When she sat down to watch the first episode of “Invasion,” an Apple TV+ series about the violent arrival of extraterrestrial life on Earth, Shioli Kutsuna says she felt quite emotional.
Although the Sydney-born actress has appeared in several Hollywood movies, this sci-fi drama, which premiered on Oct. 22, is her first international television series. As with many recent productions, filming was halted in 2020 due to the pandemic and there were times when she thought the series might never air.
“Just watching the opening credits was an amazing feeling,” Kutsuna, 29, recalls in an interview with The Japan Times. “To see the names of these people I’d worked closely with, I was just very proud of them. … Shooting took around a year, with six months in between when we were all uncertain as to what would happen. It was the longest break I’d experienced. Returning to the role, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to seamlessly get back into it, but it was easier than expected.”
Kutsuna plays Mitsuki, a highly-skilled Japanese aerospace technician who’s in a secret relationship with Hinata (Rinko Kikuchi), one of three astronauts traveling to the International Space Station on a year-long mission. When the astronauts are mysteriously jettisoned from the vessel, Mitsuki, spurred on by her anguish, does everything she can to find out what happened. However, officials at the Japanese space station JASA are reluctant to investigate things further.
“This was one of the most challenging roles I’ve had,” Kutsuna says. “From the second episode, Mitsuki is basically grieving the whole time. I remember the first day of shooting, we did multiple scenes that were very emotional and then crammed a sex scene in at the end. It was overwhelming and I did feel pressure. I wanted to do Mitsuki justice. She’s an unconventional character who’s constantly swimming against the tide both in her personal life and at work.”
As an isolated figure, Mitsuki is alone in many scenes, and Kutsuna says not being able to bounce ideas off other actors was a challenge. While she became very close to several crew members, she never met some cast members as the drama was filmed in four separate countries — the United States, England, Japan and Morocco. She fleetingly bonded with Sam Neill, who plays a nearly retired Oklahoma sheriff who can’t let go of an unclosed case, but Kutsuna made sure to meet and connect with Kikuchi, a fellow Japanese actress, before shooting began.
“Though we’re only in two or three scenes together, we felt it was important to build a relationship as the two characters mean so much to each other,” Kutsuna says. “Rinko has lived in Hollywood for a while so it was fascinating to hear about her experiences. She’s a tough woman and seeing that up close was encouraging. That said, we’re very different. She doesn’t seem to care what people think of her whereas I’m quite sensitive to new environments.”
Born to Japanese parents in Australia, Kutsuna says she was shy growing up. Being one of a few Asians in her year, she experienced some racism at school, which made her even more reserved around people. Taking up dance lessons gave her an outlet to express herself and her confidence grew. At 13, she won the Special Jury Award at the Japan Bishojo Contest, an annual beauty pageant held by talent agency Oscar Promotion. Nabbing the award kicked off her acting career.
“My dad’s colleague saw an advertisement about the contest online and suggested I enter,” Kutsuna says. “I decided to go for it, but wasn’t serious about it. As a family, we hadn’t been to Japan for about three years and I thought it would be a nice excuse to go. I certainly didn’t think it’d be a life-changing trip. The plan was to return to my ordinary life in Sydney shortly after. Then I made it through, got an agent and, before I knew it, I was in a Japanese show.”
Fourteen-year-old Kutsuna made her small screen debut in the long-running junior high school drama series “Mr. Kinpachi in Class 3B” (“San-nen B-gumi Kinpachi-sensei”). She soon became a TV regular, appearing in shows such as “I am Mita, Your Housekeeper,” the most watched program in Japan in 2011. Three years later, she won a Newcomer of the Year award at the 37th Japan Academy Prize for her performances in Isao Yukisada’s “Before the Vigil” and Lee Sang-il’s remake of Clint Eastwood’s Western film, “Unforgiven,” in which she played a prostitute disfigured by one of her clients.
One of the biggest challenges Kutsuna faced early in her career was reading scripts in Japanese. Though she spoke the language at home, some lines proved tricky. She quickly improved and being bilingual helped to open doors to many Japanese-American productions such as “Oh Lucy!” with Josh Hartnett in 2017 and “The Outsider” with Jared Leto in 2018. Then came the opportunity to appear in Marvel’s “Deadpool 2” as Yukio, a mutant with electrical powers who fights alongside the title foul-mouthed, wisecracking superhero, played by Ryan Reynolds.
“I didn’t actually know I was auditioning for ‘Deadpool 2,’” Kutsuna says. “Being a Marvel production, there was lots of secrecy during the shoot. Aside from my character, Yukio, I knew hardly anything about the story until the premiere. Of course, I was excited to be part of it, but I try to treat each movie and drama the same, otherwise you overthink things. I must say, though, it was amazing seeing Ryan Reynolds work his magic on set. Everything was just so meticulous.”
Kutsuna has appeared alongside several other big names in recent years including Jennifer Aniston and Adam Sandler in 2019’s “Murder Mystery.” She enjoyed working with the pair and generally feels the atmosphere on set in Hollywood productions tends to feel more relaxed compared to what she’s used to when performing in Japan.
“That’s partly down to culture and respect,” Kutsuna says. “In Japan, you’re formally introduced to senior actors, which can be intimidating. In America, they work really hard to make you feel as comfortable as possible. You’re also closer to the crew and it’s more fluid when speaking to the director. Here, managers are more involved in what’s going on. That gives you more protection, but at the same time, less freedom.”
Managing cultural differences is something Kutsuna has spent a lifetime getting comfortable with, though, and with a thriving career in Japan and Hollywood, it doesn’t look as though she’s slowing down anytime soon. Kutsuna returned to Japan this year to film “Sanctuary,” a Netflix drama about the dark side of professional sumo set to be released in 2023. It was also recently announced that “Invasion” would return for a second season, giving fans a chance to see the path the conflicted Mitsuki will go down next.
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