How Kaiju Inc.'s Ko Iwagami Is Fighting Back Against Whitewashing

MEET JAPAN’S HOTTEST CASTING DIRECTOR - Ko Iwagami - Illustration by Yu-Ming Huang-P 2018
Illustration by Yu-Ming Huang

The casting director originally wanted to be an actor, but when he recognized a need for local talent to appear in Hollywood films, he changed course and launched an "Asiancy." Now, working on projects for the likes of Netflix and Marvel, he's doing his part in the fight against the casting controversy: "You have to step up and make something cool."

This summer’s Crazy Rich Asians may be the watershed moment for actors of Asian descent. If Black Panther’s $1.3 billion global box office and Moonlight’s trio of Oscars have nailed the lie that a black cast can’t carry a Hollywood film, then Jon M. Chu’s romantic comedy has the potential to do the same for Asian actors. In fact, this would be an even greater leap forward for a group that — despite the whitewashing controversies — has remained conspicuous by its absence from lead roles in major U.S. productions.

Casting director Ko Iwagami has been on a mission to increase screen time for Asian actors with his Tokyo-based agency, Kaiju Inc. Iwagami acknowledges progress has been made but contends that lazy caricatures still abound in many movies.

“There are stages: nonspeaking roles, then stereotypical roles, then I’m sure there is a next step where Asian people are written as actual humans,” says Iwagami.

Spending childhood weekends at his grandmother’s house just north of Tokyo, he says he was captivated by filmmaking while watching his uncle’s huge collection of imported movies. “I would ask myself, ‘How do they do that?’” he recalls. “I decided then I wanted to be an actor.”

His heart set on working in Hollywood, Iwagami persuaded his parents to send him to high school in the U.S. At the Santa Fe University of Art and Design in New Mexico, he found himself frequently in front of the camera in student productions, partly because his was the only Asian face in his class.

“I even played a geisha,” he says. “We had a student film festival, and out of the five films screened, I was in three of them. Memoirs of a Geisha came out, The Last Samurai came out, Babel came out; Japanese actors were onscreen with Hollywood stars in big movies, and the world was changing.

“Everybody seemed to love my acting in Santa Fe, and in my mind I was like the ultimate Japanese star in school. But in reality ... I signed up with some agencies and did lots of auditions, but nothing came through.”

As the door to acting seemed to be closing, another path began opening up for Iwagami. The combination of a full soundstage on the Santa Fe campus and generous tax incentives offered by New Mexico brought major productions to shoot at his film school. Students were given opportunities to intern on the movies, and Iwagami got to work on Jim Sheridan’s Brothers (2005) and the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men (2007).

After graduation, he landed a job as a production assistant on Due Date (2010), the Todd Phillips comedy starring Robert Downey Jr. and Zach Galifianakis, and watched the casting director in action. “She was reading the script and getting input from the director and producer; it was like she was solving a puzzle with the actors,” he says.

Casting work followed on films and TV series, including Breaking Bad. His Hollywood dream now in sight, Iwagami needed to extend his work visa and came up with the idea of opening a talent agency that specializes in Asian roles.

“Santa Fe doesn’t have a huge Asian population, and so many productions would come and have great difficulty in finding people for Asian roles. The casting directors would sometimes audition Mexicans that looked Asian or Native Americans that looked Asian, and sometimes the ethnicity of the character would end up being changed,” he explains.

His “Asiancy” fills a niche. And Iwagami says that when he receives a call saying someone on his roster has landed a role, he feels “exactly the same as if I had gotten the job. I got addicted to casting.”

After a turn as a production assistant on The Avengers in 2011, he accompanied the crew of The Wolverine to shoot in Japan the following year, and he translated and coordinated logistics.

“This was something I hadn’t experienced before,” he says. “My bilingual skills were so useful, and I realized that this is something I wanted to do, to become a bridge between English-speaking countries and Japan.”

Iwagami decided not to return to the U.S. and began doing casting work for Twenty First City, a go-to production company for international films shooting in Japan. After building contacts with talent agencies around Japan, he launched Kaiju, named for the giant-monster film genre, in 2016.

His ascension in the Japanese casting industry has been rapid. He has provided his services in Japan for a number of Hollywood productions, including the 2015 sci-fi romance Equals, starring Nicholas Hoult and Kristen Stewart; Paramount’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows (2016); and the supernatural horror The Forest (2016), starring Natalie Dormer of Game of Thrones.

More high-profile gigs have followed, including the fifth season of Girls (which was set partially in Tokyo); Deadpool 2; and John Wick: Chapter 3, on which Iwagami is now working.

Still, the business of casting Japanese locals for Hollywood fare doesn’t always go smoothly. After recruiting a bunch of former Tokyo mobsters for Netflix’s The Outsider — starring Jared Leto as an American who gets recruited by yakuza gang members after serving time in an Osaka prison — Iwagami found himself on set last year trying to keep the tattooed troupe calm as tempers flared over shooting delays.

While the ex-cons had no issue with expressing their opinions, reticence is a common problem among Japanese actors, though not in other parts of East Asia, according to Iwagami.

“The Korean and Chinese audition tapes I see are more powerful, but the Japanese are often very vanilla. Where is your creativity? Where are your ideas?” says Iwagami. “It’s rare for actors to speak up about a character or script to a director in Japan; only the very biggest names will do that. I see more discussion and collaboration in foreign productions,” pointing to Japan’s conformist education system as one root of the issue.

Although his work now involves casting mostly Japanese actors, Iwagami wants to see more big parts being played by Asians and laments the whitewashing of roles in films like Dr. Strange, which stirred controversy by casting Tilda Swinton in the role of a mystic who in the comics was an Asian man, and Ghost in the Shell, which drew criticism with Scarlett Johansson’s casting as the main character, who in the original manga is a Japanese woman.

“Looking at the big picture, it’s important that a character like that, which drives the story, is an Asian person, even if it’s Korean, Chinese or Chinese-American,” says Iwagami of Ghost in the Shell.

Still, Iwagami says he has no illusions about the hurdles Asians face in getting on the global stage, and he cautions against excessive self-pity and negativity.

“At one time, Kurosawa, Ozu and Mizoguchi were amazing directors that the whole world admired, people that Spielberg and Lucas made homages to,” he observes. “Instead of just booing, making whiny noises and complaining about stereotypes, you have to step up and make something cool.”

A version of this story appears in The Hollywood Reporter's May 8 daily issue from the Cannes Film Festival. Click here to download.