SAN FRANCISCO—A gaggle of journalists waits not so patiently around a table in a hotel room. Conversation ranges from snarky remarks about recently released films to, well, snarky remarks about recently released films. They’re loud, opinionated, and ready with pointed questions to pounce on whoever gets trotted out in front of them.
Then Rinko Kikuchi enters, and the place goes silent. The thin, wide-eyed actor seizes the room with an ease that doesn’t seem possible from someone so quiet. Film critics who were vehemently debating Man of Steel’s place in the canon of superhero films are suddenly unwilling or unable to utter a word out of turn or between the pauses Kikuchi takes when she searches for the right English words to convey her thoughts.
In a private interview earlier in the day, Kikuchi told the Georgia Straight about being discovered while walking on the streets of Tokyo at the age of 15. Although her story was a bit shy on details, if her discoverer noticed that the soft-spoken native of Hadano, Japan, had an unusual aura about her, something that would make even the most cynical of folks shut up, the anecdote makes sense.
Kikuchi is the lead female in director Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim (opening Friday [July 12] ), an apocalyptic film about robots called Jaegers (German for hunter) battling sea monsters called Kaiju (Japanese for strange beast) for the fate of Planet Earth. Kikuchi plays Mako Mori, a young woman training to be a Jaeger pilot under the guidance of revolution leader Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba).
Although this isn’t her first American feature—she garnered a best supporting actress Oscar nomination for 2006’s Babel—Kikuchi is still relatively new to Hollywood life, and this is by far the biggest project she’s ever worked on.
The action-heavy film required a lot from Kikuchi in a physical sense. “I trained for many months,” she tells the Straight, sounding exhausted just talking about the experience. “It was boot camp: weightlifting, running on the beach, martial arts. My trainer was so hard on me. One day he says, ‘Rinko, run to the pole.’ On the beach, in the summer in L.A., it’s so hot. And I can’t see any pole. ‘You keep going; you will see it.’ I almost cried running to get to the pole. It was the most intense preparation. I got over it and I feel like I became tough.”
That grit came in handy when she was tasked with operating the Jaegers, a job that involved getting into a life-size cockpit designed by del Toro. Costar Charlie Hunnam, who plays Mako’s copilot, Raleigh Becket, marvels at Kikuchi’s ability to handle the rigours of the cockpit.
“She’s just wonderful,” he says during a news conference in the same hotel. “I’m not sure if she’s just a total badass, but every dude in the movie who got into the cockpit, all of us think we’re real tough guys and we were all crying like little baby girls within minutes of being in there. And Rinko was in there for, like, 16 days and, I swear, she never complained once. She’d do the sequence and just close her eyes and be so peaceful and Zen about it.
“After a while, I asked her, ‘What were you thinking about in there? You were so peaceful.’ And she just said, ‘Chocolate and teddy bears!’ And I was just, like, ‘I’m thinking about the ways I could kick Guillermo’s ass! And the fact that I’m never going to act again, and the fact that I’m going to come back here later tonight and burn this set down!’ ”
But for all the physical and mental toughness she had to exude, Kikuchi’s Mako—the only female character in Pacific Rim with a substantial part—also had to provide the film with its emotional heart. It was a difficult endeavour, to be sure, but one that her director never doubted she could pull off.
Del Toro, meeting separately with the Straight that same day, says: “I think she was perfect for the role because she’s very strong but she has vulnerability… I wanted to do a movie where you have a female pilot that is not a sexy girl, giggling or turning into a man whenever there’s a fight. I wanted a character that had the essential character of being a woman and not having to become a guy to fight. I wanted her to be very strong but at the same time be a character that had a really good reason to have a fear of being in the Jaeger. I needed someone who could play this from a real emotional point.”
Although del Toro insists that he hardly ever auditions for his lead roles, Mako was an exception. He says he knew Kikuchi was right for the job from the moment he met her, but he also needed to “show the studio that she could handle it”.
Kikuchi sought out the part by contacting a friend who knows del Toro, and she flew out to Toronto to meet the director. Proving that Oscar nominees still get audition jitters, the actress readily confesses to being anxious. “I was so nervous,” she says, “because I really wanted to get this role, and Guillermo sensed this, so he took me for ice cream before the audition, and we just ate ice cream, and it made me really relaxed. After that, we did a few scenes from the script and then I got this role.”
If del Toro was worried that the studio, Warner Bros., had any doubts in the beginning, producer Thomas Tull made it clear during the news conference that those fears had been crushed, Jaeger-style, by the performance that Kikuchi ultimately delivered.
“What we didn’t want to do was just put a movie star in and say, ‘Well, they may be wrong for that part but let’s see how we can run box-office numbers,’ ” Tull maintained. “That’s just not our MO. And in this case, with the choices Guillermo put forth, we talked about it and said ‘Yes.’ Her character is, for my money, the most compelling. She came from a place of real personal loss and has a relationship with Idris’s character that is complex and fatherly and all those things. So I actually love her character and her performance. She’s the coolest character in the movie.”
As Kikuchi herself ponders all the new, foreign experiences she went through with Pacific Rim, including going to a Jay Z/Kanye West concert with Elba in Toronto (“It was amazing!” she proclaims), there’s a real sense that the girl who got discovered on the streets of Tokyo is ready to break out into the world.
“Everything was completely new to me,” she says. “Working without a translator; a lot of English lines; being a pilot; physical training; having a dialogue coach and a big trailer. Everything’s new to me, so it was a really precious experience.
“After the film was done, I knew I was ready to be…” She pauses, searching for the right word as the room falls dead silent. “To be… more... international,” she says.
Rinko Kikuchi is ready for the world. World, get ready for her.