From The Last Samurai to Helix, Hiroyuki Sanada’s played some very interesting characters. His latest film, Mr. Holmes, puts Hiroyuki in the middle of a Sherlock Holmes story. I chatted with Hiroyuki about Mr. Holmes, how he picks a role, and working with American actors.
How did you get cast in Mr. Holmes?
Hirouki Sanada: I got the script from the producers; I read it and was so interested in the story and the character – especially with it being a Japanese role, and Sherlock Holmes’ 100 year history. After that, I read a Sherlock novel and I called Bill Condon about the scenes in Japan. Hiroshima is a very delicate thing for Japanese audiences. We talked a lot and he respected our culture. I started researching about the history in 1947 between Japan and London. I also went to an antique shop to get wire frames glasses like the ones Umezaki wore in the novel.
How did you find them?
HS: I went to my favorite antique shop in Los Angeles. I tried them on and the prescription matched my reading glasses. I thought, “This is destiny.” Matter of fact, I have them. [pulls out glasses].
Wow. How old are they?
HS: I don’t know, but people said probably the same time period as Mr. Holmes. I used these glasses to read the script to help create the character of Umezaki.
You get the opportunity to play some interesting characters. I loved you on Helix
HS: Dr. Hatake!
He felt like he was doing the right thing…
HS: He had his idea of justice. I love the mixture of science and horror, but a very simple human story.
Do you have a favorite character you’ve played?
HS: Hatake is one of my favorite television characters. In the movies…..it’s so hard to pick one. In Japan I liked Twilight Samurai. In the U.S, it was a movie called White Countess and I worked with Ralph Fiennes. It was another Japanese character but he was a dangerous guy. The chemistry with Fiennes was so warm and we created a friendship. I loved the story and my character.
How do you pick these roles?
HS: Just with research and imagination……and hope [laughs]. I create a backstory in my mind. This time we had a novel to look and Umezaki’s part is bigger so it was easier to condense the role. I used my own experience, because my father was gone when I was 10 years old. After that I had a lot of heroes in the movie industry. It’s easy for me to overlap my life with my characters. Sherlock is a hero of Umezaki and Sir Ian McKellen is my real hero [laughs]. I used that inspiration on set. Of course, I was so nervous, but McKellen was always in character on set after he put on the makeup. He never gave me the pressure of working with Ian McKellen, he was always Sherlock Holmes. It allowed me to stay in my character all that time and that helped me a lot. He’s in his mid 70’s and still such a fit and funny guy.
Have there been any roles that you passed on?
HS: That’s the hardest part of my job. To do or don’t. I get a lot of offers that are stereotype Japanese characters, samurais, or marital artist. I don’t want take that. There’s a lot of misunderstanding of our culture from western people. One of my hopes or missions is changing the image of Asian actors and Japanese. If I can participate in changing the image, I’ll take the role. If I feel it’s going to make things worse, I’ll say no.
You’ve probably turned down more roles than you’ve taken.
HS: Yeah, but I have to choose the one for me and for the future Japanese actors. Break the wall, make the bridge, and bring them along.
You worked on one of my favorite movies, Sunshine.
HS: Danny Boyle! We shot that in London too. I had a great experience.
Have you learned anything working with American actors?
HS: As actors we do the same thing. The language is different, but the most important thing is your heart. There’s no nationality, no religion, no colors, you’re just an actor. I felt like there weren’t any walls between us when I did The Last Samurai. When I did Sunshine, I worked with different ages and nationalities. We had two weeks together in a student house where we shared a kitchen and a small room. No television or telephone. Somebody had to cook every night and we talked about movies and everything else. It created an atmosphere that was like spending a few months in a spaceship. That was a great experience.
Mr. Holmes opens 7/17/14