8Questions with Ken Watanabe: Actor who plays Saito, “The Tourist” in ‘Inception’

I was lucky enough to attend an early screening of Inception at the Arclight in Hollywood on Wednesday night. Like Dino-Ray, I enjoyed how thought-provoking the film was, and truth be told—two days later, I’m still reeling at how mind-blown I was by this film.

You really have to see the film for yourself to appreciate the brilliance of Christopher Nolan’s writing and direction, but without strong characters and actors to take the audience through the emotional journey, I think the story driving Inception might have easily lost in the amazing visuals as well as the overwhelming amount of chasing, shooting, fighting, and other action and suspense sequences. So for me, it was the strength of Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance, balanced with those of all the supporting characters– in particular the characters played by Ellen Page, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard, Cillian Murphy, Dileep Rao, and of course, Ken Watanabe that made the film so compelling.

Last Friday, Ken Watanabe was good enough to spare a few minutes on the phone with me for a quick chat about Inception, his own reaction after seeing the film, his thoughts about different audiences worldwide, and what he’ll be doing next.

Joz: You’ve had a long and notable career in Japan prior to your exposure to American audiences in ‘The Last Samurai’ and other English-language films. What are the main differences and similarities you find when you’re doing a film for an American (and international) audience, versus that of a Japanese audience?
Ken Watanabe: I couldn’t find [any] different perspective. To make a film just, I need to connect one audience, not [different] people. All people have the same feeling and same mind — a little bit different custom and culture and background and language, but same feelings, I think. I’m [an] Asian and Japanese actor so I want to try always [to balance]. [Like a] Japanese brush painting is [just] black and white [watercolor] — not oil — but still really sensitive [and shades in between]. Not yes or no, but just between good or bad, happy or sad… sensitive… between-gray area.

Asian Americans often criticize the lack of roles in Hollywood productions for Asian or Asian American actors that aren’t straight forward martial arts roles. Tell us a bit about the role of Saito and what it was like to do such a prominent and rich dramatic role.
It is my first experience in Hollywood in a really contemporary role. Also, it’s the same director that I worked with before, and it was a little bit of a different kind of window opened for me in Hollywood, because I always think about I try contemporary role with contemporary English, thinking, maybe I could do it. It’s really interesting, and in the future I can do it [more].

You and director Christopher Nolan both said that you wanted to work together more after your earlier work together in ‘Batman Begins.’ What was it like to have work with him in the role of Saito?
He told me, “I wrote a role for you.” It’s so incredible. I was really proud and honored and really glad to join this project. He has great ideas and imagination. I always want to cut open his head and see the inside! (laughs)

’Inception’ is about dreams, but hinges on the idea that someone’s dreams can be shared or even “implanted” with new ideas. What do you think about this?
NEVER. I never want to do that. It’s so scary. Please no one get in my dream! Anybody!

’Inception’ features themes and concepts that are synonymous with Asian thought and culture (such as reality as an illusion and the significance of dreams). What can you say about the significance of dreams?
Maybe it’s a similar feeling that Western people have. [Many Asians believe dreams] forecast for the future and some signal for the future and yeah so [if you dream something, maybe you] need to think about your style of life or something and change of mind.

I’m not a big dreamer and I always forget what I dream. But then I had a nightmare after the screening of ‘Inception!’ I woke up at 3:30 am and — yeah — I felt I got some great “inception” from Chris Nolan! (laughs) Totally different story!

The cast is truly International and the filming took the team all over the globe. What was the best part of being involved with such an international cast, crew, and production?
I’m Japanese actor, so many international cast: Marion Cotillard (French), Cillian Murphy (Irish), Ellen Page (Canadian) … but Chris Nolan wanted personality as an actor, as much as the character.

And then my character is not typical Japanese, any other “country” could be his character. I tried to some difficult way to make the character because it’s a really unique point of the movie is that the character enters other people’s dream. I tried to emphasize different aspects of my character each layer of the dream. It’s really interesting process to make up the character. In some sequence, I tried to make him more radical and powerful, seem like a villain to give to audiences violent feelings. And then some sequences he’s more sharp and calm, more closer to his real personality. Yeah, it’s really interesting, I enjoyed it as an actor.

What do you hope audiences will get out of seeing ‘Inception?’

Our readers are highly engaged in social media– they read blogs like ours and follow celebrities on Twitter and Facebook. Have you embraced social media and how can our readers follow you online online? What do you think of engaging your fans directly through the internet versus traditional forms of media & publicity.
I don’t have a web page or Twitter or Facebook or blog. My expressive piece is the movie. I want to connect to the piece. Just watch the movie, yeah, please. I don’t want to show them my private life.

What do you think of Americans’ fascination with celebrity?
I’m not a celebrity, just an actor. I try to put everything into the movie.

What projects are you looking forward to beyond ‘Inception?’
Nothing yet, after the promotion I will have a great summer vacation! (laughs)

Thanks so much to Ken for sharing his time and thoughts with us at 8Asians!

Congratulations to all the winners of our 8Asians Inception Prize Package Giveaway as well everyone who got to attend the advanced screening in L.A.! Don’t forget to “Like” his character on Facebook at InceptionSaito! Inception opens tonight in theatres in IMAX.

h/t: @TheOtherYoshi for transcribing the recorded interview for me so I didn’t have to hear my own voice

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About jozjozjoz

jozjozjoz is a taiwanese-american gal who lives and blogs underneath the hollywood sign and who doesn’t clean her fishtank unless the fish starts to do the backstroke. she is also able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, but cannot stop from bumping into door handles, cabinet doors, and anything else that protrudes or has a sharp edge. she does not run with scissors for this same reason. she can pet the fur off a dog but don’t ask her to go anywhere near a horse. or a moth. or a roach. her dealings with L.A.’s finest (aka the parking violations department) are legend, as are her giant sneezes. Other than the two too many joz’s, jozjozjoz is a perfectly normal, relatively sane individual who defies the odds, reaches for the stars, and carries moonbeams home in a jar. She’d rather be a fish… but not in her own dirty fishtank. http://www.jozjozjoz.com
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