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INGRID SISCHY: So, let's start at the beginning. Tell me about your background.
TAKESHI KANESHIRO: My father is Japanese, and my mother is Taiwanese. I wasn't brought up in Japan, though. My first time in Japan was when I was 18.
IS: Did you come by yourself?
TK: No, I came with friends. After that I came to Japan because of show business.
IS: How did you become an actor?
TK: I did a drink commercial.
IS: How were you cast for that?
TK: I was in high school in Taipei. A friend's father was in the industry, and some of us were chosen to do this commercial.
IS: Did you like the experience?
TK: Not really. I was basically just doing it to make some money for myself on the side. It was summer vacation, and I also had a part-time job at a restaurant. The commercial only took two days, but the salary was the same as a much larger amount of work at the restaurant.
IS: So you did the math? [Kaneshiro laughs] How does the entertainment machine in the East feed its need for new talent?
TK: There are two ways people get into this industry: by going to auditions to get discovered, and by accident.
IS: In America, actors are the gods and goddesses of the culture. Is it the same for you?
TK: Yes, compared to 10 years ago it's different. Then, even if someone was famous, it was easy to have privacy. But the mass media has changed so much, and there have been so many advancements in technology, like cell phones with cameras. For example, there might have been paparazzi only in Hong Kong at one point, but now they're in Taiwan, everywhere. In the West it's different than in Asia. In Asia there are ali these different cultures advancing at different paces and in different ways.
IS: Where do you live most of the time?
TK: In Tokyo or Taiwan. Right now, Tokyo is easier for me to stay in. It's bigger, and the culture is different. You could say that Japanese people are more polite or not as passionate. Like, if you're out on the street in Tokyo, and someone asks to take a photo with you or to get a signature, you can say, "Please don't bother me right now," and they will respect that, whereas in Taiwan or Hong Kong or China, people don't listen to you. You can't say that's bad, you know – it's passion. They have paparazzi in Japan, but the press is different here. So, because of all that, Japan is more comfortable for me right now. But I do go back to Taiwan, too, because my mother and my family are there, and I miss them sometimes.
IS: So, you feel more comfortable when you have more privacy?
TK: Yes, but maybe it's in being able to speak freely that you really feel comfortable – like, I imagine in the States you feel very free because of freedom of speech.
IS: Well, it's a freedom we have to maintain, both through the courts and through the culture. There's also another aspect, which is the sense of freedom – something I feel in New York and Los Angeles particularly. So many people in those cities have come from somewhere else – from, say, Japan, or India, or Africa, or Korea – looking for freedom.
Tell me, you speak English with some ease. I know we have a translator sitting with us, but basically you're doing most of the speaking in English yourself, and I'm embarrassed to say I'm speaking no Japanese, and no Chinese. How did you become so fluent – from working in the movies?
TK: No. I went to an American school for two and a half years. I guess my father had some thoughts about my learning a different language. I never went to a Chinese school, but I was sent to a Japanese school for a while, too.
IS: And your brothers and sisters also speak many languages?
IS: How many brothers and sisters do you have?
TK: I just want to say many.
IS: That's mysterious. [Kaneshiro laughs] And your mother and father, are they involved in your business?
IS: And of your "x" number of brothers and sisters, are any of them actors?
TK: No. Actually the people around me didn't want me to go into show business.
IS: How many movies have you been in?
IS: Are you proud of your first movies?
TK: No. [laughs] Working on Chungking Express , my third movie, directed by Wong Karwal, my feelings about movies changed. Wong Kar-wai is very special. But on every movie you learn something, so you cannot say that only some movies are important. We change a little bit with every movie we make.
IS: Is there a kind of revolution in moviemaking in China right now?
TK: I think it's just that the West has become more aware of Chinese films. I do think that the film industry is going toward China much more than Japan, though. In China, there's a rule that if you want to do business there, you have to use Chinese people.
IS: So what would happen if you were a Chinese director making a Chinese film and you wanted to hire Hollywood actors?
TK: It probably couldn't happen right now. Also, as a foreigner you can't just build a company with your own money; you have to do it as a joint venture with the Chinese.
IS: What brought you to America for the first time? Was it a movie you were promoting?
TK: No. My father was living in Seattle, and he wanted us to visit. I was 18.
IS: Did you think American movies were cool?
TK: Yes. I still think they're cool!
IS: Let's talk about House of Flying Daggers – was it physically hard to make?
TK: It was really exhausting. I'm not an action actor, so I don't always work out for something like this. Maybe I'm lazy. In the movie, the fighters and stuntmen were really good at martial arts. When we were practicing in Japan, we learned only the basics because we didn't know what was going to be required for the role. It wasn't like in a Hollywood movie, where you know exactly what's going to happen, and you just practice that. The Asian style is to tell the actor to do it spontaneously. I liked the way the director [Zhang Yimou] had his stunt people act out scenes and then got the actors to come in and do it.
IS: What else did you find challenging in your role as the Tang dynasty government deputy who is assigned to dupe Ziyi Zhang's character into revealing the location of the insurgent gang known as the House of Flying Daggers?
TK: I didn't understand why my character would fall in love with Ziyi Zhang's character. But I just did what I could, the best that I could, and followed the director's ideas because it's his movie.
IS: How do you feel when the movies you're in have such a big impact in the East or West?
TK: It's nice to gain more audience or fame, but maybe if we become more famous, we also gain more pressure for the next job. I always have problems deciding which job, which movie to do, because in Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, and Japan the cultures are so different. So maybe the Chinese or Taiwanese won't get the comedy from Hong Kong, or maybe the Japanese won't understand a Western joke. And once you know they enjoyed your last movie, you want them to enjoy your next one; so you will want to choose something that everybody will like, and that's really rare.
IS: You're probably getting sent a lot of material these days.
TK: Yes, a lot.
IS: And a lot from America?
IS: Are you interested in being in Hollywood movies?
TK: You don't see many Hollywood movies with Asian characters in them, and when you do they're all the same. If I were offered a really good story, maybe I would try it, because Hollywood is a dream for people from every country. But if the role is only a cliche, I'd rather just be in the audience.
In this spread: Clothes by PRADA. Hair: DIEGO DA SILVA/Atelier 68. Grooming: JAMES KALIARDOS.