‘John Wick 4’ Star Hiroyuki Sanada Teases His FX Series ‘Shogun,’ His First as a Lead: ‘I Feel Reborn’

Japan’s Hiroyuki Sanada has become one of Hollywood’s most familiar Asian actors, with action roles in franchises like “Mortal Kombat,” “Avengers: Endgame” and now “John Wick 4,” as well as nuanced character turns in “Minamata” and “The Railway Man.”

“John Wick” star Keanu Reeves and director Chad Stahelski created a role especially for Sanada so that he could join the action-packed universe. But it is the upcoming “Shogun” series for FX and Hulu that has given the Hollywood-based Sanada a new calling.

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What do you like most about your part in ‘John Wick: Chapter 4’?

There’s a scene between John Wick and my character Shimazu Koji, up on the roof top where the two old friends are drinking whiskey. Just talking. Talking, not fighting. That’s a very rare thing in this movie. It created atmosphere and established their chemistry.

As an action franchise, “John Wick” is pretty intense. Were you ready for that?

Before he created “John Wick” and at the end of “47 Ronin” [in which Reeves and Sanada co-starred] Keanu told me that his next project was a big action movie with Chad [Stahelski]. I said “good luck” and watched the whole series in the movie theater. Finally, Chad called me and said he’d created a role for me, as an old friend of John Wick. I was so excited, this time I said, “I’ll see you on set.” It was a quick decision. I’d been following all of Keanu’s jobs. And I was really happy to be reunited with Keanu and Chad, the stunt guys and the choreographer. It was like a dream come true.

As a Japanese actor in Hollywood, do you have to audition much?

These days, luckily, I mostly get offered roles. But, of course, for many years before that I had to audition. Lately, I read the script, talk with the director and if we see that we have the same goals, I’ll jump in.
I think I used to be a workaholic, especially when I was living in Japan. No official holidays in the year, working almost every day. I loved it. But when I moved to L.A. in 2005, it was harder for me to get roles. And I had more free time. It had never happened before. But I also realized that I needed that time, because working in the U.S. was much harder than working in Japanese in Japan. I started taking English lessons, then doing auditions and lots of meetings. I had to concentrate. I was tense. So, I needed the relaxing time in between and have now found a good work-life balance. I have an exciting job and a peaceful life. California is perfect for me. It has cities, great restaurants, the ocean and mountains. Plus, there is a big entertainment industry here.

Many of the roles you’ve taken — “Minamata,” “The Railway Man,” “Bullet Train” — speak about Japanese culture — but are not necessarily made by Japanese filmmakers. Do you worry that they are inaccurate or they’re Western-skewed interpretations of Japanese society?

Some themes are considered too sensitive or delicate that Japanese filmmakers will not touch them. In that case, if it is an important theme, having a Western filmmaker do it is welcome. I say, “Thank you for making this movie and bringing the story to the world.” I always take this stance. But if they are getting things culturally incorrect, then I have to say something. I have to fix it. I’ve found directors and producers have always listened respectfully to my suggestions and that has never been awkward on set. In “Minamata” [where the subject is an industrial-scale poisoning] the director [Andrew Levitas] asked me to consult on the set design and the costumes of the extras. I was on set every day, often before the director, checking things. I didn’t have any official title, but they listened to me. Since then, I’ve been doing that for every movie. And, last year, finally, I got the title of the producer of a show.

You are referring to “Shogun” — a series based on another Western-written book about Japan — in which you play feudal Lord Toranaga

Yes. I discussed these things a lot with Justin Marks [co-writer and executive producer] about how to make it work for today’s audiences and still be authentic. But, for the first time I had the right, officially, to say something. We hired Japanese cast and crew, who have a long career in samurai movies. Costumers, wig specialists and set designers. On “Shogun,” I had a team. Before that, I was always just one person struggling with this responsibility on my shoulders. That said, I really enjoyed it. Making better movies is my dream. Now finally, after 20 years [in the U.S.], I’ve got the title and the team. It is a big step for me. First time as a producer, first time as a leading man in a Hollywood show. I feel reborn. And I hope that there will be more occasions when I can be actor or producer, or both.

How is the production of “Shogun” going?

It went well. It was so dramatic and meaningful. Everyone understood that we were taking on a big, big challenge. But it was worth working hard to create the future. It was a great feeling: East meets West without any walls between us.

Although they operate on different scales, are there things that Hollywood can learn from the Japanese film industry?

The styles are a little different. And it is true that Japanese movies have almost no budget. So, we have to calculate and schedule everything very tightly. I don’t know if that is a good thing or not. Having a highly skilled crew certainly is. I’d like to see more mix between East and West. Bigger budgets, protected by unions, but also working to a schedule.

What are your plans going forward?

After finishing the post-production of “Shogun”, I will join my next project in June or July. A movie, but I cannot disclose the title just yet. I won’t be producer on that, but I plan to produce again in the future.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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