Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa has played so many bad guys over the course of his career that, even though he’s only an actor playing a part, it’s still somewhat surprising to find that he’s a super nice guy. Tagawa arrived in Hollywood in the mid-1980s and has carved out a tremendous career in film and television, including memorable roles in such motion pictures as Showdown In Little Tokyo, Rising Sun, and Mortal Kombat, not to mention TV work on Nash Bridges and the Disney Channel movie Johnny Tsunami. Currently, Tagawa can be seen in the new Amazon series, The Man In The High Castle.
The Man In The High Castle (2015-present)—“Nobusuke Tagomi”
Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa: Tagomi is an unusual Japanese character, in that Japanese are, in reality, very conservative and sublime outwardly, but inwardly there’s so much going on. [Laughs.] A volcano’s worth of emotion and depth of spirit. This depiction isn’t one we’ve really seen in Hollywood so far. It’s probably the most in-depth character I’ve played, which excites me to no end, but it also offered me the opportunity to draw on being Japanese.
I’ve had a slightly different experience than most Asian and Asian-American actors in Hollywood. I was born in Tokyo, left when I was 5, and was raised in the U.S. on a U.S. Army post during the 1950s and 1960s, at a time when it wasn’t real popular to be Japanese—because of the war, of course—and really had to sort of roll my own reality and make some decisions at a very young age about how I wanted to proceed in what was a… complicated experiment. [Laughs.]
Tagomi represents very much of that kind of East-West energy, being Eastern in a Western environment, albeit an environment that is an occupied U.S. environment. He speaks English, he carries on with diplomats, he’s very much in the Western world and feels very much from an Eastern perspective. The East-West paradigm is nothing new to me—it’s something I’ve dealt with my whole life—so that really gives me an opportunity to represent it at a very deep level and provides a very wide perspective of being in America and being Japanese.
The A.V. Club: Had you been familiar with the Philip K. Dick novel prior to entering the project?
CHT: No, I hadn’t. I chose not to dig deeply into reading the book. I read parts, but… I’m a very subliminal kind of actor. [Laughs.] I’m not a method actor, I don’t write my character’s history or all those kinds of things. I’m more about the 90 percent of the brain that is subconscious. I like to just pick certain pieces, let it soak in, and then let it kind of emerge out. Otherwise, I chose to just find out as it went along.
Plus, so many adaptations of books really seem to take quite a butchering when it comes to being visualized by Hollywood. And, sure enough, there are parts of this story that are very different: Some are made more for visuals and some more for drama. So knowing that was coming, I just stayed open and light on my feet rather than get attached to what I thought I knew about Philip K. Dick and the book. But subsequently, during the production, I did reference it and kept opening up my subconscious to the story.
AVC: Did you find it interesting conceptually?
CHT: Conceptually, it was way off the hook. [Laughs.] It was unbelievable! We’re talking about an American citizen 17 years after the war creating a scenario whereby the enemy won. It just was absurd to me that someone would write in that fashion, but it also very much was an example—at the highest level—of why I have such love for this country. We are at our absolute peak when we are creative and coming up with scenarios. In every aspect of society, including business and anywhere that creativity can be used, we can be—or we used to be, anyway—the most innovative country, because we weren’t restricted by artificial limitations. But once we get a little too settled in this country—I’ll get off the soapbox in a second—and things don’t require that creativity, we tend to start to limit our soul and our spirit. We are made to be wild, free, and creative, and this clearly was a symbol of that kind of energy in America. I’m just so proud to be a part of it and honored to be part of it and to be able to have some input into what it might be like from a Japanese perspective. It’s been a massive journey.
In my history, the projects that I work on have typically leaned toward this direction rather than “just go do a job and it’s over.” It always seems to reflect a certain spiritual growth within my life—I learn from it, I grow from it—and this project was definitely one of those. I also work from a very personal perspective of the world, a very wide view, coming down to the character, so I look at issues that we’re dealing with on the planet today and how they would relate to anything in any project that I do. Typically, that provides for a lot of growth both as a person and as an actor. This project parallels so many things that are happening now. It was written in 1962, yet it holds a relevance to things that are happening today. I couldn’t have been more blessed to have this moment with this particular project, and… I’m just very excited about that.
Big Trouble In Little China (1986)—“Wing Kong Man” (uncredited)
Armed Response (1986)—“Toshi”
AVC: It’s difficult to discern what your first on-camera role was, but it looks like it was either in Big Trouble In Little China or Armed Response.
CHT: Yeah, those were at the beginning of my career. I was an extra in Big Trouble In Little China. It was my first job in Hollywood, and it was my only extra job, because two people who were in the production took my pictures to other projects, and one was Armed Response. It certainly wasn’t a speaking role. And I don’t know if you were aware, but I’m actually a healer—I focus on breathing as a therapy—so it was odd for my first job after the extra job to be playing a torturing acupuncturist in Armed Response. [Laughs.] Welcome to Hollywood: It doesn’t matter who you are, we just need you to do this, so this is what you’ll do! But that was the job where I got my Screen Actors Guild card.
So, yeah, those two were at the very beginning, one right after the other, and then the third project that I went onto was The Last Emperor, which was the most incredible experience and an incredible way to really begin a career. If I had died and gone to heaven, I would’ve died happy, thinking, “Well, at least I’ve done something in Hollywood!” [Laughs.]
The Last Emperor (1987)—“Chang”
AVC: It must have been amazing to be just out of the gate and suddenly working with Bernardo Bertolucci.
CHT: It was mind boggling. You know, to suddenly be working with one of the top-10 directors in the world, plus the film was in China, I almost blurted out, “How much do I have to pay?” It was just like a dream come true. That was an amazing experience.
AVC: Was there anyone in the cast who you were in awe of?
