Casting director Ko Iwagami plays matchmaker in Hollywood

by Matthew Hernon

Contributing Writer

It was Ko Iwagami’s love for American cinema, and “Indiana Jones” in particular, that took him to the United States. Now a successful casting director, he understands that Hollywood isn’t always so kind.

“After watching ‘The Last Samurai,’ I thought I could be like Ken Watanabe,” Iwagami says with a wry smile. “I spoke better English, and as part of my filmmaking course at college I did a lot of acting that always got positive feedback.”

The Tokyo native bagged an appearance in an opera called “The Letter” and believed this was the springboard to stardom. He was wrong.

“In over two years I managed to book just one commercial,” he recalls. “The whole thing felt like a lottery.”

Luckily, Iwagami scored internships on the films “No Country for Old Men” and “Brothers” during his college years in Santa Fe, New Mexico. His big break came in 2009 when he was selected to be a production assistant on the film “Due Date” starring Robert Downey Jr.

“I have no idea why they chose me,” Iwagami says. “I guess I’m one of those guys that’s often in the right place at the right time. I remember being asked to look for people to cast as Masai warriors for the film ‘The Host.’ That was no easy task in New Mexico. Fortunately, a Kenyan track team went jogging past me at a park one day, so I chased after them to ask about an audition.”

Iwagami’s credits now include such major productions as “The Avengers,” “Breaking Bad” and the recently released Netflix film “The Outsider.” The 33-year-old compares his job to that of a matchmaker who likes to throw in the odd curveball.

“I want to provide filmmakers with people that fit the bill. Yet at the same time, it’s good to put a surprise file in there,” Iwagami says. “Possibilities can come from anywhere, so it’s important to cast the net far and wide.”

The casting director is constantly approached by actors looking for a leg-up in the industry, but that doesn’t stop him from searching for new talent himself. He regularly contacts agencies, promotes casting calls on social networking sites and goes to parks with flyers.

“There are many talented actors in Japan capable of making an impression internationally,” he says. “My goal is to do everything I can to make that happen for them.”

At a time when discussion over Asian representation on the screen has ramped up, many critics have posited that the solution lies in getting a more diverse group of people behind the camera. Over the past few decades, Yoko Narahashi has been essential in this regard as the go-to person for directors in need of Japanese actors. She persuaded a skeptical Edward Zwick to cast Ken Watanabe in “The Last Samurai” and helped launch Rinko Kikuchi’s career overseas. Iwagami has a huge amount of respect for the lady known as “Japan’s Gatekeeper to Hollywood,” and hopes to make a similar impact.

“Narahashi has done an amazing job opening doors for Japanese actors globally,” he says. “Since ‘The Last Samurai,’ you’ve seen a growing number of people from this country in American films and dramas. The problem is that they, and other Asian actors, are usually competing for tiny stereotypical roles.

“Women often play secretaries, assistants and sex workers, while men get cast as martial art masters, nerds and doctors. Select Japanese stars can play leading roles, such as Ken Watanabe, Hiroyuki Sanada and Tadanobu Asano. While they’re great, it would be nice to occasionally see something different.”

Iwagami feels Hollywood is locked in a vicious cycle. Though directors and producers say they are open to casting young unknowns, they aren’t able to see enough of their work to make a final decision. But how can they see their work if they aren’t cast?

During a recent trip to Los Angeles for the premiere of “The Outsider,” Iwagami spoke to several actors from Japan and some of Japanese descent about the current situation regarding diversity and representation in Hollywood.

“Most Japanese actors starting their careers in America are thrilled just to get an audition, even if the role’s small and cliched,” he says. “They believe they can make that breakthrough if they brush up their English. They’re also inspired by people such as Rinko Kikuchi (“Babel”) and Kiki Sukezane (“Heroes Reborn”) who’ve done well despite previously not having much of a career to speak of back home.

“With Japanese-Americans and those actors from Japan who’ve spent much of their careers in the States, the situation feels very different. It’s as if they’re invisible. There’s so much talk about representation in Hollywood, but from their perspective things don’t seem to be changing. Putting a few random Asians in a film doesn’t make it diverse.

“The way to change things isn’t just by protesting, though. As Asians, we should focus more on our own work — making films about our ethnicity, culture and history. I believe we’re now seeing more of this in the States, which is positive.”

The greatest high Iwagami gets, though, is when he hears that one of his candidates has been cast — such as Hiro Mizushima in the HBO comedy series “Girls” or Yukiyoshi Ozawa in the horror film “The Forest.” He’s particularly proud of finding an actual member of the yakuza to appear in Netflix’s postwar thriller “The Outsider” starring Jared Leto.

“(Director) Martin Zandvliet wanted it genuine and I don’t think you can get more real than that,” Iwagami says with a big grin. “I was on set every day to translate, and one thing that struck me was the power of the Japanese cast, particularly Tadanobu Asano and Kippei Shiina. Being in a major production wasn’t going to alter the way they worked or stop them speaking their minds.

“I believe aspiring actors from Japan can learn a lot from this kind of attitude. Be proud of who you are and where you’re from and don’t try to change your personality when you go overseas. Also, know I will do everything I can to support you.”