Actor Tadanobu Asano first started blowing up thanks to being a fixture of avant-garde Japanese cinema, taking leading roles in films like Electric Dragon 80.000 V, Ichi the Killer, and Survive Style 5+. His name is synonymous with a breakthrough era of genre and convention-bending films with interesting, often-flawed protagonists or anti-heroes, and he's worked with some of the country's most notable directors and producers, including Takashi Miike and Takeshi “Beat” Kitano.
He has recently transitioned to international screens and more major roles—first with the role of Hogun the Grim in Thor, a steely warrior portrayed by Asano throughout the franchise. Part of Thor's mythological cohorts, the Warriors Three, Hogun, along with Fandral and Volstagg, are often part of Thor's comic adventures, and their inclusion in the Marvel Cinematic Universe certainly gave a lot of fan service to longtime fans of the Norse-inspired hero.
Thor was Asano's first foray into American cinema, which is a process he finds entirely different from Japanese filmmaking, where he's given more freedom to think about character development and self-expression through the role. It led to other roles in major American movies, like Battleship alongside the likes of Liam Neeson, Alexander Skarsgård, and Rihanna, and the 2013 fantasy film 47 Ronin starring Keanu Reeves and fellow Japanese actor Hiroyuki Sanada.
Next on his plate, Asano is co-starring with Jared Leto in the Netflix film The Outsider. A post-WWII period piece, the film sees Asano acting as Leto's mentor character, ingratiating him in the mysterious, honor-bound world of the Japanese Yakuza. During a recent trip to Los Angeles, Asano met with Brain Dead co-founder Kyle Ng, who had the actor wear some of the latest pieces from his Spring/Summer 2018 collection—as well as a few pieces from Brain Dead's latest collaboration with Japanese label Sasquatchfabrix. Ng interviews Asano on his longtime drawing hobby, what he's learned about the craft of acting, and what it was like growing up within the seemingly stricter confines of Japanese society.
When did you start getting into drawing?
I was very young, maybe three or four. My father wanted to be a painter and there was always paint materials around. My brother and I were always using his equipment. When I was in preschool, there was an art class and my teacher taught me how to paint and draw. I liked these kinds of things from that day on, it was the first way for me to express something creatively.
What’s the inspiration for a lot of your drawings?
I like California’s strong sunlight, I get more shadow from objects and people. I like working with shadows.
Do you draw just for fun, or do you ever show?
For fun. I’ve had two exhibits in Japan, but never in the United States.
When did you start getting into acting?
When I was 14. My father gave up painting and fell into a career managing actors. After some time, he gave me the chance to audition for a drama series on TV, and I got it. It was a very, very small part but that was my starting point.
What was the part of acting that you felt you really liked?
I didn't know anything about acting at that time. And then fortunately I met many so many great directors and talented actors; they taught me many things. I really appreciated their support.
I understand that you kind of grew up in punk rock and hardcore?
Yeah. And at that age a lot of my friends were in the punk and hardcore scene. I first started playing in a band when I was 16.
What were some of the bands that you were inspired by?
Bands like Lip Cream, Gauze, Death Side. At the time, very underground hardcore bands.
Was it weird to be an actor and punker at the time?
Yes. My friends would put some pressure on me and intimidatingly ask: “You are an actor?... but you like punk?” I felt ashamed of being an actor then, but I didn't know why. Those two things really just didn’t mix at that time.
Do you think you felt like you were more of a punk kid than an actor?
I wanted to be a musician, but my father didn’t understand that world and I remember him saying to me: “No. You're too stupid and you should keep acting.”
The coolest thing about you (as someone who admires your work), is that, when you’re in movies, it doesn't feel like you're some regular actor. You have the spirit of a punk and a look that shows your artistic sensibilities, and it's obvious there's more to you.
It was very helpful for me to play music and go to shows. In my youth, there were no “cool” actors around me near my age. Image matters a lot in Japan and no one wants to be seen in the wrong crowd. I grew up with my best friends being musicians, and they taught me many things—bad things too. Things like drug use were heavy in that scene, which is much more severe in Japan. Living close to that world was risky but I was exposed to a lot growing up and I appreciate seeing the things I saw.
Being casted in movies like Electric Dragon and Ichi the Killer, did your experiences help you decide on what films you wanted to work on?
Yes, but honestly, I was lucky to land those roles. When I was 21, I got married to my now ex-wife, who’s career in music had really taken off shortly after our marriage. My life and environment totally changed. Alongside that, the movie industry was getting bigger, and more people were watching movies. In turn, I got a lot of attention from the movie industry.
Coming from independent films, like a Takashi Miike movie, how did you break into the mainstream movie industry?
