Actor Hiroyuki Sanada began his career as an action star in his native Japan, but has since grown into an international actor of high regard.
Sanada has the distinction of being the first Japanese actor to perform with the Royal Shakespeare Company (playing The Fool in a production of King Lear) and received an honorary MBE (Member of the British Empire) for his performance.
He’s also becoming more recognizable to Western audiences from his recent film and television work.
As the mysterious character Dogen in this year’s final season of ABC’s Lost, he held many secrets of the island, including his own reasons for being there.
His film work with acclaimed directors is particularly interesting. He’s worked with Oscar-winner Danny Boyle (Sunshine), Edward Zwick (The Last Samurai) and the Wachowski Brothers (Speed Racer).
But it’s in his relationship with Oscar-nominated director James Ivory that led him to his current role. Sanada worked with Ivory on the 2005 film White Countess and was courted for the role of Pete, the lover to Anthony Hopkins’ character Adam in Ivory’s The City of Your Final Destination (which opens Friday, April 16th in New York and Friday, April 23rd in Los Angeles, Connecticut, New Jersey and more New York locations)
Sanada’s performance is refreshingly original, giving a nod early on to his character’s sexual orientation with nothing more than a subtle way of moving. Everything in the acting is relaxed and unfettered. It shows audiences a way of acting by just “being”.
Calling from his adopted hometown of Los Angeles not long before boarding a plane to Japan, Sanada and I discussed how his approach to the character came about, the differences between shooting a film in the West compared to Japan and what he likes about living in LA.
Rock ‘n Roll Ghost: What was your first experience working outside of Japan?
Hiroyuki Sanada: It was the movie called White Countess. It was my first experience working with James Ivory.
Did someone come to you to cast you in the role or did you decide to start looking for films outside of Japan?
HS: The director James Ivory and producer Ismael Merchant, who was still alive at that time, they watched Twilight Samurai which was nominated for an Oscar in 2003, so they called me.
What are the differences between working on a film in Japan and one outside of Japan?
HS: Before the James Ivory film I had done over sixty other films in Japan. James Ivory is not a Hollywood director, he’s very creative, artistic, very similar to Japanese movies. I was lucky it wasn’t a big Hollywood film. The system is different [in Japan]…even if it’s an inventive film it’s a bigger budget than a Japanese film. Always shooting the same thing very many times. That kind of thing is very different from Japanese style. I was surprised.
So in Japan you’d shoot faster, then?
HS: In Japan we cannot spend much time or film, if I have some dialogue, we never do it again. We rehearse a lot. But only one take. Or two takes. We never go back to the same thing because no time, no money. But here? From the beginning to the end…long scenes, six, seven, ten pages. Every take, full shot, master shot, close up, every take doing everything, from the beginning to the end. I thought, ‘Oh, it’s such a luxury. So many options for the editing.’ Sometimes [in Japan] two cameras and you cut back and forth, but that’s a luxury.
You’ve been in a few movies that people in the states would definitely know, The Last Samurai and Sunshine with the Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle. How was it to work with him?
HS: Danny grew up in theater I believe, so he loves doing rehearsal. We spent three weeks of rehearsal. The first two weeks, the whole cast lived in the same school house. Maybe 15 minutes from the studio. We shared the kitchen, everything. It was the direction of Danny. He wanted to create the atmosphere of people living together in a spaceship for a long time. We ate breakfast together, lunch together, rehearsed together, worked on the movie together. It was a great experience. He wanted to create that kind of atmosphere. I spent great times with Cillian Murphy, Michelle Yeoh. I was so happy to be there.
Before he got the Oscar he (Boyle) told me ‘Even if I get the Oscar, I will never change my style for shooting.’ He is a great, great filmmaker.
What I love about him is that none of his films are necessarily alike. He’s able to go from one genre to another with ease and still manage to make an interesting film.
HS: He is an artist. I was proud to work with him. We love art. We believe in art.
Recently, and what was probably your biggest exposure here in the states, was as a new character on this season of the TV show Lost. How did you get involved with that and how did it feel to be a part of a show that has become a big sensation around the world?
HS: Before, I never could have imaged joining a TV show in the West. I saw a few episodes of Lost before and I thought it was a great cast, great script. When I got the offer, I was surprised. With the quality and the cast, how could I say no? I met with the producers…with Carlton (Cuse) and Damon (Lindelof)…I asked them about my character and his background and the culture. Sometimes, a lot of Hollywood filmmakers misunderstand our culture or they want me to do the stereotypical Japanese role. But I wanted to change that so I asked them because it’s very delicate for Japanese people, so I asked a lot. We spent over an hour, almost two hours and they explained everything and I felt, ‘Oh, they understand our culture deeply and with respect, I can believe in them.’ I was so happy with the scripts and it was a big challenge.
You worked with James Ivory previously, how were you selected for this role?
HS: When I had done White Countess at that time we had shot in Shanghai, maybe five years ago. At that time his producer, Ismael Merchant was still alive and he had asked me if I wanted to make this film in Argentina. I was thinking ‘Is this a tango movie, or football, soccer movie? Two weeks after Ismael died, the script came out. It was a great script and a great cast and working with James Ivory, I had no reason to say no.
How did you approach your character in that film? I saw the film and felt you had a really light touch, very relaxed…just a very relaxed performance.
HS: I had a lot of plans for the role before shooting, but James Ivory told me, ‘Don’t make too much dramatic or tension. Just be natural and calm. Don’t do anything too much.’ He always told me that. I was also nervous working with Anthony Hopkins. He told me, ‘Don’t be nervous. Don’t waste the time like that. Just relax and enjoy your performance. Every moment.’ The beginning of the first scene on the set I was so nervous. But after that I could relax. I could enjoy the moment. I watched his films (Anthony Hopkins) for a long time, so it was like a dream come true.
The film was made a number of years ago and is only now seeing release. Are you happy that it’s finally coming out for people to see?
HS: Finally, yes. I was worried about that. It’s always happening in the film industry nowadays. I went to film festivals and we got a great reaction from the audiences.
What are you working on next?
HS: I’m always going back and forth between Japan and the U.S. My next film is another American independent film called Fallen Moon, directed by Peter Medak. My role is a Japanese born detective in the NYPD. We’re going to shoot in New York and New Jersey around June or July.
Living here in the states, what are the things you miss about Japan when you’re here? What do you enjoy about living here?
HS: I can live without Japanese food. I can cook. I’m very comfortable here. Good place to learn English, meet people, make connections. The weather is so great for training.