When HBO’s new series Silicon Valley premieres Sunday April 6, look for Richard Toyon’s name in the credits.
Toyon, a fourteenth-generation Native Californian, is a descendent of the Parra clan of the Juañeno Band of Mission Indians, Acjachemem Nation (pronounced A-HA-Sha-mem). His family originates from what is now the city of San Juan Capistrano, Calif. Much of his Indian blood comes from his mother; his father is of Spanish descent. “As I often will say, I was both the oppressed and the oppressor,” he adds.
Toyon is also a production designer in Hollywood with a long list of his own impressive credits. He’s worked with award-winning directors Alexander Payne for the HBO TV series Hung (2009) and Joel and Ethan Coen for their quirky 1994 movie The Hudsucker Proxy.
You’ve seen Toyon’s scenic designs in TV’s United States of Tara, Knight Rider, and Las Vegas as well as that 2001 adolescent romp American Pie 2.
Add to that an Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Art Direction for HBO’s mini-series From the Earth to the Moon (1998), which starred Tom Hanks.
Toyon was production designer for all three PBS American Mystery! Specials adaptations of Tony Hillerman’s novels: Skinwalkers (2002), Coyote Waits (2003), and A Thief of Time (2004).
“A lot in this business is your relationships—who you’re related to in terms of your friends and people in the business,” he says by phone from Texas, where he’s working as a production designer for ABC’s forthcoming pilot American Crime. The TV movie revolves around the personal lives of people involved in a racially charged trial.
No surprise that with such a busy schedule, Toyon misses his wife and three children back home in Los Angeles. “The industry is not really conducive to family life,” he says. His job often requires him to be on location for weeks or even months.
Still, Toyon finds the time to represent California’s Tongva Tribe on various environmental and public issues. In 2002, he successfully lobbied the U.S. Geological Survey to have a prominent peak in the Verdugo Mountains named Tongva Peak in honor of the original inhabitants of the Los Angeles Basin, the Tongva (Gabrielino) people.
Meanwhile, Toyon has just wrapped the first season of Silicon Valley, HBO’s half-hour comedy about a group of super-smart geeks who hope to make billions in the dot-com business. Mike Judge of Office Space and Beavis and Butt-Head fame conceived the show.
“Richard does an incredible amount of research in order to make sure the world we’re creating is authentic and real,” says Silicon Valley producer Jim Kleverweis.
Toyon studied architecture at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo then later moved into television. He rose from set designer to assistant art director to art director to production designer in about six or seven years, he says.
He adds that his Indian heritage has influenced his designs in terms of boldness, color, and motifs. “As a designer, you need to be a good observer of life. It’s the sum total of your experiences and how you interpret them,” he explains.
For would-be film artists, Toyon says, there’s plenty of opportunity in the industry for people with talent. His advice: “Start small and work your way up bigger. And do not be afraid to take chances.”
Silicon Valley premieres Sunday, April 6 (10:00-10:30 p.m. ET/PT).