CHT: In The Last Emperor, certainly Peter O’Toole. In my career, there have been two: Peter O’Toole was one, and the other was Sean Connery in Rising Sun. They were absolute heroes of Hollywood in my mind.
I’d seen Peter O’Toole in Lawrence Of Arabia when I was 12. My brother and I went to see it in Tokyo. It had an intermission, which was rare in those days, because it was three hours, but we sat through it, and I was just blown away. The imagery was so powerful, and the emotion that came through… I was so overwhelmed by it that my brother and I went in to see it a second time! We left the theater, went right back to the box office, and went back in for another three hours of Lawrence Of Arabia.
AVC: Did you get the opportunity to relate that story to O’Toole himself?
CHT: You know, I didn’t, but… it was a very interesting relationship, now that you mention it. [Laughs.] I was so looking forward to meeting him, but not knowing what the, uh, rules of engagement were, I simply kept my distance. But at one point when he first came to Beijing and came to the set, I didn’t know he was there.
I was dealing with the 11-year-old boy who was playing the Emperor. He was a first-time actor, and once he got wind of how much importance he had and saw how everybody was kissing his behind, he started sort of taking advantage of that. It was sad because, although it was my first big film, I’m the kind of person who’s always about, “If I can help, if there’s anything I can do, then I want to help.” Well, before filming, the kids—there was one who was 5, and then there was [Tsou] Tijger, who was 11 or 12 at the time—we would have breakfast together, just to become familiar with each other, so that when we got on the set, at least they had someone they could lean on for anything. So we became quite close before the production. But in time, this 11-year-old kid started acting up. He was from New York, so he knew how to take it to the limit. [Laughs.]
I’d be helping him with dialogue, helping him with this and that, but soon—because he was shorter and I’d kind of lean over him—he started to let spit come out of his mouth. It wasn’t just one big wad: He was spreading spit all over. So I grabbed him by his costume, close to his neck—it wasn’t strangling him—and I lifted him up to my eye level and said, “I’m your friend. You don’t have to do this to me.” I have to say, it was not typical behavior for me, but I thought he needed a real shock. He needed a spanking, but I didn’t think that was going to work there on the set. [Laughs.] So I just picked him up, told him that, and when I turned around after I was done, Peter O’Toole was right there. He just walked away.
So the first time he and I were on the set together, we were rehearsing a scene in which I’m interrupting a conversation between the Emperor and Peter O’Toole’s character. I try to interrupt the conversation and say, “It’s time for the Emperor’s rest.” And he just kind of glanced to the side, looked at me, and said, “Piss off.” Here’s my hero! I’m, like, “Oh, shit! What’s wrong with this picture?” But I wasn’t intimidated. I had spent time on Venice Beach, and it’s a down-to-earth place. [Laughs.] I used to be a street performer, and performances on Venice Beach, it’s like playing the Apollo: They let you know if they don’t like you! So when he said that to me, I just stood there. I thought, “Okay, old man…” And I made a gesture that—even though I was standing right next to him—he couldn’t see: I made like I’d pulled down my zipper and was peeing on his leg. I mean, he said, “Piss off,” so…
Anyway, I started doing that, and the Italian crew members around him started laughing, and that forced him to turn around. When he saw that, he walked off the set. So we got into this trip where, whenever he would come on the set, I would walk off, and whenever I’d come on the set, he’d walk off, and… it got to be quite a film. It was a pissing match, so to speak. But finally we had some more dialogue, and he leaned over after and said, “That was very nice.” So I thought, “Well, cool, at least we’re getting somewhere.” By the end we became friends. You know, not “let’s go have a drink,” but certainly to the point where we were nice to each other on set. And he really did influence me a lot. It really affected me when he passed away.
Rising Sun (1993)—“Eddie Sakamura”
CHT: Sean Connery was the other one I worked with who influenced me quite a lot, certainly with the Bond movies, and his presence is just way too much. [Laughs.] He plays it so over-the-top manly that it’s overpowering. I like that. There are very few real men in Hollywood. There are a lot of wannabe men in Hollywood. But when you have that Hollywood mentality, there aren’t a lot of real, grounded people. Sean Connery was certainly an example of that, though. He’d been in the Merchant Marines, and he had an incident with the Broccolis when he went in for an interview for Bond and was just telling it like it was, and I guess they just didn’t like it. So they weren’t really considering him after that. But as he was walking across the parking lot, they looked out the window and they saw him walking. He’d been a bodybuilder, he’d been a Merchant Marine, and the way he walked… That’s why they gave him the job. And what can you say about his Bond? I absolutely loved it. That sort of energy really carried through my career, too. O’Toole influenced the sensitivity with his portrayal of a man who had deep emotions, and then Bond was the consummate man, so those two energies fit the two parts of my personality.
AVC: And how was it to actually work with Connery?
CHT: Well, you know, everybody was, like, running up to him and trying to have a minute with him or to kiss his ass even more so than the typical actor. [Laughs.] So I just stayed away. I didn’t want to be construed as somebody trying to get part of his time. He recognized that, and I’m sure he appreciated it. He acknowledged it.
By the time it came to do my first scene with him, Wesley Snipes was in the scene, so I’m talking dialogue and rehearsing with Wesley Snipes, Sean’s kind of moving around the room, and when it comes to his line, I turn around in the direction that I remember him being in and his face was about two feet away. [Laughs.] And when I turned around and looked at him, he has that eyebrow that he lifts… I mean, it could reach heaven. I just got kind of overwhelmed and flabbergasted, and. I couldn’t say my lines. And Wesley says, “Ah, don’t worry: He does that to everybody.” But slowly, as we worked along, my character certainly was friends with him, so I was able to open up naturally, and we became friends.
