before getting cast in “Johnny Tsunami,” which follows a young Hawaiian surfer forced to move with his parents to Vermont, where he decides to go against the prep school norm of skiing and learns to snowboard.
“I actually auditioned for the movie with a broken arm that I had broken while snowboarding,” Baker said, adding that his agent and manager were worried about it, but he thought it actually helped him get the role.
The movie filmed over a few months in both Hawaii and Utah. Baker starred alongside Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Yuji Okumoto and Disney Channel actors Kirsten Storms and Lee Thompson Young, who tragically died in 2013 at the age of 29 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
“He was such a cool dude,” Baker told us of meeting Young for the first time on set in Hawaii. “I’m the oldest of three kids, but I have an older cousin who’s kind of like my older brother and Lee very much had that same feeling … [He] was just a little bit cooler, a little bit bigger, a little bit older, knows stuff that I don’t know about yet. That’s who he was to me. I looked up to him.”
Baker and Young remained friendly over the years and would see each other every so often around Los Angeles. Baker said the last time they spoke was just a short catch-up, an insignificant moment that he will now never forget.
“I wish, obviously, to have had something more meaningful,” he told us. “We weren’t at that spot yet in our lives, at least I wasn’t, where I was able to connect deeper with him in that way about the stuff that really mattered, specifically pertaining to his mental health, whatever that was then … I never knew Lee to be sad.”
He continued, “I am so sad that he decided to make the decision he did. I just miss him. That time, that moment, this film, has been as impactful in forming who I am in my life this far as anything. The fact that we shared that together really encases him in my heart and soul as someone who was there with me during that time. He’ll always be very special to me.”
Baker continued to act after “Johnny Tsunami,” landing short stints on more Disney shows including “Even Stevens” and “The Proud Family.” He even appeared in a “Johnny Tsunami” sequel, but by 2015 he wasn’t passionate about acting anymore.
“I’m grateful for all the opportunities that career gave me and continues to as we’re on the phone right now,” Baker told us. “But the farther I get away from it, the more I appreciate it and respect people who decide they want to be actors, but I’m more and more grateful that I’m not doing that anymore.”
Amid his journey of self-discovery in Colorado, Baker recently began working as a wedding officiant for a company called Simply Eloped, a low-cost wedding planning company.
“I get to be with people in love, I get to be outside, I get to be with people connecting with people in an emotional way, a specific way and a pretty momentous way,” he said. “I love my job, it’s fantastic.”
In the end, though, Baker wants to move into a career where he can help people who are struggling with mental health issues.
“I don’t know what the next chapter of my life is specifically,” he said. “I know it’s somewhere along those lines of where I want to be impacting people’s lives in a meaningful way.”
As for “Johnny Tsunami,” Baker said, “I’m grateful the film itself had the ability to make people happy. I think that’s a really cool thing to be able to do in a life.”
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