Though he turned in memorable supporting roles in Ed Zwick’s The Last Samurai and Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima, Japanese actor Hiroshi Watanabe scored his biggest role to date thanks to a brief appearance in a little-seen independent film, Big Dreams Little Tokyo. Impressed by Watanabe’s comedic skills, that film’s director, Dave Boyle, wrote his next film specifically with the Japanese actor in mind. The result is this week’s White on Rice, an indie comedy that is steadily winning over audiences and earning Watanabe fervent kudos.
Watanabe stars as Jimmy, a 40-year-old recent divorcee who shares a bunk bed with his nerdy nephew Bob (Justin Kwong) while living with his doting sister Aiko (Nae) and her disapproving husband, Tak (Mio Takada). When Jimmy’s romantic obsessions settle on Tak’s visiting niece (Lynn Chen), the entire family is thrown into chaos and Jimmy must finally learn to grow up. The Japanese-American flavored take on the “man-child” coming-of-age tale allowed Watanabe to flex his comedy chops, something Watanabe hopes to pursue further in the future; his ultimate goal, he tells us, is to land an American sitcom.
How did you go from acting in Japan to starring in an American indie film?
Hiroshi Watanabe: I came from Tokyo, Japan about ten years ago. And I acted in Japan. I worked for some films and in theater. I came to the United States because I wanted to study acting; I’d heard they had really good acting programs. After I finished studying acting, I joined an agency and I started as an actor. But my English was not so good, so I did a lot of Japanese voice-overs and narration in Japanese films. Five years ago I was cast for The Last Samurai and worked with Tom Cruise and Timothy Spall. And after that, I got cast in Letters from Iwo Jima as one of the main characters. But before Letters from Iwo Jima, I worked with Dave Boyle on his first film, Big Dreams Little Tokyo, and he remembered me. Going to his next project, he asked me to do the lead part, which is comedy; it’s much different from the other parts I’d done before.
In addition to your roles in The Last Samurai and Letters from Iwo Jima, have most of your roles been dramatic?
Hiroshi Watanabe: Yes, but I’ve done comedies in some theater productions in Japan. In Japan, I did samurai history films – jidaigeki – and also many improvisational comedies. We don’t have a script, but the director has something of an idea of a story, and he gives the situation; actors do improvisation and write it. That’s how we make theater. Here, I’ve done many dramas.
Dave Boyle has said he tailored the script for White on Rice specifically for you to play the lead, based on a previous version in which the lead character wasn’t specifically Japanese. Did you give him any input on how to make it more authentically Japanese?
Hiroshi Watanabe: I think he knows many Japanese people because he did missionary work for a region in Australia, in a Japanese community. So I was really surprised at his knowledge of Japanese [culture]. One time I asked him, “What did you read?” He said, “Kinkakujin,” a very difficult Japanese novel, and I was really surprised. So I think he knows Japanese culture pretty well. Also, the script is comedic, so when I read the script, first of all I thought it was like American sitcoms. I really like American sitcoms, they’re really different from realistic [stories]. But I just used my acting techniques that I learned from my acting teacher here in drama school; I find a strong objective as an actor, what the character really wants in a scene from the other characters. And I used a lot of those kinds of acting techniques that I learned from American teachers. It really helps me. Maybe I work really hard as an actor, but I don’t think I’m such a talented actor. But I had confidence about the acting techniques and I really appreciate the acting teachers here.
Your character, Jimmy, is what many American audiences would call a “man-child,” which has become a popular comic character type in Hollywood culture, as evidenced by the films of Judd Apatow. Do you think that character type is uniquely American in popularity, since it’s so closely associated with American pop culture?
Hiroshi Watanabe: In Japan, the man-child character in Japanese film or drama is not as popular as it is here. We can see many “lovable losers” in American sitcoms and film comedies, but in Japan they’re not so popular. But I really love American comedies, and American sitcoms. Also, many Japanese people in Japan see American comedians, like Steve Martin or Jack Black, so I think they have an idea [of the style]. I get some ideas from Japanese comedy and Japanese drama, so to me it’s kind of mixed; Japanese comedy and American sitcoms.
How would you describe Japanese-style comedy?
Hiroshi Watanabe: I think we have more lovable losers in Japan, but they’re a little more polite. Not really exciting, like American sitcoms. There is a film called Tora-San, it’s a really famous Japanese movie series that has 48 [installments]. Many people love Tora-San, and when I read the script for White on Rice, I thought it was an American-flavored Tora-San film. I think series number one is really funny. He’s a kind of loser, but lovable.