He was amazing. He was so professional, which is not always the case in Hollywood for as big a star as he is. There would be stars where, when they would be doing your close-up, they wouldn’t be there. They’d just have someone read for them. But not Sean. He was there every time, right next to the camera when the camera was shooting my close-up. That’s always impressed me. Not that I wouldn’t have done it anyway, but I’ve always made sure that that’s been the case for me, that I’m always there for the other actor.
The Art Of War (2000)—“David Chan”
AVC: In addition to working with Wesley Snipes on Rising Sun, you were also both in The Art of War.
CHT: We were. I really like Wesley. He definitely has that street side to him, but he’s a serious actor—he’d gone to school for it—and he definitely knew what he was doing. He’d done a film called New Jack City, and I had done Showdown In Little Tokyo, and when I saw him, I said, “New Jack City!” And he said, “Showdown In Little Tokyo!” [Laughs.] So we immediately hit it off, both having played bad guys, and throughout filming we talked. He had been a martial artist for 20 years, so we talked about that.
I don’t think I’ve ever said this in an interview, but at one point I said, “Hey, Wesley: black and yellow.” And he looked at me, and he goes, “Whoa.” I said, “Yeah, if you and I walked down the street, we would represent a certain kind of energy that we haven’t seen in Hollywood,” because this was certainly before Rush Hour. So we talked about that idea. It still really hasn’t come about enough, I don’t think.
I think we as Americans, we’re still in the throes of growing up, so we still have yet to discover our identity. We’re certainly not where we were in 1776, when there were slaves, but we still have a lot of racial issues. With the racial makeup changing so rapidly here, with the minority soon to become the majority—if they aren’t already, but I think they projected it’ll happen in 2036—I think we definitely need to start recognizing that there are other races in this country with second-generation, third-generation, and even deeper lineages in America, and that it’s not surprising to find an ancient-looking Japanese kind of guy speaking English fluently. I had that growing up. It was, like, “Wow, you speak English so well!” “Thank you! I fucking should: I’ve been here for a little while!” [Laughs.] It’s something that we’re not fully addressing. It’s something that’s sort of organically growing.
So when Wesley and I had that discussion, it was just a thought that I put into Wesley’s brain about other possibilities than always existing in supporting roles to the majority-culture actors. But it’s still growing. In fact, I think new media is going to make a big difference with injecting more people of color into Hollywood and non-Hollywood. In fact, non-Hollywood is only going to be getting bigger with this new media.
Tekken (2010) / Tekken: Kazuya’s Revenge (2014)—“Heihachi Mishima”
AVC: How familiar were you with the world of Tekken before signing on to that film?
CHT: I wasn’t. I missed that whole video game. My son, he’s huge into it. When I did Mortal Kombat, I thought I should at least try playing the game with him, but he beat me so bad that I just quit. [Laughs.] Since then, I haven’t really indulged in video games, but I was familiar with the game and its popularity.
The one thing about video game audiences—and I certainly got a huge taste of it when doing Mortal Kombat—is that the video game experience is very personal. It’s very singular… or it was before multi-player games, at least. When Mortal Kombat came out, I likened the kids who played the game to being monks, and with the movie, we gave them all a church to come to. Mortal Kombat really came at the right moment, right at the beginning of the game, and that attachment gave them something to cheer about, something to get excited about.
Tekken, on the other hand, had similar players who were totally attached to it, but the film, I’m sad to say, did not achieve the level of expectation that the players had. They were pumped with excitement, but when the film didn’t quite deliver… It wasn’t bad for a video-game inspired action movie, but when you’re playing to the video-game audience, you’re really looking at high risk, and sure enough, we got a lot of criticism. Not about my character in particular, but certainly about the game in general. And the second Tekken was a favor to the producer, who was a friend of mine, and it worked for him to add to his library. I was only there for a few days, and I wasn’t as expectant of something from the second one, considering the results of the first one.
So, yeah, not quite the same as the Mortal Kombat experience. I was excited before we started Tekken was that I would be in two franchises. And not only in them, but playing the lead bad guy in both. But the characters were very different: Shang Tsung was a magical sorcerer, Heihachi was the head of a corporation, and one was Chinese and one was Japanese, so the mindset was very different for me to play them. So I was excited about the possibilities. But it never got anywhere close to Mortal Kombat in terms of the response, so I think no more franchises. [Laughs.]
Planet Of The Apes (2001)—“Krull”
CHT: I was hyper-excited about playing an ape. [Laughs.] For as much as being an Asian can lead to being stereotyped—and certainly I’ve done stereotypical grade-B action movies—I played a good guy in License To Kill, a bad guy in Showdown In Little Tokyo, the only Japanese in the Mexican mafia in American Me, an alien in Space Rangers, a police lieutenant in Nash Bridges… For a potentially stereotype-based actor, these roles are not stereotypical. I’ve had quite an interesting career that way, and Krull was a massively exciting experience.
The only odd thing was doing four hours of makeup every time I worked, which definitely led to a lot of hardships. [Laughs.] It was just so hot! Especially in the studio, when there was a sequence when the spaceship lands in a pool of water. They had to keep the water warm so the woman who went in wasn’t going to freeze to death, but I was sweating like crazy!
But I got to go to ape school and learn how to run like an ape and to ride like an ape, and all of those things were really exciting. Actors are always looking for ways to build a character, but there was already so much built in to this character. The weird thing about it, though, was that I was the good ape through the whole film, but by the end, the bad apes killed me, and they’d been planning to bring Krull back.
Showdown In Little Tokyo (1991)—“Funekei Yoshida”
CHT: My major intention for coming to Hollywood—besides the fact that I was just enamored with acting from a very young age—was that I was tired of seeing wimpy Asian actors. Because the power of Hollywood, as we know, is that it can create these images in people’s minds, and they live with those images for their whole life. “Yeah, I saw it in a movie!” And they think that’s the way it is. So I was determined to change that image.
