IN CONVERSATION WITH MARI YAMAMOTO
interview by JANA LETONJA
Actress Mari Yamamoto can be seen in Apple TV+ Godzilla series ‘Monarch: Legacy of Monsters’, which launched its first two episodes in November and aired its finale on 12th January.
Mari, we’ve just recently been able to watch you in Apple TV+ series ‘Monarch: Legacy of Monsters’. Tell us what excites you the most about this series and its story.
When I first read the script, I couldn’t put it down because it was nothing like what I expected from a monster show in a traditional sense. It was a story about all of these messy and complicated real human beings who happen to live in a world where monsters are real. I found myself moved to tears in a scene about one of the main characters encountering Godzilla because it was so beautifully written. There was something very relatable to this as a Japanese person who grew up in a world where earthquakes could happen at any moment. All the while, there is a separate timeline of the show where you get to go on an adventure and discover monsters with a backdrop of the 1950s, which is such a fascinating era for Japan and US relations. I was instantly drawn in and fascinated by every aspect of the show.
In the series, you portray Dr. Keiko, a scientist who investigates monsters in the 50s. How was it jumping back to the 50s era and portraying such an interesting story? What do you love the most about your character?
After becoming fascinated with the script, what excited me most was my character. She’s like no other Japanese character I’ve ever seen portrayed on screen in Hollywood. She’s not simply a strong female lead for the sake of being a strong woman, but she is this incredibly resilient and hopeful human being who has lived an unimaginable past and yet or more likely because of it, dares to dream and live unapologetically. On top of that, the fact that she is a Japanese scientist who comes to the US in the aftermath of WW2 to research the effects of radiation was so compelling to me, to have seen the destruction and devastation and to say I’m going to the US when tensions between the countries were still so high, so she could understand and figure out a way to prevent it from happening again. The courage and fortitude that it takes for her to do what she does with all the complications of the time period was so inspiring to me. She’s on a mission, she cares so deeply for the world and humanity, and loves with abandon, whether it be people or monsters. I fell in love with her and her story completely and it was a dream come true getting to embody somebody like her.
You’ve starred in many international productions. How do each country’s film productions differ between each other in your experience?
I think the core of it is the same anywhere. People are just passionate about telling a good story and bringing their vision to life, so I’ve felt this instant camaraderie on all the sets I’ve been on. What I love is taking in and understanding the specific humor of the culture. That’s quite different depending on where you go, so I love to get a sense of it, learn a bit of the language and make people laugh. The days are always long, so people are looking for ways to have a good time, including myself.
You’ve done a ton of work infusing your Japanese heritage into your characters. Why is this something that is so important for you?
I’ve always chosen roles that I felt drawn to humanize and bring to life, not necessarily because of their Japanese-ness. When I have played Japanese characters, I feel that I’ve gotten to play characters that are so singular and don’t fit the mould in any way.
I was born in Japan, but I moved to the UK for a few years as a kid and then moved back to Tokyo. This experience made me so aware of all the ways in which I was very Japanese everywhere in the world. But back in Japan, I was labeled as an anomaly, an outsider who wasn’t quite Japanese enough. Japan is such a place of conformity, which is at the same time what brings some of the beauty of the culture, but I know that many people struggle because of it. As someone who has lived that, I identify with and feel purpose in portraying characters who don’t conform, who break the mould. I think it’s Japan specific, but also a very universal dilemma.
Growing up often feeling alienated, films and books were where I found my place of belonging and solace. So my hope is to play these characters and give back in a sense, help people feel like they aren’t alone in whatever they may be going through or however weird the world may make them feel. It’s also not just about being an outsider. I think Japanese culture is so unique and I feel because of my background, I have a deeper appreciation and understanding of it in a way and I love to bring authentic representation of Japanese characters to whatever project I partake in, but this isn’t limited to Japanese characters. At the end of the day, I want to play the complexity of human beings, whatever kind of role that helps me understand and empathize with others more, and in the process allows me to feel connected to others.
What kind of characters and stories excite and challenge you the most?
Some of the films that made me want to be a storyteller were from Richard Linklater’s ‘Before’ trilogy. That experience of watching two people find each other and connect is so simple, yet there’s something divine about it. It’s a small story in the grand scheme of things, but at the same time it feels like the most dramatic and profound thing that happens to us in life. As I watched it, I remember thinking to myself that there are people who see the world the way I do. These moments that are so fleeting and intangible in life, capturing their essence and immortalizing them on screen, that’s what I live for. Working on a show like ‘Monarch’, I realized that is what makes fantasy real. By grounding the characters in reality, which in turn gives the fantasy so much more depth. Finding ways to make myself believe that these monsters were real and figure out what they represented for my character was really challenging and rewarding. I think it expanded my mind in ways that allows me to see beauty in more things, even monsters. So I would say any role or story that challenges me to dig deep to discover the truth about a person or a moment, excites me, whatever the setting may be.
What inspired you to become an actress in the first place?
In a way, I’ve had multiple lives before becoming an actor and writer. I think I’ve been really fortunate to have been able to pursue all kinds of interests I’ve had. I grew up thinking I would be a violinist, but then during college, I started an internship at a magazine I was madly in love with. It was this gorgeous photography, travel, arts magazine. I started as an intern and then ended up getting hired as an editor upon graduation. The work culture in Japan is pretty crazy, especially in publishing at the time, so I found myself sleeping under my desk and working around the clock, no time to socialize or see my friends. It was also a time when magazines weren’t selling and starting to go out of print, so after a couple of years of this life, I started questioning why I was working so hard to create something people would never see. Then I switched over to advertising, but it was more or less the same life and less creative. I found myself again not being able to socialize at all and returning to my childhood coping mechanis of watching films in the middle of the night after work.
It was around the time ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ came out so I would rent a few episodes a week and watch as an escape, and that’s when I saw Sandra Oh. I was just mesmerized by her performance. I would scroll back a few seconds to watch her voice crack or her micro expressions, and wonder how does she do that. That can’t be acting, that’s a real person. I think it had such an impact on me because it felt like the first time that I had seen an Asian person in Hollywood who was depicted as a fully fleshed out human being who I could relate to. I remember thinking to myself “Oh, an Asian person can do this in America as a job? ”
It’s funny, I’d always been crazy about films, but not once had I thought about doing it myself until I saw someone who looked like me and who inspired me. Once I had this idea in my head, I couldn’t shake it. I had never acted at this point in my life, but I decided to take my summer holiday and go take an acting workshop in New York for five days. Those five days changed my life. I flew back to Tokyo and told my parents “Mum, dad, I’m sorry, I want to be an actor”. I was lucky they were so supportive, as they always have been. They’d seen my crazy work life and how unhappy it was making me, so they said “You’ve suffered enough, go do what you love”. They supported me moving to New York and going to acting school after that, which has allowed me to get to where I am now. I’m so grateful for them.
When you are not filming, how do you like spending your free days? What are you most passionate about, besides acting of course?
When I’m not acting, I’m writing. I’ve had this whole other career as a journalist and I also have started writing scripts in the past few years.
What can you share with us about your exciting, upcoming projects?
There are several writing projects I’m working on, most of them about Japan in one way or another. But one thing I’m particularly excited about now is a performance piece I’m working on with an incredible artist I collaborate with a lot. I’m always curious to see what’s possible in a new medium.
all photography by EMILIO MADRID