There was really no reason for Hiroyuki Sanada to ever leave Japan. He was a five-time nominee for Best Actor at the Japanese Academy Awards and a winner in 2003 for his performance in Tasogare Seibei. He had cultivated a wonderful career in Japanese film, combing his skills as a world-class martial artist with fame and popularity that spread across the entire nation. Most actors would have pitched their tents right there without giving it a second thought.
For Sanada, this simply wasn’t enough.
Since transitioning to the United States seven years ago, Sanada has assembled an American filmography that most actors would be thrilled with after a lifetime in Hollywood. Following his breakthrough performance in The Last Samurai (2003), Sanada has had roles in a number of films, including The White Countess, Sunshine and Rush Hour 3, working with the likes of Jackie Chan, Tom Cruise and Ralph Fiennes.
In perhaps now his most widely known American role, he’s currently starring in the final season of “Lost,” playing the role of Dogen, and can be seen this April in The City of Your Final Destination opposite Anthony Hopkins. Sanada took the time to tell MovieMaker all about this remarkable transition and how he hopes to help change the image of Japanese film in America.
Michael Walsh (MM): What was it like for you making the transition from Japan, where you were—and are—one of the more well-known and respected actors, to the United States, where you sort of had to rebuild and establish that reputation all over again for a new audience?
Hiroyuki Sanada (HS): It’s been very exciting. I could never have imagined, I mean, a TV show, especially one like “Lost,” the most popular TV program. I’ve been on many TV shows in Japan before, but the last few years I’ve just concentrated on the movie [The City of Your Final Destination]. So yeah, I found it to be a big surprise when I got the offer. But I knew the quality of “Lost” and its popularity and everything, so yeah, it was a big surprise.
MM: Where would you rank getting that opportunity to perform on “Lost” among your numerous achievements, whether in the United States or Japan?
HS: Yeah, I think it’s a big step for me. It’s the most popular American TV show in Japan, too, so it was a big surprise. I got back from Tokyo yesterday, because we had a big event for “Lost”. I went to Tokyo for the event. I was really surprised at the reaction from the Japanese press. It was like “Oh my God.” It was a great experience for me. I grew up in Japan and these last few years, working in the United States, I’ve done a few films, but it this was a special experience for me.
MM: After numerous delays, your latest film, The City of Your Final Destination is being released. Do you find that you’re disappointed with the fact that it was delayed, or has it sort of become a bit of a blessing in disguise for you now that it’s coinciding with your role on “Lost”?
HS: Yeah, I’ve waited for a long time. I kept in touch James Ivory, the director, and we always tried to move forward with the film in America and in Japan, too. It was delayed, but I think it ended up being good timing for me, with “Lost” happening, as you said.
MM: Well, you spoke of James Ivory, the director of The City of Your Final Destination. He also directed another film you appeared in, The White Countess in 2005. Did your appearance and performance in that film directly lead to you being cast in the latest film?
HS: Yes, yes. At that time I was in China—I was in a Chinese film—and James Ivory called me. At that time I was with one of the producers of My Twilight Samurai, the Chinese film I was starring in. And then they picked me up. I talked with James Ivory for one hour from China, Beijing, and we just started from there.
MM: You’ve also had roles in The Last Samurai and Rush Hour 3, among other American films. Do you feel that your performance in The City of Your Final Destination will show a different side of you, as opposed to the martial arts and action-oriented films you’ve done before?
HS: Yeah, I really enjoy films with the action. In Japan I’ve of course been in a lot of action films, but also a lot of comedies, love stories, everything. But in the U.S., the people want martial arts from Japanese actors. So it was a step for me to help change the image of Japanese art. Not just martial arts, but ordinary drama, especially in this one, playing a gay guy [laughs]–a big, big challenge for me. But I was so happy with everything, working with Anthony Hopkins. It was great.
MM: Well you’ve worked with Hopkins. You’ve also worked with Chris Tucker, Tom Cruise and Jackie Chan. Despite having the chance to work with all these talented actors, your career in the States is really just beginning. Whether one of those actors or anyone else in the industry, who would you say you’ve enjoyed working with the most and have learned from the most so far in your career in the United States?
HS: I’ve learned a lot from James Ivory and Ed Zwick, the director of The Last Samurai. And then also, Ralph Fiennes. He also had a career in theater like myself. So we took a lot out of the theater in the filming [of The White Countess]. It was a great experience. But the most influential person was Anthony Hopkins. On the first day of filming he called me and told me not to be nervous, don’t waste your time, just have fun. And I went “Oh my God!” So I just relaxed, and I found his approach to acting so professional and also very fresh. Everyday he tries a different approach. So it was a thrill and also exciting. I learned a lot.
MM: Lastly, what’s next for you in your career, now that everything is sort of coming together for you?
HS: Well, I’m just preparing for the next film called Fallen Moon, directed by Peter Medak. It’s also a drama, some action. They’re still rewriting the script so I’m just waiting for the new one.