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One of the very few Japanese actors to make a successful transition to Hollywood, Hiroyuki Sanada has been in the movie business for more than half a century. Sanada, 56, came to the attention of international audiences for his role as a warrior and devoted family man in Yoji Yamada’s Oscar-nominated The Twilight Samurai (2002), before appearing alongside Tom Cruise and Ken Watanabe in The Last Samurai the following year.
Despite his early martial arts training and graduating from Sonny Chiba’s Japan Action Club, his range is far wider than portrayals of Japan’s legendary swordsmen. He has appeared in films as varied as Rush Hour 3, The City of Your Final Destination and The Railway Man, as well as on TV in the final season of Lost and onstage with the Royal Shakespeare Company (for which he received an honorary MBE). In Life, a sci-fi horror film directed by Daniel Espinosa that will hit theaters this month, he plays an astronaut on the International Space Station along with Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds and Rebecca Ferguson.
Sanada spoke to THR from Prague, where he is on location for wartime espionage drama The Catcher Is a Spy, about not working in Japan for more than a decade, the journey from black-and-white film to CGI and doing his own stunts in his mid-50s.
Life is out this month; there seem to be a lot of sci-fi films around, is that just because themes going in or out of fashion or do you think there are other reasons?
I think people want to see sci-fi, and it’s not just films, but a lot of TV series too. CGI is improving all the time, so it’s easier to make it realistic. And also with all the scientific discoveries, people are interested, they want to learn. My first film, made in 1965, was in black and white, then the next one was in color, and that was a culture shock. Now we have moved to CGI, HD and 3D, it’s been incredible.
Any sci-fi film with horror elements is inevitably going to be compared to Alien. Do you think there are similarities between that film and Life?
The only similarity is that there are humans facing an extraterrestrial life form, but the approach is totally different. All the people involved respect Alien; in fact I watched it again before we started shooting. The filming was great. There was no greenscreen and they created a full International Space Station and used the four biggest sound stages at Shepperton Studios. Daniel is a passionate filmmaker who had a very clear vision for the characters and story.
You trained at Sonny Chiba’s Japan Action Club stunt school when you were very young and did a lot of your own stunts in films — do you still do so?
I still do some stunts and I did some in Life, where we did two weeks’ training for the wire work, but I’ve been doing that for 40 years. People are surprised I can still do it in my 50s. But that’s why I started training when I was young. I used to watch Hollywood movies, and when I heard that John Wayne and Steve McQueen did a lot of their own stunts I decided I wanted to do that too. So I learned horse riding, karate and everything. You know it always happens to me: I sign up for a project and they tell me there’s no action, and then about two days before the shoot I find there’s a fight scene.
It’s been a long time since you last appeared in a Japanese film or TV series. Is that a conscious decision or just that the right script hasn’t come along?
I have tried to do something in Japan, but we couldn’t agree on scripts. I’m always reading scripts from Japan, even now. All of the films and TV series I’ve made overseas have been released and shown in Japan, so at least Japanese people can watch them.
Do you think you would find it difficult to go back and do a film in Japan after working on Hollywood films with much bigger budgets?
No, because even if it’s a lower-budget or art house film, for me nothing changes because it’s just acting. There’s no difference in my preparation or anything. And I still know the Japanese system better than I do Hollywood.
Do you go back to Japan often and is there anything you miss?
Usually about once a year to promote a film. I love onsen, hot springs. We have hot springs in California, but the atmosphere is different. You can get Japanese food in California, but I miss onsen and wearing yukata [light kimono] in a ryokan [traditional Japanese inn]. Now you made me homesick.
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