People say, “How come you play bad guys so much?” And I say, “Well, have you seen many Asian good-guy roles?” Especially back in ’86, when I first got to Hollywood. There were just no Asian roles. It was just the beginning of the bad-guy era. There was a movie called Year Of The Dragon, with John Lone, that sort of brought it to prominence, and all of a sudden all the TV shows, everybody had to have an Asian bad guy coming through their revolving door of bad guys. That’s when I came in. But I was clear: “I don’t want to play businessmen with bifocal glasses and cameras, so if you’re going to give me an Asian bad guy to play, then I’m going to give you the baddest Asian bad guy you’ve ever seen, and you’re not going to forget that I was in the film. We know that all the bad guys die in the end, but before I die, I’m going to give you something so scary that you will remember me.” Because that’s the worst thing for an actor: when you say to someone, “Yeah, I was in that movie,” and they say, “You were?” [Laughs.] That’s the worst. So I always made sure that never happened.
Bruce Lee was the first guy to bring film recognition of Asian men not being wimps, so it made me want to be as powerful as he was. So he was an inspiration, as were the Japanese samurai movies of Toshiro Mifune. The power and depth of Japanese acting certainly inspired me, so I was determined that Hollywood was going to get a taste of that, that Americans were going to get a taste of Japanese action. And Showdown In Little Tokyo was my first real chance to do that.
I had a little apprehension in cutting the girl’s head off, though. [Laughs.] I thought, “Why is that really necessary?” I knew what it would do. It’d certainly make you hate the person. But it was a bit radical for Hollywood stuff. But, no, they wanted to keep it in, so I did it.
A distinction of that film, besides being my first big studio film, was that I had a most intricate and elaborate set of tattoos. The guys who did The Illustrated Man had at that point done the most extensive tattoos in a film, but the character for Showdown In Little Tokyo had more. Walking in, they told me it would take 12 hours to do those tattoos. It’s, like, “12 hours? An entire workday to put them on?” It took several people: one to silk-screen them and put the patterns onto my body, two people to paint them… It was an ordeal just holding still.
AVC: How was it working with Dolph Lundgren and Brandon Lee?
CHT: I don’t know if many people realize that Dolph Lundgren is a chemical engineer. He’s not a dumb blond guy. This guy is smart and he’s a martial artist. He definitely pumped up for the movie, and he was pumping weights in between takes. But there’s one thing about weights with action movies: Once your muscles get that tight, it’s sometimes hard to stop your movement, especially if you’re trying to move with some strength, and with the swords in the film… Granted, they’re not steel swords, they’re aluminum swords, but if you swing them hard enough, they can cut you. And there were a couple of times when he got awfully close. [Laughs.] But he was a good guy. We got along well. And Brandon was one of my heroes by association, because of his dad, so we talked about that. He was just the sweetest guy. He had a really wonderful nature. So did Dolph, for that matter. They were both powerful in their way, but we’re not talking about hardcore menacing guys. So, yeah, it was a great experience. I had a lot of fun with those guys.
L.A. Takedown (1989)—“Hugh Benny”
CHT: Yeah, that was right in the middle of my TV heyday, and that was a pilot for a series that didn’t quite make it through to the series point. Michael Mann is an interesting guy. He’s from Chicago, and I’ve since worked with a couple of producer-director guys from Chicago, and… they’re definitely not from Hollywood. [Laughs.] They’re real guys. They don’t mind telling you what’s up. And not because they’re your typical full-of-power people. They’re just that way in Chicago, I guess. So I respected that. He knew what he wanted, and it was cool to play that role. Subsequently, he did The Last Of The Mohicans, and he was asking for pictures of me and stuff, but then it became clear that they needed to have a real Native American [for the role of Magua], and I really enjoyed Wes Studi’s performance. He was unbelievable.
AVC: When L.A. Takedown eventually evolved into Heat, were you surprised to see Henry Rollins playing your role? He’s not exactly your doppelganger.
CHT: You know, I didn’t know much about Henry Rollins until I saw a few episodes of his show where he was doing reviews, and then I saw him in Dogtown (and Z-Boys), and… well, you know, I spent a lot of time in Venice doing that street-performance stuff, so I felt like I knew him right away. [Laughs.] He was great to play that role. He’s more of a real person, certainly, than an actor, and I’m sure that’s what Michael Mann enjoyed, too—it needed that kind of weight, especially around De Niro and Pacino—so I was happy to see that he was in the movie.
Space Rangers (1993-1994)—“Zylyn”
CHT: Awwwwwww. That one is so dear to my heart. I interviewed so many times. [Laughs.] The producer, Pen Densham, had done Robin Hood with Kevin Costner, and this was one of his first series. He was so adamant about the character speaking with an accent and not being Japanese, and I tried a bunch of stuff, but the casting director was getting frustrated listening to him and all these accents. Finally, I came up with a Scottish one—inspired by Sean Connery—with little bits and pieces thrown in, and that’s the one we went with.
He had to wear a device around his neck to control his violence, and to me, he was a samurai alien. Certainly in warrior cultures and around the world, they’re called on to physically defend people, and it’s just a different mentality, a different perspective. Native Americans say, “It’s a good day to die,” and samurai live their life to die honorably, so that kind of energy creates a certain mindset of reactiveness with control to a point. And after that, it’s gone. It reminded me the days before I started studying martial arts. I had temper problems. I could definitely fly off the handle. Being raised in the south in 1956 definitely gave me some memories to latch onto for negative emotions. [Laughs.] I could relate to a certain part of that, and I could relate also to the integrity and the honor of what samurai values were about, so it was another mixture that very much represented who I was.
