I lived in Los Angeles for 15 years and I never stepped foot on a movie set, let alone starred in anything. Recently, though, I found myself in Key Largo, personally scouted for and filming a new safety video for Divers Alert Network (DAN).

Actually, I take that back. There was that one time years ago when I accidentally wandered into a CSI (Crime Scene Investigation) TV set in downtown L.A. A not-empty body bag lay in the alleyway that I always shortcutted through to get to my building. I saw it and screamed. Heart racing, I backed away, straight into a sethand who tried to assure me everything was okay while holding a half-eaten donut. When the bludgeoned body in the bag sat up due to the commotion, I just about died. 

As it was, CSI was filming near to my house, and I had wandered onto the set on break. That was the start and end of my very obscure run in with Hollywood … until now. 

About a month ago, several friends reached out to me about a DAN video shoot in the Keys. They were looking specifically for diverse divers to reflect their many offices, including some newly-acquired in the far East. 

Turns out, it’s all about who you know in this industry ‒ scuba and movies. There aren’t that many Asians in the Keys’ dive community, so I had three different scuba buddies tap me for the role. One gracious friend said they were looking for beautiful Asians to help while another mentioned just being Asian and breathing as the minimum requirements. Either way, I decided this could be my “big (little) break” and a really fun way to contribute to an organization I believe in. 

DAN is the diving industry’s largest association dedicated to scuba diving safety and a mainstay for watermen and women in the Keys. I’ve been a member since my early dive days, so to be cast in the latest safety video had me “fan-girling,” to say the least.

This was the fifth time they tried shooting the video. Wendy Berry, the video’s producer, told me how she and her husband, Ken, the producer and director, tried the shoot twice in California, where they live. Both were canceled due to pandemic shutdowns. Jim Gunderson, DAN’s assistant director of training, suggested the Florida Keys as an alternate location. The first time they tried to fly out to the Sunshine State, a California wildfire dangerously near the Berrys’ home prevented them from getting their gear or clothes. Our notoriously fickle winter weather (a.k.a. Tropical Storm Eta) put the kibosh on try two. Finally, just before Thanksgiving, the (Hollywood) stars aligned, and we began filming at John D. Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park.

“I would come back to Key Largo in a heartbeat,” Ken said. “We are very familiar. That’s part of the reason we chose the Keys: we knew what to expect. And, we could use a local videographer and local talent.”

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The local videographer was none other than Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Frazier Nivens, who knows these waters and the islands’ people as well as he knows the sharks he’s most famous for documenting. The amateur talent was mostly local, including dive instructors from Key Largo and Marathon and regular weekend dive customers from Miami and Fort Lauderdale. Oh, and me ‒ little, Asian, breathing, diving me.

Key Largo’s Adam Parks assesses Marathon’s Luke Hutkin for Frazier Nivens’ camera. WENDY BERRY/Contributed

Shalini Nemani, who works in biotech technology, and Christian Hernandez, who works for an insurance company, drove in from Tampa after hearing the call for more diverse talent. 

“I’m a big champion for diversity and inclusion, for fostering that sense of belonging,” Nemani said. “I was happy to join because I want to see more people like me in this field, because it’s truly wonderful.”

Nemani detailed how she couldn’t swim last year but is now scuba diving. She’s set her sights on a triathlon in the future. 

“It’s been a journey in self-discovery. I never realized how much I love the water until I embraced this sport,” she said, donning gloves and her pocket mask to get ready for her next scene. 

Adam Parks, the aquatic manager at Jacobs Aquatic Center in Key Largo, is also a dive instructor at Nova Southeastern and one of the hired guns. For him, being a part of the videos that he regularly uses to teach made it all worth it. 

“I can’t wait to teach DFA (Diving First Aid for Professional Rescuers) pro courses at my pool and say, ‘You should watch this guy, see what he says and watch what he does.’ It’ll build my credibility within the class for sure.”

Because the video updates DAN’s first aid training, shooting it served as a great safety refresher for essential skills to have around the water. The finished product will be part of the online training curriculum at dan.diverelearning.com as well as part of the DAN courses available in most countries, Gunderson said.

Aside from being on-site to properly demonstrate skills like CPR, oxygen administration and first aid for hazardous marine life injuries (read: bites), Gunderson also used “all the tricks” from his years in community theatre to make our falls realistic, our injuries believable and our rescues accurate. He embodied the perfect balance of safety and theatrical danger.

“For me, this isn’t work anymore. This is so fun,” he said. “I love this stuff. I’ve won five costume contests. You should see my Halloween decorations.”

We learned the recipe for realistic fake blood (half a teaspoon of flour, 1 tablespoon of corn syrup, a quarter teaspoon of red food coloring, and one drop of blue food coloring) and that movie-set barf is recreated using oatmeal cookies and orange Gatorade. Hot dogs make for great choking props, and they really do say “Action!” on set.

I texted my family pictures of myself with a head injury after purportedly tripping on a rock while walking back to the beach after snorkeling. 

“Look how real the fake blood is!” I said. “Mom, don’t worry, it is FAKE!,” I was sure to emphasize.

Gunderson and the Berrys said I fell very naturally, which didn’t surprise me at all. 

“I’m really clumsy,” I replied. “I’m just pulling from real life.”

My best friend found this hilarious, noting that my “special talents” have finally come in handy and that I was now getting paid for my clumsiness.

Frazier Nivens films Tavernier’s Nate Fosness applying a tourniquet to Key Largo’s Sara Abbott after a fake barracuda bite. TIFFANY DUONG/Keys Weekly

The entire experience was a blast from start to finish. Many scenes started with jibes like, “Okay, are you gonna choke yet?” when a victim was taking too long to get to the point or questions like “Do you mind going into cardiac arrest for this one? We’re probably going to cut your shirt open.”

Local Sara Abbott, a nurse at Baptist Hospital of Miami and a longtime Keys diver and kiteboarder, was eager to “get bloody” for a barracuda bite reenactment. Nate Fosness, a local dive instructor, demonstrated how to deploy a tourniquet on Abbott. 

“Yes! I get to get bloody this time,” Abbott said. “I’m a nurse. Of course I’m down.”

For the Berrys and Gunderson, they “couldn’t be happier” with how the shoot turned out, noting that everyone and everything “exceeded expectations.” The trio and Nivens have all worked together on various dive-related projects before and the Berrys actually met on the set of this same video shoot 15 years ago. 

Ken smirked, “Typical story: director hires model, falls in love with model.”

After wrapping each day, the cast and crew got together for a quick picture. CONTRIBUTED

As the shoot came to a close, I had a feeling that the good-natured atmosphere of the set was not something I would’ve experienced on an L.A. set. It felt like friends hanging out, laughing while painting on fake blood and fake-reviving each other from the brink of heatstroke and near-drowning.

Ken affirmed this feeling. He said, “In coming to the Keys to work, the laid back feel translated to how we worked. Everyone came to work and everyone was helpful; nobody was a prima donna. For me as director, the laidback Keys vibe took away some pressure.”

As I asked him about the last few days as talent, Hernandez told me, “I thought this could be a fun experience, and it has been. And look, you got my first interview. This will be huge when I’m big in Hollywood.”

“Yeah, yeah. Hollywood ‒ Florida!” his friend Nemani didn’t miss a beat.

While I won’t be turning in my laptop for an actor’s trailer anytime soon, I’ll leave you with a quote from Breaking Bad actor Aaron Paul: “Thank you, Hollywood, for allowing me to be part of your group.”

And that’s a wrap.

Turns out, modeling is hard work! Even the dummies were pooped at the end of the day. TIFFANY DUONG/Keys Weekly

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