To Naoko Mori, the thought of a life in one place is unimaginable. Born in Japan and raised mostly in the U.K. and the U.S., the 46-year-old actress laughs as she confesses that her suitcases lie half-packed in her living room on a more-or-less permanent basis.
“It’s like I have three tanks inside me: One each for Japan, the U.K. and the U.S., and I have to keep them all topped up. Sometimes I feel the need to fill my Japan tank, then I might feel a pull to go to the States. It keeps me in balance,” she says.
This year, Mori was just about to move from London to the United States for a couple of years when the opportunity to play Lady Thiang in a new production of “The King and I” at the London Palladium put her plans on hold. She clearly relishes the part and seems full of energy despite the demanding schedule of performances.
Stepping into the role, which she is sharing with Ruthie Ann Miles, gave her, she says, a sense of en — the Japanese concept of the interconnectedness of things. Seeing the 1977 Broadway production of “The King and I,” at age 5, had a huge impact on her. The original cast album, signed by the star Yul Brynner, and a tattered program from the show remain treasured family possessions.
“I still remember the sets, the songs and certain lines,” she says. “To play this role now feels like coming full circle.”
Mori was born in Nagoya. When she was 4, her father, an executive for trading and investment business conglomerate Marubeni Corporation, was posted to New York and the family moved to New Jersey. Mori and her brother and sister enjoyed a happy family life, and she describes her parents as wonderful people who loved the arts.
“From an early age we would go to the theater, concerts and plays, and we still do love a family karaoke night once in a while,” she says with a smile.
She remembers a sense of freedom in New York that unexpectedly evaporated when the family returned to Japan when she was 10. At school, she was treated as an outsider and experienced a kind of reverse culture shock.
“I remember the first day I went to Japanese school and people were looking at me like I was an alien. There were a lot of comments and it was a very painful experience. In those days there weren’t so many kikokushijo (returnee children). It was quite difficult because I was Japanese but they were treating me as if I was a foreigner,” she explains.
Within two years, the family was on the move again, this time to London, where Mori began singing and drama classes at the age of 12 and started dreaming of pursuing a career in the world of show business. But just as she was about to sit her mock GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) exams, her father was posted back to Tokyo, and Mori was then given a choice: move back to Japan with her family or stay on in London on her own.
When she chose to stay, her father calmly handed 15-year-old Mori a checkbook and advised her to find somewhere to live. Some might see his actions as irresponsible, but Mori remains grateful for the confidence he showed in her which, she believes, fostered a sense of self-reliance that she has carried with her throughout her life.
“He told me that he really wanted me to do what I wanted to do, which was acting and singing,” she says. “He felt that if I had gone back to Japan I wouldn’t have been able to pursue those things because it would have been all about academic achievement.”
Her father’s faith in her was borne out when at just 17 she won the role of Kim in the West End production of “Miss Saigon.” For Mori, it remains the best part ever written for an Asian woman in a musical, and her success in the role launched her career.
Since then, Mori has not only been offered a remarkable number of roles, but a wide variety of them — from a geeky teenager in the wildly popular television comedy “Absolutely Fabulous,” to a scientist in “Doctor Who” and its spinoff “Torchwood,” to the ill-fated climber Yasuko Namba in the star-studded film “Everest.”
“I do tend to cry a lot in my roles. Or die. Or cry then die,” she says, laughing. “But the variety has been one of the greatest joys for me. Each and every job has been like meeting a new person. There’s a lesson to be learned, something new to discover.”
While Mori’s British-accented English is perfect, she is equally comfortable in Japanese and she finds each language fulfills a different purpose for her. English can be more flexible for expressing details and nuances, she explains, but when acting she finds herself thinking in Japanese, and she dreams in Japanese too.
Looking ahead for new challenges, she muses about the possibility of working in Japan again, having performed in two musical productions at the Parco Theater in Tokyo back in the mid-1990s. “It’s kind of my dream to work in Japan. I’m just waiting for the invites really,” she says.
Often finding inspiration in Japanese Buddhist traditions, Mori repeatedly comes back to the concept of en — the past and present intertwining in ways we cannot see.
“I want to get rid of the labels, I want to get rid of the borders, I want everything to be universal and global,” she says, relating en to her own experience of the interconnectedness of cultures. “It’s all about communication, compassion, acceptance. There’s plenty of room in this world for everyone and anyone.”
While she concedes that lately the world doesn’t seem to be moving in this direction, she doesn’t let this thought dampen her optimism: “Things tend to work themselves out, even though it might not always seem like they will,” she says, “I have faith in a sense, faith in life.”
Name: Naoko Mori
Key moments in career:
1987 — Stays in the U.K. at age 15, when parents move back to Japan.
1990 — Cast in “Miss Saigon” and goes on to play lead role
1993-94 — Takes on a role in the TV drama series “Casualty”
2005 — Cast in an episode of science-fiction series “Doctor Who,” which leads to role in “Torchwood”
2006-2008 — Cast as Toshiko Sato in “Torchwood”
2010 — Plays Yoko Ono in BBC production “Lennon Naked”
2015 — Plays climber Yasuko Namba in “Everest”
2018 — Shares the role of Lady Thiang in the musical “The King and I”
Words to live by: “Everyone is same but different, everyone is together but separate.” (A traditional Buddhist saying)
What do you miss about Japan? “I miss the food of course! I also miss the quiet beauty and peace of Japan, the Japanese quality of calm energy.”
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5