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Interview with Japanese Actor Joe Odagiri

Aired January 6, 2012 - 05:30:00   ET



ANNA COREN, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: (voiceover): It's a piece of World War II history that's been revisited in film many times before. But this recreation of the battle of Normandy, by a Korean director, features the story of two Asians who find themselves fighting for their lives on the shores of France.

One of them is played by the acclaimed Japanese actor, Joe Odagiri, in the largest-scale film of his career. Typically "art house" in his acting choices, Odagiri won a Japanese Professional Movie award for his role in this independent film in 2003.

Just one of the accolades he's picked up during his decade-long career on the silver screens, including three from the esteemed Japanese Academy Awards. He's also become a favorite of directors all over Asia, giving him the chance to work alongside some of the region's biggest stars, like Jeng (ph) See (ph) Yi (ph), Jang Dong-gun, and Maggie Q , in the Chinese historical action film, "The Warrior and the Wolf".

But he's not just known for his roles on the big screen. Odagiri is also revered in Japan for his eclectic personal style and is even being compared to Hollywood actor, Johnny Depp.

This week, on "Talk Asia", we catch up with Joe Odagiri in Tokyo, at the screening of his latest film, "My Way".


COREN: Joe Odagiri, welcome to "Talk Asia".


COREN: We are here, in Tokyo for your new film, "My Way". It's a big-budget World War II action drama based on a fierce rivalry between two men. What attracted you to this film?

ODAGIRI (through translator): When the director offered the film to me, I thought of the present circumstances in which Japan, South Korea, and China have strong, but subtly different feelings about World War II, which have deterred each country from getting along well.

I thought it was unprecedented - those three countries would team up and make a movie on World War II. And that it would be quite challenging. A Japanese movie probably could never do it, and it is being done now, because it is a South Korean movie. I think I received the offer because it was a movie that would be very challenging.

COREN: Well, parts of the movie are based on a true story. And this, of course, was quite a brutal time in your country's history. Japan was at war with its neighbors and much of the region. Did you have any reservations about getting involved in this project?

ODAGIRI (through translator): Tatsuo, the character I played had cruel scenes. And I had expected that there would be some negative portrayal of Japan. So, as long as I am a Japanese actor in Japan, I would not be able to play this kind of role here. I thought it would be interesting in that sense.

COREN: You have been offered some big starring roles, which you have turned down on principal and "My Way", your latest film, was one of them. The director and the producer had to rewrite the script especially for you to get you across the line. You obviously wield quite a bit of power in the industry.

ODAGIRI (through translator): Power? Well, I think I am orientated for independent movies. I don't think I can make mainstream movies and compete in the major field. If anything, I have strength in expressing myself in narrow and partial areas. So I will try not to get involved in major films, or the ones people in general accept and appreciate. And there are many craftsmen in Japan. And I am like one of them.

Rather than being widely accepted, I am one of those actors who resonates strongly with limited people. In not getting involved with mainstream movies, I have tried to disperse myself in specific spots I have strength in the script. So it is not like I have a clout of power. I don't know the major area, but I know this part. It's sort of like that.

COREN: Well, here in Japan, you are considered one of the coolest actors in this country. You are the epitome of cool, whether it be your appearance, your clothes, your hairstyle - it all attracts headlines. Is this something that you work at? Or is it just part of who you are?

ODAGIRI (through translator): It is very difficult to say. People first use appearance, fashion, and hairstyle as a form of expression because they are easy to be reckoned with. It is the easiest way to express yourself to others at a glance. So I have used it as tools to express myself since childhood.

Therefore, I'm not sure whether I am producing myself, or this is the way I actually am. But for sure, I have put a lot of thought into what I wear. And I don't freely wear what I want. It is an expression that I need to consider the direction of my day or how I should be in that context. So I would say, it is not directly the way I am.

COREN: Well, you have been described as Japan's Johnny Depp and James Dean, which, I presume, is quite a compliment. How does it feel to be compared to such icons?

ODAGIRI (through translator): It is presumptuous for me to be compared to such big stars. Probably, because I have long hair, they say I'm like Johnny Depp. And maybe I am likened to James Dean because I have a gloomy personality.

COREN: But it's uber-cool and it's also - I guess it's a mystique about you. You're a bit of a mystery to people.

ODAGIRI (through translator): That is the most difficult question I've got today. If I say, "I am uber-cool", I sound stupid. Let me think about that one.


COREN: That's OK. You don't need to answer it. It's a compliment all the same. You are quite particular about the roles that you play and you are attracted to rather complex and complicated, flawed characters. What is it about these roles that draws you to them?

