At age 28, actress and model Tao Okamoto is already one of the few women in history — along with actress Farrah Fawcett and Jennifer Aniston’s Rachel character from “Friends” to name a couple — to have a haircut named after her.
The Chiba Prefecture native sported The Tao cut at a New York fashion show in February 2009 to wide acclaim. It’s a modern spin on the traditionally dorky bowl cut that kids often get in elementary school, but she pulled it off and the do soon became her signature look.
After her breakthrough abroad, Okamoto became an “it girl.” As a model, she fronted campaigns for major fashion houses including Armani, Yves Saint Laurent and Dolce & Gabbana. Her face began appearing regularly on the cover of magazines, including Vogue Japan, and she was chosen as 2010′s model of the year by the Fashion Editors Club of Japan.
The Tao cut is gone when she arrives for our interview, though, and her hair already reaches well past her shoulders. Gone too are the days when her career was limited to the catwalk.
“Modeling is exciting, but I certainly felt frustrated that I couldn’t speak out or express myself,” Okamoto tells The Japan Times. “I always wanted to express my desires in some other medium.”
The new medium Okamoto decided to pursue was film. In 2013, she took a leap into the world of acting and landed a key role in the Hollywood blockbuster “The Wolverine” alongside Hugh Jackman.
This month she takes on yet another challenge, appearing for the first time in a local production. The miniseries, “Chi no Wadachi”‘ (“Tracks of Blood”), is scheduled to air on the Wowow channel from Jan. 19.
The program is based on a 2013 novel of the same name by Hideo Aiba. It’s about an internal conflict between the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department’s Criminal Investigation Squad and its Public Security Bureau over the murder of a former detective. The case develops into a tale of police corruption and scandal.
Okamoto plays detective Toko Sakagami, an IT expert working with the police department. Shosuke Tanihara and Taizo Harada play the quarreling department chiefs, while Okamoto, the murdered detective’s protégée, uses her tech savvy to assist in the investigation.
Her character was a man in the original novel, but the script was reworked specifically to accommodate her. Aiba has said he is looking forward to seeing how she plays a role that he originally wrote as male.
“It was an honor to receive the offer from the producers,” she says, with regard to all the fuss. “I feel a bit of pressure but I’m really enjoying the challenge.”
Okamoto is no stranger to pressure. She signed with a modeling agency when she was just 14, and moved to Paris in her early 20s. When it comes to her personal life, though, she is careful not to share too much. Despite her character being an IT expert in “Chi no Wadachi,” she says she isn’t active on social networking sites such as Facebook or Twitter. Her official blog was last updated in October.
“I’m not good with blogs and social networks, because those things come and go,” she says. “By the time I am used to one thing, a new type of social media is already trending. I just have doubts about the idea of telling everyone about what I’m doing around the clock. I doubt anyone is really interested in what I had for dinner!”
Okamoto also admits that computers and technology aren’t really her thing, which puts her acting skills to the test as Toko, the computer hacking expert. For the role she needed to learn how to speed type — or at least give the impression that she was speed-typing. In fact, she was instructed to study Mary Lynn Rajskub’s character Chloe from the U.S. TV series “24.”
She describes the IT agent she plays as “cool on the outside, but very passionate on the inside.” In this sense, she says she can see some of herself in the character.
Having only one film on her resume (“The Wolverine”), Okamoto says she was eager to take on a Japanese-speaking role for her next project. When the script for “Chi no Wadachi” arrived, she says she had a difficult time putting it down. However, since she didn’t have any experience in the domestic acting industry, she was also worried about “standing in the other actors’ way” and ruining the project. She adds that the rest of the cast was extremely helpful toward this rookie, giving her advice on what to do on a Japanese set.
“This is a secret, but I’ve always been a fan of Mr. Harada,” she says, “but his comical side just disappears when he’s acting. Mr. Tanihara is also amazing, because he’s playing a role that’s so different from his usual image.”
On her own skills as a thespian, Okamoto acknowledges that everything she has learned about the art so far has come from director James Mangold, whom she worked with on “The Wolverine.” The American director, known for critical favorites such as “Walk the Line” and “Girl, Interrupted,” gave her plenty of advice on set. While modeling sometimes made her feel like “a doll,” Okamoto says working with Mangold involved more on-the-spot collaboration and cooperation — which came as a welcome change.
From what she has learned so far, Okamoto says acting is about going back into your own memories and relating something from your past to the character you are playing.
“That’s how things begin to appear real on screen,” she says. However, she also admits that she’s still in the process of learning the art.
She also says she’s noticed one major difference between Hollywood and Japanese film shoots: Filming in Japan takes place under a tighter schedule and that the atmosphere is much more tense on set. Not meaning to sound negative, she adds that it makes the shoot extremely efficient and that filming in both countries has been exciting.
Where Okamoto works in the future, however, appears to be far less important than who or what she works with. Being borderless has been a key part of her modeling career, and she is aware that such an approach will continue to guide her as an actress, but she says the content of future projects will come first.
One thing Okamoto says she’d like to do is take to the stage and, possibly, Broadway. She is now based in New York and is receiving vocal training in the hope of pursuing a longtime dream of performing in a musical. She says her interest in musical theater started long before her modeling career.
She always believed an Asian part would be difficult to snag on Broadway, but working with Jackman during the filming of “The Wolverine” changed her mindset. The Australian actor starred in the hit 2012 musical “Les Miserables,” and she says he would often prod her to sing with him.
“Japanese people are not known for expressing their feelings through singing and dancing,” she says, “but I like to sing a lot.” Tunes by 1980s pop idol Seiko Matsuda are her favorite to sing along to at home, but “I don’t just sing to myself in the shower,” she says. “I sing everywhere. I know it’s good for training the voice.”
The idea of supermodel Tao Okamoto bopping along the street belting out Matsuda’s “Akai Sweet Pea” may be difficult to imagine, but I’m starting to see a fun side to Okamoto. So as our interview comes to a close I decide to ask her one last question: What did she have for dinner last night?
“I had pizza,” she says, blushing for the first time during our meeting. “It was a half-and-half pizza; one side was Margherita and the other was anchovies and potatoes.” There you have it, The Tao special.
“Chi no Wadachi,” starring Tao Okamoto, Shosuke Tanihara and Taizo Harada, starts on Wowow on Jan. 19 (10 p.m.). The first episode will be available for free. For more information, visit www.wowow.co.jp/dramaw/wadachi.