Pearl Harbor (2001)—“Cmdr. Minoru Genda”
CHT: You know, half my family was from the Imperial Japanese Navy, and the other half was U.S. Army, and I was raised on Army posts during my childhood, so I pretty much began my life with a split-brain sort of thing. [Laughs.] But Pearl Harbor was very much a thorn in my side growing up. December 7 was not a wonderful day to go to school, and to have that sort of notoriety between Thanksgiving and Christmas… I mean, it could really ruin your week. In fact, there were times when I purposely didn’t go to school because of Pearl Harbor Day, because certainly there was enough media about it every year to remind everybody. So when I heard they were going to make the movie, I thought, “Oh, no, please not another Pearl Harbor mention!”
But when I found out the nature of the story, it was really a love story. They were sort of forming it around the success of Titanic and hoping for Titanic’s box office. [Laughs.] The oddest part, though, is that the casting director was in the middle of talking to us about the project, and he goes, “There really isn’t a Japanese section of the film. They really have to put that in.” And they went to great lengths to not insult the Japanese, because Japanese box office could’ve been huge. So it didn’t get derogatory, it didn’t do anything negative, so I thought, “Good, then I can play this role.”
Like I said, I don’t generally do much research at first, I kind of get into it and feel it out, but that’s one subject that I spent a lot of time reading about growing up, because it created such a negative image of the Japanese without really knowing the Japanese. To this day, Americans really don’t understand the Japanese nature, but it’s not an easy thing to understand. [Laughs.] But I’d done the research, and I knew this character was a real historical figure, so it was important to give it my absolute attention, but it was also important with certain lines to play it in a way that allowed Americans to relate a little bit better. Mako, who played Admiral Yamamoto, he was an amazing person and actor, and it was great to work with him. He was very interesting. But there were still some… moments on the film, though.
This is another part of my career, but playing Japanese characters and being in environments that are Japanese, like a character’s apartment or whatever, if you have directors or art directors who just don’t know what’ s what with Japanese culture, then pretty soon something’s just passed through. I’ve been through many times where I’ve pointed out the incorrectness of so much of what’s been done to a set. But on Pearl Harbor, I’d heard horror stories about Michael Bay, so when I got to the set and saw him going off on people and yelling and just getting crazy, I just decided, “Stay out of the way. Don’t say anything.” But I just couldn’t help it this one time, and this is actually what set me into a good relationship with him.
Like I said, they were majorly trying to please Japan, and the centerpiece of the set was a map of Pearl Harbor that was probably 20 feet across and had the longitude and latitude lines. I said, “Michael, we can’t use this set.” He said, “What do you mean we can’t use it?” And he just… I mean, he started going off! And I’m thinking, “Holy shit…” But I had to say it.
“Michael, you do not want to shoot this scene. All the writing in Japanese…”
“Yeah? What about it?”
“It’s upside down.”
So he goes, “Oh. Okay. All right.” And then he walked off. And I thought, “Oh, shit, I survived that one.” [Laughs.]
We were in Corpus Christi, which is the home of the USS Lexington, which was one of the three aircraft carriers that had left Pearl Harbor three days before the attack. There’s a whole bunch of conspiracy theories about that, because the aircraft carriers were the main target of the Japanese, so to send them out of port… It’s no coincidence that they weren’t there when the havoc went on. But they used the Lexington one day as a Japanese aircraft carrier, where the Japanese planes took off for the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Then the next day they used it when Billy Mitchell took off to bomb Tokyo, which is typical Hollywood stuff to make the most use of a set. But the day we were shooting the Japanese part, they in fact had put a Japanese flag over the spot that they’d left to commemorate the kamikaze attack when this old man who was a veteran of the war—his three brothers had died in the war—was yelling and screaming at the top of his lungs, “Take that Jap shit off of that ship!” He was just going off. Finally, when he said, “I’m gonna kill those Japs!” they called the cops. And he’s an old guy, he was harmless, but it was enough to get him taken away. I felt bad for him.
There was another time when we were on the set of that ship while we were shooting the Japanese scenes, and there was a scene that was written to have a table on the deck of the aircraft carrier where the admiral and myself were sitting and having tea. We’re not English, for God’s sake. In a war situation, you do not have tea on the deck of a battleship. I said, “Michael, the Japanese will just flip out at how incorrect this scene is.” And he was, like, going [Makes growling sounds.] I said, “Michael, please trust me on this one.” And he looked at me, stared at me, and he goes, “Okay.” And we just ended up doing the scene standing up on the deck, which is at least more likely than them sitting down at a table.
It was really weird doing that film, after all the stuff that I went through growing up in the South, all the crap that I took for being Japanese, and knowing that the Japanese were not the shit people that they’d said. When I was on the deck and we were shooting the scene where I’m watching these zeroes go by through my binoculars… I mean, I got a little choked up. I thought it was amazing that they were doing a film where the Japanese weren’t looking wimpy, and I felt really proud to be Japanese. although the act itself wasn’t something to be proud of. But whatever it was about that moment on the deck, I just flashed back through my entire life and how I was always taught to be proud to be Japanese, to never surrender and all that stuff, and it all came up in that one moment. It was amazing.
Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987)—“Mandarin Bailiff”
AVC: Not that it’s a big role, but there are worse things to have on your résumé than the first episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
CHT: I was happy to be part of the project, in the first episode, when Q came in, and I knew intuitively that it was going to be an important project, if maybe not that it was going to be quite that big. But when I put on the wardrobe, I just felt, like, “Ugh…” I was little apprehensive. It was so stereotypic, with the little Fu Manchu mustache. I thought, “Shit.” But then I went, “You’d better let all this stuff go, because you’ve got to recite your line.” And it was only one line, for God’s sake. But I was definitely rumbling back and forth about it. I had to do the line a couple of times. But I’ve gone to a few Star Trek conventions, and even at Comic-Con people ask about it. They even made a trading card for it! [Laughs.] That’s something that’s been kind of cool, too, about some of the projects I’ve done. That was a card, Planet Of The Apes was a trading card, and Bond, that was also a trading card.
