During the course of his career Hiroyuki Sanada has fought a man-eating, Brill-Building-inspired plant, attempted to reignite the sun, and schooled Tom Cruise on the concept of honor. He’s performed Shakespeare in two languages and added “rock star” to his resume alongside his work with martial arts legend Sonny Chiba. As recognizable in hit films from Japan like Ringu, Vengeance For Sale, and The Twilight Samurai as he is from American efforts like Edward Zwick’s The Last Samurai, Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, and of course, Lost, his international profile has risen sharply in recent years. With his new film, City of your Final Destination, opening in New York on April 16th and in Los Angeles on April 23rd, Hiroyuki Sanada moves from brain-bending science-fiction-allegory to reunite with his The White Countess director James Ivory and a cast that includes Anthony Hopkins, Laura Linney and Charlotte Gainsbourg. Not. Too. Shabby.
When I spoke with Mr. Sanada in late February I was unaware that the character of Dogen would soon be very, very dead, courtesy of Sayid Jarrah and a Really Big Knife. After his (rather sudden, unfortunate, but dramatically satisfying) death, I was asked if I’d hold onto the interview and wait for the release of the film. Here we are, and so here it is. Dogen may be gone from Lost’s narrative, but Sanada has left his mark on network television’s most ambitious show, and the show and the man seem to reflect one another in a way. Listening to him speak I was struck by his passion for the mixing of cultures, for “breaking down walls” and for meeting the “Other” and embracing them. It’s a very fitting attitude for an actor on Lost – a show that’s very much concerned with all of the above. It’s in that spirit that I hope you enjoy the interview.
MMorse: Thanks for taking the time to speak with me today. I write for a website called “Chud.com,” where I publish a column on the themes, literary references, and philosophical touchstones of Lost. You know – nerdy stuff.
Hiroyuki Sanada: (laughs) It’s good to speak with you.
I was looking over your credits, and I’m amazed by the diversity. You’ve worked in a number of areas in the Arts. For instance, you’re also a stage actor, and you’ve done the musicals “Big River” and “Little Shop of Horrors”? Is that correct?
Yeah! I was the Japanese Seymour.
That is outstanding.
And for “Big River,” we invited the original cast from New York. Talking in Japanese, singing in English…it was a great mix of culture. After that I went to London, to do Shakespeare in English. I was the only Asian actor there in the Royal Shakespeare Company. I learned a lot. We spent months together, mixing culture and….you know – breaking the wall, and making a bridge to the next generation. East and West.
I’d done Romeo and Hamlet in Japanese before, and when I did Hamlet in London with a Japanese company, a producer and the actor Nigel Hawthorne saw me perform and they picked me out for the Royal Shakespeare Company as The Fool in King Lear. After I decided to join them I had to take lessons from five coaches – Shakespeare coach, rhythm coach, dialect coach…I was like ‘oh my GOD’ (laughs). And when I got up there the first time….I don’t have any memories from the first twenty minutes (laughs). Then I heard the voices – the laughing of the audience – and I thought ‘wait, they’re laughing…at my joke? They’re understanding what I’m saying? I’m on stage! Ohmygodohmygod!’ (laughs). It changed my life.
You’ve also done Japanese television. Has your experience working on Lost been very different, in terms of the production itself?
HS: Oh yeah. Lost is a luxury. In Japan there’s no money, no time, so we cannot spend so much time filming. This is like a big budget film. Using three or four cameras, with great crews, and they shoot again and again and again. I was happy on the set, and also, I was jealous (laughs).
How did the show’s representatives approach you about playing the role of Dogen? Were you a fan of Lost prior to joining the cast?
I watched the show plenty of times before. I knew it was a high-quality creation and vision and a good opportunity, and then one day the producer called me, offering me a new character in the final season. I was so surprised! But I didn’t have any script at the time and I had no idea. Then Carlton and Damon contacted me and they told me about my character and background and then I asked them about, y’know, why Japanese? Were they interested in the culture or just a stereotype. I had a lot of questions and they answered me immediately with a deep understanding of the culture, and a respect. And so I decided that it was special, and I would do it.
Without the script?
Yeah. It was a special thing (laughs) Top secret script, you know? Just a week before – that’s when they give us the script, so I have a lot of time, actually, with the script. And I ended up watching the whole series, from One through Five – I spent a month and a half in the house (laughs); six episodes or more a day, and I loved the background, the history. It was great preparation for me and I also reexamined how wonderful the show is.
What is it about the character that interested you as an actor?
It’s a mysterious role, and not a Japanese stereotype. He’s not, you know, a Samurai or something (laughs). He is living in the modern world and he has a lot of layers. I love that, as an actor.
Lost’s writers have seeded a lot of information into the background of the show – they reference philosophers, religious texts; even your character’s name is actually a reference to a historical figure [MM – that would be Dogen, a Japanese Zen Buddhist]. Does that aspect of the show interest you?
The name comes from the Buddhist, but the Kanji character is actually different. So it sounds the same, but the meaning is a little different. Inspired by the Buddhist master, but not completely the same. He came from Japan but, uh, he is not a Buddhist – and he has a mission, which is to study the Island and he has been there for about twenty years.
Given Lost’s interest in literature, and your interest in mixing culture, I was wondering if you’d share the title of a favorite novel of yours.
I love the author Haruki Murakami. Love his novels, short stories, everything. They are perfect for theatre, for plays, for movies.
How have the fans in Japan responded to your joining Lost’s cast?
We had a great reaction from Japan. We were in Tokyo, Carlton and I – we had a junket, and we had just a…a great, great reaction from the fans and audiences. Everyone has been waiting for the final season. I mean, it’s international, right?
I think that’s one of its strengths – the international cast. I can’t think of a show before it that featured so many different backgrounds and nationalities.
Yeah, at the beginning of the meetings with Carlton and Damon we talked about that – an international cast, all these cultures mixing together to make something new. That was important to me. It’s difficult but also interesting and important for me – it’s kind of life work.