From renowned photographers and major fashion labels to famous Hollywood directors; it seems everyone wants a piece of Tao Okamoto these days. The model-turned-actress, who made her big-screen debut in the blockbuster “Wolverine” two years ago, is set to appear in the third season of the American TV show “Hannibal” this summer, and “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” next spring.
Sitting across from her at Donna Studios in Shibuya, it’s easy to understand why she’s so in demand. Okamoto comes across as confident, yet in an understated and somewhat coy way.
“I was chosen for ‘Wolverine’ because there weren’t any other Japanese actresses available who could speak English,” she tells The Japan Times (in English). “With ‘Batman v Superman’ and “Hannibal” I got the roles as a result of previous work I’d done, not just because of my nationality.”
Upon learning that she got the job, Okamoto got a big confidence boost.
“My character in ‘Batman v Superman’ isn’t supposed to be Japanese, but director Zack Snyder said he’d seen me in ‘Wolverine’ and had to get me in the film somehow,” she says. “Hearing that was like music to my ears. Bryan Fuller, the screenwriter and producer of ‘Hannibal,’ has also shown a lot of faith in me, even altering my character so I could be in his show.”
Fuller, who described Okamoto as “an amazing actress,” initially cast her as Lady Murasaki, the aunt and brief lover of Hannibal Lecter who appears in the Thomas Harris novels the TV show is based on. Concerned that she was too young for the role, however, he then decided to bring in Chiyo — Murasaki’s attendant from the Thomas Harris novel “Hannibal Rising.” (It’s not the first time a character has been changed specifically to accommodate Okamoto. In the 2014 Wowow series “Chi no Wadachi,” she played Toko Sakagami, who was male in the original Hideo Aiba book.)
Speaking to entertainment news website Collider, Fuller said the introduction of Chiyo gave him “greater rein to expand the character and her history with Hannibal,” allowing him to do things he wouldn’t have been able to with Murasaki.
Based on the pre-“Silence of the Lambs” exploits of Hannibal, the first two seasons of the NBC show received a lot of critical praise despite not being a huge ratings success (mainly put this down to its Friday-night time slot). Okamoto, who doesn’t watch much TV, only got into the series after getting the role, but was soon hooked despite finding some of it difficult to watch.
“The first one I saw was actually the last episode of Season Two,” she says. “I was eating my dinner at the time, which probably wasn’t the best idea! My first thought was, ‘What have I let myself in for?’ It was dark and grotesque, yet at the same time there was something really beautiful about it. There are parts where you want to turn away, but you are drawn in. You have this exquisite cinematography mixed in with all these disturbing scenes — it’s intriguing.”
Okamoto also mentions the “dynamic” characters as being an element that drew her in.
“I knew Chiyo would have to be strange and unique to stand out,” she says. “I tried to make her mysterious — a weird young lady with a sinister smile. I’m only in four episodes, but it’s an important role because she reveals what happened to Hannibal when he was younger and why he turned into a psychopath. It’s a great part to have — I just hope I did her justice.”
The 29-year-old Okamoto is clearly reveling in her new Hollywood career. However, listening to her speak you get the impression she can feel overwhelmed by it at times. It’s understandable given the fact that she had no acting experience before appearing in “Wolverine.” She admits she “felt like a guest,” on the set of “Batman v Superman” and was “too shy,” to speak to main star Ben Affleck. She also admits to being “really scared,” before meeting the cast of “Hannibal.” Fortunately, her fellow actors weren’t nearly as intense or frightening as their characters on screen.
“With ‘Batman v Superman’ I was always on the outside as I was only on set a couple of days a month, whereas in ‘Hannibal’ I was more directly involved everyday so it was important to build relations with the cast and crew. At first I felt like a stranger who was jumping into a family that already had a lot of success together. It was nerve-wracking, but everybody went out of their way to make me feel at home,” she says.
“I had most of my scenes with Hugh Dancy (Will Graham), who was great. It’s like his show so he makes a big effort to look after everyone. He didn’t even mind me asking lots of questions, even though some of them were probably inane. Mads Mikkelsen (Hannibal) was another gentleman, offering to carry heavy props for me. Laurence Fishburne (Jack Crawford) was the same. I thought he might be quite intimidating, but he was super sweet telling me stories about his wife. In one scene he saw I was struggling with the weight of a weapon so he came over and whispered some advice in my ear. He could have said it aloud, but he didn’t want to be showy.
“Everybody was like that. It’s a high-profile cast yet there was no pretentiousness on set at all. I remember Gillian Anderson (Bedelia Du Maurier) struggling with a word, I think it was ‘biggest’ or ‘worst,’ she just couldn’t seem to hit it. Rather than throwing her toys out of the pram, though, she just kept on going, desperately trying to get it right. I thought it was inspiring watching someone who has been at the top of her profession for so long working so earnestly without any airs and graces. In order to improve as an actress I know how important it is to learn from people like that.”
Okamoto has been an attentive student. She recounts one scene in “Hannibal” that had her silently second-guessing the direction: “The director was telling us we should be more cheerful and friendly. It was after a murder had taken place so I didn’t feel it was right and I kind of said that to him, but I wasn’t very forthright with my opinion and just let it go. In the end, Bryan (Fuller) asked for a re-shoot because he felt the same as me. I realized I should have been ballsier and stood my ground. I think that will come in time. If a similar situation arises again I think I will be braver. With each new role I am feeling stronger and more confident. I’m already looking forward to the next project.”
For more information on Tao Okamoto, visit www.taookamoto.com.
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