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Bright lights, big rig: Driver keeps the show going by hauling essential behind-the-scenes piece

Bright lights, big rig: Driver keeps the show going by hauling essential behind-the-scenes piece
Thirty-year trucking veteran, Tommy Ukauka is an essential part of keeping the talent happy on set. For the past couple of years, he has driven for Sunrise Dressing Rooms of Glendale, California, towing mobile dressing rooms to shoot locations for movies, television and commercials. (Bobby Ralston/The Trucker)

The movie set is abuzz with activity as crew members wheel lights and cameras into position and the director barks orders. It’s hot, but the production team pushes through on a short schedule. Ever since Hollywood got back to work following a long COVID-19 layoff, shooting time has been at a premium as everyone scrambles to complete their projects.

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Tommy Ukauka stands off to the side and coolly takes everything in.

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The 52-year-old is not a hot new TV star, a harried screenwriter or a fast-talking movie producer. In fact, the soft-spoken native Hawaiian is easily overlooked as just one of hundreds of people helping to make the magic happen. But without Ukauka, things on this particular set would grind to a halt very quickly.

Ukauka is key to keeping the talent happy. For the past couple of years, the 30-year trucking veteran has driven for Sunrise Dressing Rooms of Glendale, California, towing mobile dressing rooms to shoot locations for movies, television and commercials.

“I love this job right here,” Ukauka said. “I love coming to work. I love doing the job. I wouldn’t trade this job for anything.”

Like a lot of things in Tinseltown, there’s a lot of sweat behind the scenes. Ukauka delivers the customized trailer to a set and then is basically on standby until the shoot is completed. Fourteen, 16- and even 18-hour days are common.

“Sometimes we stay at a location for two days; sometimes we stay for five days,” he said. “Every time they move the location, we move. Wherever they shoot, you move to the base camp — it’s called a base camp, where they park their trucks and everything. I stay there the whole day helping them out, driving trucks or whatever has to be done at the base camp.”

Ukauka’s role requires a weekly commute, he says.

“I just got a house in Vegas. So, every weekend me and my buddies, five of us have houses in Vegas, and we drive to LA on a Sunday. We stay there during the week, and Fridays we drive back to Vegas to stay in our homes,” he explained. “There’s five of us from Hawaii, and that’s what we all do.”

It’s about 2,500 miles from Hawaii to Los Angeles, but Ukauka’s truck driving career has come a lot farther than that to be here.

“In 1989, I got my CDL license and, for all that time I’ve been driving semi tractor-trailers, tandems, anything that’s got wheels on it, I drove,” he said. “My uncle used to own his own trucking business in Hawaii, and we would drive up and down the dump quarry where you dump trash.”

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Truck driver Tommy Ukauka spends his days at shoot locations for movies, televisions and commercials. (Bobby Ralston/The Trucker)

Ukauka landed his job with Sunrise Dressing Rooms through a friend, who called him out of the blue one day.

“My buddy called me up,” he recalled. “He called me up on a Thursday evening. He said, ‘You wanna work, you gotta be here tomorrow morning at 6 a.m. sharp.’ So, I just left everything and just jumped on a plane. Got here at 5 o’clock in the morning, went with him and never stopped. Never looked back.”

Shifting his career from Hawaii to the mainland took some adjustments, Ukauka noted.

“Driving is a lot different in Hawaii than it is over here,” he said. “They don’t have freeways like in LA. They’ve got one freeway; it’s called the H3 and it goes from one end of the island to the other end. It’s not a big, easy highway like here, either.”

It might be easier to get around here on the mainland, but the job has the same headaches and mishaps of any trucking assignment. Ukauka recalls one run to Vegas to shoot an episode of the NCIS franchise, when disaster struck.

“We took two honey wagons, and both honey wagons had blowouts. I blew a tire on the 15; I was almost into Vegas when my tire blew. I just drove slow. I drove 30 more miles to a Love’s truck stop — and I got there, and they couldn’t fix my tire,” he said.

“So, I stayed there for eight hours waiting to get my tire fixed — but we got to where the location was,” he said. “Our filming was on Fremont Street. It was a pretty good gig, actually. It was one week; got there on a Monday, came back on a Saturday. Yeah, that was pretty nice.”

As they say in Hollywood, success comes with a price — and in trucking that means losing out on time with loved ones. For Ukauka, that sacrifice is deeper than most.

“I have a family but they’re all back in Hawaii, so I have nothing over here. I just work. Work for my family,” he said. “I only get back there, maybe like once a year. Maybe twice if I’m lucky. With this COVID thing, I was up there for five months because they shut down everything here. But it’s very busy here now.”

Despite missing his family, Ukauka said he thoroughly enjoys his work because of the changing scenery and interesting locations. And, of course, there’s the unique added perk of rubbing elbows with famous (and not-so-famous) movie and television stars.

“Oh yeah, I took some pictures with some interesting people,” he said. “Andy Garcia, Ronda Rousey, Kenan Thompson. I’m doing a show now called ‘Hunters’ with Al Pacino. I’m with these guys ’til November. It started about, oh, three weeks ago. So that’s a pretty good run of about five months.”

For Ukauka, being an essential part of the behind-the-scenes production never has a dull moment — and he loves every minute of it.

Dwain Hebda is a freelance journalist, author, editor and storyteller in Little Rock, Arkansas. In addition to The Trucker, his work appears in more than 35 publications across multiple states each year. Hebda’s writing has been awarded by the Society of Professional Journalists and a Finalist in Best Of Arkansas rankings by AY Magazine. He is president of Ya!Mule Wordsmiths, which provides editorial services to publications and companies.
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