License To Kill (1989)—“Kwang”
AVC: Given that Sean Connery was such an influence on you, it must have been a thrill to be in a Bond movie, even if it wasn’t one with Connery in it.
CHT: Yeah, I even went to the royal premiere, where Prince Charles and Lady Diana showed up. It was really an experience, and I was happy to play a good guy. [Laughs.] Robert Davi was one of those method actors, though, which is to say that when he grabbed my necktie and was choking me, I was really choking! That’s the danger of working with method actors: They get a little carried away. They’re always in character. But Timothy Dalton just didn’t seem to me to be a 007. Maybe a 004? There were just certain things he did where I’d think, “Bond wouldn’t do that!” You never really saw Bond chuckle and laugh. He’d smile at the most, but he wouldn’t really bust out.
Balls Of Fury (2007)—“Mysterious Asian Man”
CHT: Balls of Fury was the exception to the rule about even reading for Asian comedic roles. American comedies about Asians have never been funny to me. That always kind of pissed me off. But I listened long enough about Balls of Fury to hear that Christopher Walken was in it, and I said, “I’m in!” I was just very anxious to be around his energy. So I did it, and… I didn’t feel so stereotypic. I got to add my words and my opinion into a few things. I didn’t think I was so funny, but people said that it was…funny enough. [Laughs.] Overall, it was a good experience. The producers were the guys from Reno 911! Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon. They were cool.
I just wasn’t used to a comedic environment. Like, the crew was engaged, and after every take—especially with Christopher Walken—everybody would just kind of burst out laughing. But this one time after, like, the third take, I thought, “You’re not funny. I’m not laughing.” I was the only one on the set not laughing at this particular time. And when he walked by me, he looked at me, and he gave me the evil eye. And I thought, “Oh, well, I came here to see you, and I got your evil eye, so… cool.” So I was a little disappointed, but… he could’ve done worse things. [Laughs.]
Hachi: A Dog’s Tale (2009)—“Ken”
CHT: That was quite a surprise, really, that they wanted me to read, and I was told later that the producers had been told, “You don’t want this guy, he plays bad guys, he does all this kind of stuff…” I’m not a bad guy personally! [Laughs.] But I knew I could do it, so they were pleasantly surprised. I was excited about working with Richard Gere. Oh, and Joan Allen! Oh, my God, she is such a force of nature, it’s mind boggling. So, yeah, that was a highlight on that project, getting to work with both of them.
It was a crazy time, too, because I was shooting the first Tekken in Louisiana, and we were shooting Hachi in Rhode Island, and in order to do both projects, there had to be precision timing. If I had missed a flight, it would’ve been all over. They adjusted the schedule so much that there was no way to have any leeway. But I remember I had Richard Gere and the director, Lasse Hallström, on a conference call to convince me to do this thing. I think they didn’t have a second choice. That’s what they were saying, anyway: that I had to do it. And I thought, “Well, I want to do it, but the schedule’s got to work.” Plus, there was the issue of a wig, because one character was bald and one wasn’t. But they made it work, and it was a great experience.
The company that made it was not a real well-versed company and they weren’t well-known, and in doing foreign distribution, they premiered it in Japan, where it did well, and then they went all the way around the globe with it, and then when they got to America, they didn’t have it open in theaters. It just went to video. And I think part of the reason was that they thought that American audiences wouldn’t swallow a movie where the lead character dies…and then the dog dies, too! [Laughs.] But I know that Richard Gere and Lasse Hallström were crazed that they distributed it that way.
The Wizard (1987)—“Mr. Cheng”
Baywatch (1992) / Baywatch: Hawaiian Wedding (2003)—“Mason Sato”
Thunder In Paradise (1994)—“Mason Lee”
AVC: How did you to come to be in an episode of Baywatch in the show’s second season and then reprise the role over a decade later for the Hawaiian Wedding movie?
CHT: Ah, yes. That show. [Laughs.] Actually, the producers were my friends. They had cast me in one of their first shows, which was called The Wizard, so they remembered me from that time and wrote an episode of Baywatch called “War of Nerves,” and they let me dress myself… as you may have been able to tell if you saw the episode! I was just trying to be very, very hip. It was a wonderful experience, but I have to say that, honestly, I wasn’t overwhelmed with David Hasselhoff. He was at the peak of his stardom, and… I had heard a rumor that he was thinking that, because he sang on top of the Berlin Wall, that’s why it came down! Uh, no. No, that’s way too far out. Yeah, he had some wonderful thoughts about himself.
And then the second time I was on there, the wedding show, that was quite awhile later, and they made a two-hour thing out of it. But in between those, I did another show by the same producers, a thing called Thunder in Paradise that was sort of the same genre. But those kinds of shows can be fun. Like, there’s a moment in Baywatch where I’m looking for these two teenagers, and I have a crossbow, and I’m wandering through the jungle, and I go, “Here, kiddie, kiddie, kiddie…” [Laughs.] Moments like that, where you’re improvising stuff, are a lot of fun.
Miami Vice (1987 / 1989)—“Kenji Fujitsu” / “Tegoro”
Nash Bridges (1996)—“Lt. A.J. Shimamura”
AVC: You worked with Don Johnson a couple of times on Miami Vice, but you ended up having a longer stint with him on Nash Bridges.