How do you think Japanese audiences will react to White on Rice?
Hiroshi Watanabe: I don’t know. It’s kind of scary. I’m playing a kind of loser in a foreign country. But I think Japanese people who live here for a long time, they know about American humor and also they have many American friends, so I think they will enjoy watching it.
White on Rice is a comedy, but its characters have many serious problems: deep depression, stalking, neglected children. Were those things that you found you could relate to?
Hiroshi Watanabe: I had experienced depression before with a break-up. I think some people – many people – have it. So I used that kind of feeling. When I had a break-up I was really depressed, and I had really sad feelings and I wanted to find another girlfriend to get over that sad feeling. About the kids, I have a little personality that is kind of like a kid. I was a little like Jimmy, but I magnified it to play the part of Jimmy.
This is a Japanese-American story told by a Caucasian director with a Japanese-transplant for a lead character. Was the cultural aspect something you focused on while playing the part?
Hiroshi Watanabe: I think Dave told me that the story could be universal. And I didn’t think about Japanese culture when I played this character, I just focused on Jimmy’s situation; his wife left him, so he got really depressed, and he’s kind of like a kid.
What was your own experience like when you first moved to America?
Hiroshi Watanabe: I really struggled for English. Still, I struggle for English. I went to college to study English at LA City College.
When you moved to America, did you live in Los Angeles right away?
Hiroshi Watanabe: First, I lived in a very small town in New York. I thought I should go to a small town, because I thought people in small towns were really kind. I studied English and I worked as a carpenter in theater production, because at that time I couldn’t speak English, but I really wanted to act. So I thought, first I should find friends who act or who are related to theater, so they can cast me.
Is that how it happened?
Hiroshi Watanabe: Yes, I worked on some productions in some small towns in New York.
Compared to that entry into acting, what was it like to audition for directors like Ed Zwick and Clint Eastwood in your Hollywood debuts?
Hiroshi Watanabe: For The Last Samurai, I missed the first audition because at that time I was in a theater production. I have an accent, but I know some really nice theater directors, and they kept using me in theater productions. Anyway, I was in theater productions so I couldn’t go to the auditions and I got really sad. But they had another audition, and I went, and I got cast for one part in a scene with Tom Cruise. [Watanabe appears with Cruise and actor Timothy Spall in a comedic scene as a Japanese guard who reluctantly lets Cruise through his gate.]
I was also working as a horseback rider on The Last Samurai, and I fell while horseback riding and got seriously injured – before my scene. I broke my ribs, my lung was punctured, three discs moved, and I got muscle spasms, so I was in the hospital for ten days. When I shot that scene, I was using a painkiller; my doctor said it was a cousin of morphine. It’s really strong! So I became really sleepy, and I kept drinking Red Bull while I was acting. But I had a really good experience with Tom Cruise and Timothy Spall.
On Clint Eastwood’s movie, Letters from Iwo Jima, most of the actors were from Japan and were really famous. Really famous, like Mr. Ken Watanabe and a young guy who’s one of the top Japanese idols. I got really nervous at the beginning, but I enjoyed it and had a really good experience.
Do audiences recognize you on the street from those roles?
Hiroshi Watanabe: Some people in Tokyo recognize me. When I finished Letters from Iwo Jima, they recognized me and said hello and showed me a really respectful attitude. White on Rice is different. They watch me and when they find me, they point at me and sometimes laugh — but not in a mean way.
As an Asian actor in Hollywood, is it difficult to find roles, or even roles that challenge you? How do you tackle that?
Hiroshi Watanabe: I think there are many good Asian actors and actresses, like my coworkers Lynn Chen, Joy Osmanski, Cathy Shim, and James Kyson Lee. And I think we don’t have that kind of barrier right now; to me, English is the most difficult barrier. So just know I’m still learning English. I’m reading Newsweek and People Magazine. I read them out loud. But if I have three or four days to practice lines, I think I’m ok. But sometimes they give me sides right away, and it’s really difficult for me.
Do you plan on staying to work exclusively in Hollywood, or do you think you might return to Japan to do film or theater again?
Hiroshi Watanabe: I’d like to stay here and work in American films. But I also like working on Japanese films in Japan. But I really don’t know about my future, it’s really difficult to say right now. I’d like to do both, films in Japan and in the United States, but in the United States, I know my parts are limited.
Would you prefer to do comedy or drama?
Hiroshi Watanabe: My dream is to do comedy. I’d like to do a sitcom! That’s my dream.
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