ODAGIRI (through translator): Well, I think I am imperfect. And every one of us thinks, "I am imperfect". As I know how flawed I am, I'm drawn to characters exuding such human foibles. It's probably because I empathize with them, or they have flaws that I have. I can be good at playing the part. It might be out of my confidence that I can make the best use of what I have for this character. Well, I guess, because I have many things that I feel inferior about, I choose those strange roles.


COREN: Coming up, Joe Odagiri opens up about his award-winning roles and why he almost gave up acting.





COREN: In 2001, you starred in "Akarui Mirai", and won a number of awards, including Lead Best Actor. The film was also shown in Cannes. Tell us about receiving that sort of acknowledgement and recognition.

ODAGIRI (through translator): "Akarui Mirai" was the first movie that I took a leading role. At that time, the only thing I had was motivation or passion. I wanted to act so much, and tried to invest 120 percent of myself into this movie. The director told me each and every day, "Odagiri san, you do not have to act that much". I was emotionally plunging forward and spinning my wheels. I fondly remember those pure days.

I would not deny that I am happy if I was awarded, because my performance was recognized. But I think it was the movie that was very good, and I happen to look good in that movie. The director stopped me from overacting. And I know that it was not my performance and the people around me that brought the movie in a good direction. So I translated all of those praises about "Akarui Mirai" was not for Joe Odagiri, but for the film, "Akarui Mirai". I still think that the film is my favorite among dozens of movies I was in.

COREN: But you continued making films and winning awards. You starred in "Azumi", "Blood and Bones", "Big river" -- which you performed in English - "La maison de Himiko" - where you played a young gay man - I mean, this was an impressive, award-winning body of work. And then, after your movie, "Sway", in 2006, you spoke of quitting acting. Why is that?

ODAGIRI (through translator): Simply put, I'd probably been working too much. In my 20s, I worked too hard, aiming for a strong, ideal image of an actor that I believed in. It was like a rushed for it. And I ran out of breath.

That is one reason. And the other reason is, the image of an actor I was seeking was fulfilled with "Sway". It was one of those independent movies I like. And the quality of the script and director was so high. So much so that the mainstream movies cannot reach. I was able to exhaust whatever I could do in performing. And people who have an eye for the quality would see the movie. Everything that I've clung to was realized. I felt that I finally got to the destination.

I'd worked so hard, and found that I had achieved what I wanted. Putting it another way, I would keep working harder and harder if my dream was to go to Hollywood. Maybe my dream was too small. Like I said, I was dreaming about something specific. I thought I had reached my goal, at last. And being about to work on this movie with this team made me satisfied and fulfilled as a creator. Therefore, I felt I did not have anything left that I wanted to achieve as an actor, which is the feeling that I'm still struggling with.

COREN: In 2009, you starred in "Warrior and the Wolf" alongside Maggie Q. And you shared some pretty raunchy sex scenes, which you addressed with a rather novel approach - treat it like an action scene. Tell us, how, exactly, does that work?

ODAGIRI (through translator): What we do, is to follow what we are instructed by the director. For example, "Kiss here, turn over there, and move hips there". That is all we do. So it is just like remembering the forms of dancing and actions.

Maggie and I performed so that it did not look like acting or dancing. We really took it like a dance and tried to express that way. I'll say both of us are shy, so probably did not have strength to do the sex scene in a straightforward manner. All we could do was accept it as a dance. Both of us.

COREN: By your own admission, you are quite a shy person, which is interesting, considering the career that you have chosen. How do you go, dealing with fame and with your fans?

ODAGIRI (through translator): Well, I happen to be in the spotlight by mistake. So I cannot accept it as yet. I cannot admit that I am one of the people who is standing in the public eye. Or, rather, I feel that there is my true self and my fake self. And my fake one is standing in public and I cannot walk in cities or get drunk and fall asleep on streets. And I find it difficult to lead a daily life.

On the other hand, if I were not shy, I would take myself as a star or celebrity and get carried away in that direction. Due to my shy personality, it has probably allowed me to completely cut off the public. And, in that sense, I think it has worked just fine for me.

COREN: Because I hear that you do like to party. Do you miss being anonymous?

ODAGIRI (through translator): I will not go to parties 98 percent of the time.


ODAGIRI: The remaining two percent, I'm forced to go there.

COREN: It's just your rock star reputation, that's what it is.


COREN: Besides being famous here, in Japan, you're also well known in South Korea, Taiwan, and also Brazil. But you are relatively unknown in the West. Is that something that would appeal to you? Do the bright lights of Hollywood beckon?