CHT: Yes, I did. In fact, it was because of the two episodes I did on Miami Vice that he remembered me. The first of those episodes, “The Rising Sun Of Death,” in it I played a yakuza turned private investigator who’s going to Miami to look for some yakuza guy. Eddie Olmos was such a help in influencing my acting style and gave me some tips, and it really intensified the character. Looking back at my career, if there’s one word that most people use to describe me, it’s intense. [Laughs.] In fact, there was discussion about making a spin-off series around that character, and I was so excited about that, but it never went anywhere. And then I went from that character to playing a sexually-perverted artist, with a completely different look and energy. So it was from those two experiences that I went to Nash Bridges.
In those days, Miami Vice held a spot of royalty—it was a show that everybody had to watch every week—and… I think this is the only time this has ever happened, but at one point I was delivering a line in a scene, and the camera was on Don’s face the whole time. He just got that much attention. And he made sure that happened. He knew how to get that attention.
But this is how much power Don Johnson had in the moment in Miami. Monday Night Football was in Miami, and we were shooting a scene that Monday night. They said, “Cary, look, we’ve got to hurry and get Don out of here. He’s got to go to Monday Night Football.” I said, “Okay, that’s cool.” But then I’m wondering why he’s dragging his feet! Well, later I hear that he went to the game, and when he got there, they stopped the game. They stopped Monday Night Football. The car drives up onto the track, he gets out of his car, and he sits down…and the game starts again. [Laughs.] That was the power of Miami Vice back in the day. Pretty crazy stuff.
When he wanted me for Nash Bridges, one thing he said—and I think the show really proved that—was, “Look, if you want to be on top, you have to be on the edge.” So he created a family cop show, as in a cop that actually has a family, but he let me keep my long hair, I got to dress myself again, I got to work with Cheech Marin and I got to speak a little Spanish and improvise in Spanish, and my character was definitely womanizing it up.
I was the only guy, though, out of the whole cast who didn’t hang out on Friday nights and go drinking. Everybody else did. I just wasn’t into it. But he respected me. Don was another guy who was no dummy. He didn’t have a chemical engineering degree, I don’t believe, but he was definitely street smart and knew how to deliver that energy. He was a nice guy. He was always good to me. And although everybody else was raucous and hung out on the wild side, I remember one time he sort of excused me from doing that. He said, “Let him go. He’s got his own way.” I thought, “Wow, that’s cool.” He just recognized that there’s another world out there, and some people do things differently.
AVC: So when you left the show, was it your choice or did the decision come down from on high? Because I know that several characters vanished after the second season.
CHT: Yeah, it was the producers’ decision, although I have a personal suspicion as to why that happened. [Laughs.] I’ll share it with you, and you can decide if it’s printable or even worth mentioning. We were at a party for the cast and crew, and… I got drunk. And I said to him, “Don, you know what really pisses me off? You’re not living up to your potential.” [Laughs.] And he looked at me, and he said, “Yeah, well, if I ever need anybody to watch my back, it will be you.” But the producer was there, and… I think it caused a little problem.
Mortal Kombat (1995) / Mortal Kombat: The Series (2013)—“Shang Tsung”
AVC: Based on what you were saying earlier, it seems like Mortal Kombat was a game-changer for you in many ways.
CHT: It was absolutely a game-changer. Having done more serious projects, it was the first sort of “kid audience” project that I’d done, and it happened to be in an interesting circumstance, when New Line Cinema was bought by Turner Broadcasting. At that point, New Line was also making Don Juan DeMarco, with Marlon Brando and Johnny Depp, so they were kind of way ahead of us. They were really putting their eggs into that basket. We shot in airplane hangars at the Santa Monica Airport, we shot in warehouses that weren’t insulated… There’s a scene in the movie where I say, “Welcome! You are here to compete in Mortal Kombat, the greatest of all tournaments!” And it goes on and on… but in the middle of it, a motorcycle drives by! I was, like, “What the…?” It was crazy. And then when we filmed in airplane hangars, we had to wait between takeoffs and landings to deliver lines! Crazy, crazy stuff. You’d think that going to Thailand would be worse conditions, but the conditions were worse in L.A.
But, yeah, it was a game-changer. And I’d never done green screen up to that point. The worst thing that can happen is that the effect that they create behind you is bigger than the performance you’re putting out, so I knew I had to pull all the plugs and just blow it out there. Not ever having done that up to that point, I thought about it and thought about it, and then finally I said, “You know what? Forget it: I just need to let it all out.” So when I said, “Your soul is mine,” when I said, “It has begun,” I did that. And it was quite an experience.
When I did the “your soul is mine” line, we were rehearsing on location in Thailand, and I saw this guy run off. I thought, “Oh, he must’ve had an emergency or something.” But then every time I said the line, he’d run off. And I thought, “Who the heck is that guy? What is his problem?” Well, he was one of the A.D.s in Thailand, but because they believe in spirits so much, he said it scared him so much every time that he left.[Laughs.] When I first saw it, it kind of shocked me! Of course, they added a little effect on it, but in fact, I had one of my daughter’s friends – she was just in first grade at the time—who was scared to talk to me for about a year. Every time I’d say, “Hi, Nicole!” she would look down and walk by quickly. And I can see how kids at that age would be a little shaken. But it turned out to be a real film highlight for a lot of kids who are now 35.
AVC: Was it a pleasure to return to the role for Mortal Kombat: Legacy, or did you have to kind of steel yourself to go back?
CMT: Oh, it was a pleasure. I was really disappointed in the first [season of] Legacy that I wasn’t included. They had hired someone else, and I thought, “Ugh. Mistake.” Whoever that guy was, I felt bad for him, because I knew the impact. You can’t just replace someone with a regular-looking guy who didn’t say any of the lines. In fact, I met him when I was on The Man In The High Castle. He said, “You and I have something in common!” And I thought, “Who is this guy?” But he said, “We both played Shang Tsung!” And I thought, “You. You’re the guy.” [Laughs.] I mean, I was nice and polite to him. But I couldn’t hide my disdain.
