CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Ken Watanabe listened to a question yesterday at a news conference in Waikiki.
East meets West -- and Eastwood
If the ability to make red suede shoes look incredibly chic means you possess a certain amount of star power, then actor Ken Watanabe has plenty of it.
Dressed in a white collared shirt, tan slacks and bright loafers, the 47-year-old greeted an international press corps gathered at the Halekulani Hotel in Waikiki yesterday. More than a dozen cameras whirred and clicked while reporters asked questions in
English and Japanese before the Louis Vuitton Hawaii International Film Festival screened "The Last Samurai" and hosted an interactive event with Watanabe for the public last night.
Watanabe made the leap from Japanese cinema to American commercial films with his roles in "The Last Samurai" and "Memoirs of a Geisha," and his ability to bridge the two cultures was on display during his brief stay in Honolulu.
Learning English for "The Last Samurai" was even more intense than the physical training and weightlifting that added about 10 pounds of muscle to his lean, 6-foot-tall frame. There was a time when he even began dreaming in English, he said, and mimicked letters swirling over his head to emphasize the point.
While it's not terribly difficult to memorize lines in another language, he said, communicating with the director about emotional sequences proved far more challenging. But his superior efforts to answer Japanese questions in English will undoubtedly endear him to American audiences.
COURTESY WARNER BROS.
He co-starred in 2003 with Tom Cruise in "The Last Samurai," for which he received an Academy Award nomination.
Plenty of buzz surrounded his role in Clint Eastwood's "Letters from Iwo Jima," set for release early next year as the companion film to "Flags of Our Fathers."
Watanabe considered working with Eastwood the highlight of his career. "He's the best director in the world, I think," the actor said. "It was my best experience. On the set it was very calm, and there was a good feeling. We tried to focus on the role and the story and the moment."
The legendary director behaved like a wonderful father, and Watanabe wanted to learn as much as possible from him. "(Eastwood) welcomes you, wraps you warmly," he said, gesturing with his arms. "Everyone loves him and respects him."
Before Watanabe left for Los Angeles today, his manager tried, unsuccessfully, to set up a golf date with Michelle Wie. When asked about his skills on the fairway, Watanabe laughed and said, "Average." He explained that his production schedule -- which usually meant going three or four months without hitting a ball -- was part of the problem. Then, in his typical disarming style, he chuckled again. "It just an excuse!"
HIFF Executive Director Chuck Boller said, "People always ask, 'Who's coming to the Film Festival?' Of course, I want to tell them that the festival is about the films. But that doesn't cut it. You've got to have some stars."
CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Ken Watanabe appeared at ease at yesterday's press conference at the Louis Vuitton Hawaii International Film Festival.
Therefore, "it's really important to have someone of Ken Watanabe's caliber here. ... But we like to think it's good for his career, too, because we get such coverage throughout the world for all of the Asian aspects of our festival, in particular," Boller added. "Of course, he fits in perfectly with our mission of cultural understanding. He's a huge superstar everywhere in the world, except the United States."
That, however, is changing, especially after he became in 2004 the sixth Asian actor to be nominated for an Academy Award for "The Last Samurai." Even so, Watanabe is a true artist in the sense that he cares far more about the work itself than any cultural nuances it might convey. When a reporter mentioned the cultural inaccuracies in "Memoirs," Watanabe said, "I didn't worry about that." Instead, his focus remained on playing the character to the best of his ability.
Sometimes that included kissing superstars such as Ziyi Zhang, whom he described as "strong and beautiful," and Gong Li, who was even "more strong!"
Recently, Watanabe ventured into another area of the film industry, serving as executive producer for "Memories of Tomorrow," which will be released in the United States. He also said he would consider directing in the future.
His advice to aspiring filmmakers and actors was simple: "It's just passion."
And maybe a pair of flashy red shoes.