Written by: Mut Asheru
Hiroyuki Sanada is an actor first and foremost. His role as Mr. Tamiki Umezaki in his most recent film MR. HOLMES did not have any sword fights but it did contain some emotionally slashing scenes and scenarios in which Sanada’s character helps bring about a catharsis for the aging Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen).
MR. HOLMES directed by Bill Condon and based off of the novel A SLIGHT TRICK OF THE MIND by Mitch Cullin, is a refreshing take on the beloved Sherlock Holmes character. McKellen turns in an absolutely draw-dropping performance as the Alzheimer ridden, legendary detective. While Sanada played the Japanese guy in Japan again, he unquestionably lent the necessary air of brevity and purpose to the drama’s progression.
The film showed at the 45th Annual USA Film Festival in Dallas, TX on April 26, 2015. Mr. Sanada was kind enough to sit down with Knowshi and answer some questions about the film, his role and his extensive career.
Knowshi: Were you pleased with the turnout at last night’s showing?
Hiroyuki: I was specifically happy about the great mixture of the crowd. It was a nice mixture between an American audience and Japanese. I was grateful that so many people came out to watch the movie. For me, seeing in a full theater is exciting. I was very happy about that and we had a great reaction too! I must call Bill (the film’s director).
Knowshi: What made you choose this role?
Hiroyuki: (laughing) I had no reason to say no. When I read the script I was surprised that there was a Japanese role in a Sherlock Holmes historical piece. I never thought about a scenario like that. And I had a deep liking for the main character and his story. Add in Ian McKellen and also the fact that Bill was directing along with Laura Linney…oh my gosh. How could I say no?
Knowshi: There was a point in the film where Umezaki and Holmes were having a conversation about how Umezaki lured him to Japan. There were emotions playing on your face that I couldn’t quite place a finger on. Was it anger, or frustration? What was your character feeling in that moment?
Hiroyuki: Ah…the great reveal. Well, Umezaki kind of places the blame for his father’s disappearance on Holmes. He lost his father long ago so he has somewhat of a father complex. And also he read the entire series of Sherlock Holmes novels, so he’s kind of a hero to him also. But Holmes, really doesn’t seem to want to even acknowledge that he knew his father. So he had to make a poker face in the beginning. But little by little, internally he wanted to know the truth. So there were traces of anger there sure, but it was really played out in a delicate manner.
Knowshi: How do you think Mr. Umezaki would have reacted to receiving Holmes’ letter at the end?
Hiroyuki: I loved that letter. Funny, sad and happy. When I first watched the movie I was moved. Almost crying. For Umezaki, it would have been very important for him and for his life. So he probably would have been very thankful…and yes, I’m sure he would have cried.
Knowshi: How do generally prepare for your roles?
Hiroyuki: I just follow my instinct. I get a sense from the script and use my imagination. The first impression is very important for me and of course I conduct research on each character. I also discuss with the director and just react to other actors while they act. But first impression is most important. I think here (pointing to heart) and somewhere up here (pointing to head)…just feel.
For this movie. I had to train with a coach for the British accent. I read a few books in the Sherlock Holmes series so I could imagine immediately when I read the script. 1947, Japan, British nice guy…totally different world but somehow it was easy to imagine. I went to an antique shop and somehow found some wireframe glasses and the lens prescription matched mine. I wore the glasses to the fitting and the designer loved them and showed them to Bill. So the glasses I’m wearing in the movie were mine!
Knowshi: So the director, Bill Condon was amenable to you making suggestions on character and wardrobe?
Hiroyuki: Oh yes, he was very flexible and very respectful of the Japanese culture. Before I accepted the role I spoke with him about our culture because Hiroshima is a very delicate subject for us. We talked about it and I saw his level of respect so…I believed him.
For example, the name of Umezaki’s father in the novel is Matsuda Umezaki which is fine for the novel but in Japan those are two last names so it would have been weird for me to say. So I asked him if we could change the father’s name in the film and he said yes. The author agreed and we made the change. Also, there were a lot of extras on set who did not know how to wear kimono or how to use the props so I was able to make suggestions that would help lend to the accuracy and authenticity to the film. Bill gave me the go ahead so I kind of made sure things looked right on set.
Ian also told me thank you a couple times but that’s part of my job so it was no problem. I’m glad he listened to my suggestions. That kind of respect to other cultures is very important. I was very lucky to work with that kind of director.
Knowshi: Stepping away from the film for a moment, you were playing a character named Shinbei in one of the first films I ever saw you in. You have a very extensive career, and you’ve only gotten more handsome…let’s just say that. But do you ever look at yourself on screen from then to now and say…”But I still want to do this..or I still have to conquer that”?
Hiroyuki: Wow, Legend of Eight Samurai…that was almost like 30 years ago. At that time, people were only offering me action movies. But I learned fighting skills just for acting. Same with dancing, singing, horseback riding, martial arts…etc. For me, it was at the same level but in that period people called me action star…but I just wanted to be an actor. (chuckling) So I chose a few dramas, comedies, and love stories without the action. Then after I turned 40 I started the action again!
And then I tried to find the best balance between drama and action. Between acting and martial arts. If the director wants me to do action at any time I’ll be ready. But I want to use my skill as an actor.
What I got from speaking with Mr. Sanada is that he is an actor plain and simple. Action is fine but being typecast as an action star is not. And really, we the audience would only benefit from seeing him work his magic in various roles that showcase the multitude of his acting abilities. He’s awesome. His time on the screen in MR. HOLMES was too short for my taste.
So Hollywood listen up. We need more Hiroyuki Sanada dammit! And not only when you need a Japanese guy living in Japan while doing Japanese things. He has Shakespearean chops and experience… so cast him in more dramas and fill the screen with him. Set our hearts and imaginations ablaze with Sanada’s piercing gaze and fierce charisma!