But, anyway, I was in the second one, and I just finished the third, and…I think it just gives me an opportunity to refresh it for this new generation. And the game keeps getting bigger, so I think it’ll go on. It’s definitely a huge part of my career. But so are so many of these films I’ve been in. I’ve been in a lot of cult movies, but I’ve been very fortunate to have been involved in projects that people remember.
But, you know, they don’t usually pump up the bad guy. On the studio side, that’s normal, but for as much as it made a difference for me to be in Mortal Kombat and Showdown In Little Tokyo, a lot of the publicity didn’t include me. What they don’t recognize, though, is that there’s such a cult following for each one of those films. And I have to humbly say people really like the bad guys. So it’s like a Rodney Dangerfield kind of thing. [Laughs.]
Genghis Khan Conquers The Moon (2015)—“Genghis Khan”
Genghis Khan Conquers the Moon (2015)—“Genghis Khan”
CHT: Yeah, that was a short film, 17 minutes long, for a USC student doing her thesis. I do this periodically with first-time directors and these smaller projects, especially to help students. Also, I went to USC. Not the film school, but I did go to USC. And she was Asian! [Laughs.] She was from Taiwan. I thought, “Cool! An F.O.B. like me!” But James Hong was in it, and it was written originally a little bit more comedically. I mean, the concept’s a little… odd. Conquering the moon? But I thought, “Whatever it is, I’m going to do this.”
I mean, to really full-on dress as Genghis Khan and actually play the character was very, very important to me. Although it became slightly problematic in working with students. I mean, c’mon, they’re twentysomething years old, and I’m in my sixties! [Laughs.] And I’m trying to convince them, “Not so creative, guys. That language is, like, modern language. It’s nothing something he would say!” And they’re arguing, and I’m thinking, “Oh, shit…” But I did it, and it’s making its rounds at these short-film festivals, and I’m glad to have done it. We did scenes out in the dessert when it was over a hundred degrees and when there was blazing sunlight, but I’m still glad I did it.
AVC: There’s also a cool full-circle thing: You worked with James Hong in your first movie, and here you are almost 30 years later, and you’re still working with James Hong!
CHT: That’s true!
AVC: He might be the actor you’ve worked with the most in your career: You’ve been in eight different projects with him over the years.
CHT: I think you’re right. Yeah, I would say he absolutely is.
AVC: He seems like a guy who’s just happy acting, no matter what the part.
CHT: It’s like Ernest Borgnine: he said he never turned down a job. [Laughs.] James has been in something like 400 things since the ‘50s. But he’s older now. He’s still alert, but he doesn’t move as quickly, and he doesn’t last as long on set. But, man, he’s a good guy. He’s an icon.
Johnny Tsunami (1999) / Johnny Kapahala: Back On Board (2007)—“Johnny Tsunami”
CHT: Are you kidding me? Oh, my God, I’m so glad you asked about this last, because it’s actually my favorite project of everything I’ve ever done. I didn’t have to carry a gun, I didn’t have to say any bad words, and it gave me a chance to be what they call in Hawaii “local,” just a kick-back kind of guy. I really am that way on the one side, on my dad’s side. And on the Japanese side, I’m so intense. [Laughs.] I didn’t think I could ever be in a Disney movie, just because of the kind of roles I play, but luckily the guys who were interviewing considered me.
It was supposed to be an older role, but I was just turning 50, and they were seeing guys who were in their late 60s. Pat Morita was up for it. It was a kind of a grandfather character. But the director happened to be a pro surfer when he was young, and he knew what the energy of Hawaii is really about. In Hawaii, there are 50-year-old grandfathers, because they got married so early. So I read, and I really gave it that little twist. And physically I looked like I was still a surfer. Everybody else was kind of smaller and not so pumped, but I was still pretty pumped from the kind of workouts I did.
Just to be able to endear myself to a whole generation of kids was amazing. I haven’t watched recently, but at the time, Disney products made adults look stupid. It was all about making kids looked smarter…and that’s dangerous! [Laughs.] Not only to the parents, but for the kids that think they know better than their parents. Probably a lot of them do, but Disney kind of built their reputation out of that. But here was a character who was older, who was loving, and who wasn’t stupid. He knew what was happening, he cared about his grandson, and he helped him solve problems. It’s truly who I am. I just turned a grandfather. But I was that way with my kids.
I wish it had gone on to become a series. It had a potential to become one after the sequel, but when High School Musical took off, I think Johnny Tsunami fell out of their head. But I’m thinking of revisiting it in some form, because now I am grandpa age. Also, the stuff for kids today is such crap! [Laughs.] But we need to kind of lessen this war between adults and kids. We really do. Kids keep getting wiser younger, which is dangerous, and adults need to stop taking themselves too seriously. I mean, we were kids, too. We’re just in an advanced stage of adulthood.
By the way, the greatest part of Johnny Tsunami is that there were some scenes in there where I purposely snuck in more of a local accent, because I wanted the kids of Hawaii to feel proud. I wanted them to see part of the character reflecting where they were from, and that was critically important to me. And the director kept saying, “Yeah, but they’re such a small part of the audience. The rest of the audience won’t really relate to it.” I said, “Please.” And then some of the scenes between my son and I were a lot more contentious, and I said, “Why? He’s a local guy. I’m sure there are guys who would yell at their son, but this is about a loving family. Let me just follow through with that energy.” And sure enough, it came out just right, and it gave me the most satisfaction out of everything I’ve done.