When I hit around 30, some of the independent film industry I had worked with had become largely successful, these once lesser known names had now become major film studios, directors and producers. I wanted to do more with my career and thought it was a good chance to make the shift. I was able to keep up and work with friends. We trusted each other and this kept our styles intact.
Did those independent film roles start feeling too easy?
In my earlier roles my technique was more natural—less intensive, more apart of me and who I was. But these major releases demanded I let go of that with the need to fit the character. When I was younger I didn’t think I’d be into it, it really didn’t seem cool to me. After experiencing that challenge though it really drove me, it was a good shift.
What was the first American film you worked on?
Thor. I did some international work in Hong Kong, Thailand and Russia prior but that was the first American film.
How did you get the part of Hogun the Grim?
After I did Mongol, a Genghis Khan film, an American producer offered me the chance to come to America. While on that trip he introduced me to a US-based agent, and then I was given the chance through an audition.
What are the differences between Japanese and American filmmaking?
In Japan, directors are incredibly specific. For example, they give commands like: “Talk this like this," “Write this like this," “Walk this this." Less room for interpretation or personal additions to a character. In America, directors always ask, “What do you want to do?” In Japan, since they give you so much direction, you don’t have to really think about it, but in the US you actually have to bring personality and mannerisms to the character. Some people in Japan see me doing blockbuster movies and they're like, “He sold out. He’s doing major things now.” But the reality is it’s very hard to survive in the American film industry, because there is actually more talent, skill and competition. Considerably more than when I am working Japan. I have learned a number of invaluable lessons and developed a lot through working here.
Were there any actors in Thor that inspired you in how they work?
Tom Hiddleston, who played Loki. Yeah, he’s a great actor.
Growing up, was there an American actor that you were inspired by?
Interesting. And what were the movies that inspired you?
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. My father told me, “You should see this movie.” And yeah, I saw it and it was good and something I still very much remember.
You have this new movie coming out on Netflix in March, The Outsider. How did you get involved?
Outside of my role, I was actually pretty involved in the beginning. I was in LA and was introduced to one of the producers. Soon after, I introduced him to Takashi Miike. Miike was set to direct it and this would have been the first time we’d work together since Ichi the Killer. Miike added on Tom Hardy, but something fell through and Miike and Hardy left the project. But it carried on and Jared Leto and a director from outside of Japan joined in their place.
I mean, Jared Leto seems very similar in a way, as he makes music and has a lot of different interest. Did you connect with him pretty well?
Yeah. I wanted to connect with him more. He’s a good guy, but it’s a little hard to read what he’s thinking.
Did it feel more like shooting an American film or Japanese film?
Stylistically more American. But the whole story was filmed in Japan.
Can you explain the story?
A soldier from the US comes to Japan, this character gets captured and finds himself in a jail cell with my character who is in the Yakuza. I ask for his help in staging seppuku to have them release me from the cell and make an escape. In exchange, I let him know I’ll be back to release him. From there, the soldier is released and survives by navigating through one of the largest crime syndicates in the world.
Is it a sensitive topic to make film about the Yakuza?
It tends to be okay unless you use real names or real places. But they are more sensitive about how it’s visualized or how the story is told. A lot of American directors try to create Yakuza films, but they get it wrong. I think this tends to upset people.
It's really interesting that you still play music. And now being a bigger name in Japan, is your music more popular or still underground?
Still underground. Underground, yeah.
But, do you feel like your fan base is totally different?
Yes. When I was younger, I didn’t really want to show that I did music. Now I'm talking about my music more on TV and in public, and more people are checking it out.
You’ve done a lot of stuff with Wacko Maria and Jun Takahashi. How did you meet them?
When I was a teenager, I was going to [Jun Takahashi's] shows with the Tokyo Sex Pistols. I liked his music. I also auditioned for UNDERCOVER’s early runway shows.
That’s cool. What Japanese brands did you like, and/or what Japanese brands inspire you?
I really appreciated brands like UNDERCOVER, but now in terms of those fashion labels, I think I’m kind of old. I’m not over it, but I love going to vintage clothing stores. I also have my own label, I just produce what I want to.
Really? What’s it called?
Do you sell anywhere?
Online only for now.
What kind of stuff do you make?
I was wearing a suit the other day that I made. Essentially, I just think of something and end up making it.
Japan is known for having a very strict culture. Do you feel that you’ve always been really connected to it, or more of an outsider?
Growing up in my family was different from others. Even recently for example, my dad went to prison for possession of speed and crystal meth. My dad used to tell me: “It’s okay to do bad things, but outside when you meet people just be cool. Don’t show that side.” It was odd, but my family tended to view society as an obstacle, always working around it.
Regardless of society or culture, you have to do something that you like. As a child I had blonde hair and light-colored eyes, I stood out, so I've always been treated as a bit of an outsider.
Now read our interview with Brain Dead's Kyle Ng on cultivating authentic counter-culture.