ODAGIRI (through translator): Unfortunately, I have no interest in Hollywood. You see, I am the independent type. And I would rather be happy if New York calls me. But, after all, I was born and raised in Japan, so I do not feel that I have to go to the West by any means. It would be OK to be influenced by the West, but I feel that's enough. I would like to keep working in Japan, not forgetting my base in Asia.


COREN: Coming up, we get a sneak preview of Joe Odagiri's latest film and find out what working with the star is really like.




KANG JE-GYU, DIRECTOR (through captions): He is so good at acting. In the beginning, I could not believe it. When I saw him on the set, he was so passionate and really good.


COREN: You have great respect for directors and you directed your first feature-length film, "Looking for Cherry Blossoms", in 2009. It premiered at the Rotterdam Film Festival. What was it like to be behind the camera?

ODAGIRI (through translator): Wow, you do good research.


COREN: I've done my homework.

ODAGIRI (through translator): I originally wanted to become a director and happened to be an actor. Writing scripts and shooting movies are what I wanted to do in the first place. But I took acting classes by mistake. So I still enjoy writing scripts and editing more than performing. And I would like to keep doing them. But I will not make mainstream movies. I just shoot, and show it to the people around me. This is the direction I would head for and stay in.

COREN: You mentioned how you got into acting by mistake. You had enrolled in the wrong course at university in California in the United States. Tell us about your experience living in the U.S. and how it shaped the person that you are today.

ODAGIRI (through translator): I say it was a hellish experience. I mistakenly took actors' classes and the days of hell started. And a person like me, with no basis of acting, went there as a foreigner and had to take a drama course. It was harder than I had expected, and I think you probably understand, based on what I've said about my personality.

A shy person, like me, among Americans in high spirits. Americans aspiring to become actors are pretty loud. And I am the only shy foreigner there. It was hard for me to blend in. And I really struggled during those days.

COREN: Well, other than acting and directing, you've also released two albums, so you're quite the musician. Is this a hobby? Or is this another aspect of your career?

ODAGIRI (through translator): Well, music is what I have been doing since a junior high school kid. But I did not choose it as my profession. In that sense, it is my hobby. I ended my music in adolescence with a music band, so I cannot help but creating music. Just like the type of actor I am, the music I create isn't accepted by the mainstream. And only limited people think it is good.

So I can only say it is my hobby after all. I have released two CDs. The sales are really bad. And I do not think I will release another one. I think that I will make CDs and just give them to people who want them. That is how I would like to keep doing music. As a hobby in its own.

COREN: Joe, your parents divorced when you were very young and your mother raised you as a single parent. You share a very close bond. Tell us about that relationship.

ODAGIRI (through translator): My mother is very strange in the way that she really likes making things. She still makes stained glass, stamps, and uses kimonos to make bags or coats. She really wants to create things, and I have been naturally influenced by her in the course of my childhood. That's why I have been keen on creating things. And I have become more and more particular about it. My mother has made me who I am as a creator. And I have learned a lot by observing her.

COREN: I believe that your mother was hospitalized because she suffers from diabetes and, at the same time, you were offered a role about a son whose mother was dying from cancer. And you had serious reservations about taking on this particular role. And yet, she encouraged you to do that. Tell us about how she encourages you - motivates you in your career.

ODAGIRI (through translator): Yes, my mother is my only family and I have been thinking all along that she is the only one I feel related to. I have never met my father and never seen his face, so I do not feel like I am related to him.

So my only flesh and blood was hospitalized from diabetes at that time, and could die in the worst case. I felt that I couldn't play a character whose mother was dying. If I played the role, I would be in such an outrageous mental state, so I really did not want to take it.

But, after all, my mother really liked the original novel and she persuaded me, saying I should not decline such wonderful work just because of her. Because she had said so, I came to think that I should take this role in honor of my mother, who might really die. It was really hard, at that time.

COREN: Your son was born in February of last year. How has fatherhood changed your life?

ODAGIRI (through translator): Last week, he had a high fever and had been in bad condition for several days. For the first time, I knew how to be a parent. Since my son was born, I went overseas to South Korea, so it did not really hit me that I was a parent.

Last week, for the first time, I found myself seriously worried about him. From the bottom of my heart. It is sad and strange that I have never felt that way before, but I have finally become a parent. This is the way I have been feeling for the past few days. I have high expectations that I will share a lot of experiences with him. And I can learn from them as a human being. I am looking forward to it.

COREN: Joe Odagiri, a great pleasure to meet you. Thank you so much for joining us.