Taking a break from the photo studios and runways that have sought her image for so long, Tao Okamoto hits the big screen this year alongside Hugh Jackman in the latest Marvel movie, The Wolverine, so we’d better get used to hearing her name…
With much of the film set in Tokyo (see the trailer below for a taste of one thrilling scene set atop a speeding bullet train…) hype is sure to be unprecedented and we wanted to find out more.
Interview by Matthew Hernon
After an extensive two-year search, director James Mangold finally decided the Vogue cover star with no acting experience was the perfect candidate to play the superhero’s new love interest, Makiko. But why?
When Tao arrived to meet us at Donna Studios in Shibuya, Weekender found a natural beauty (and this may have had something to do with it…) She lit up the room with both her personality and her looks – without the need for much makeup; she speaks flawless English, is smart and charming and while she has fronted campaigns for the likes of Ralph Lauren, Emporio Armani, Alexander McQueen and Givenchy, there is nothing of the diva about her.
Tao seemed keen to speak at length about her thoughts on the film, a certain Australian actor (and how her ex-boyfriend might see him), her modelling career and what the future holds.
Your first acting job lands you in a major blockbuster with one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, how did that come about?
Well the studio was searching for a Japanese girl for the role of Mariko for around two years. They just couldn’t seem to find anyone so they opened the door wider to include people who weren’t in the industry and that was when my agency gave me a call and asked if I was interested.
I initially said no because I’d never done anything like that, but then they mentioned I was going to be Hugh Jackman’s girlfriend in the movie and that was enough to change my mind.
Two years is a long time to be looking, why do you think they found it so difficult?
There just aren’t enough Japanese actresses who speak English. For James (Mangold) it had to be a Japanese girl because he had seen Zhang Ziyi as Sayuri in Memoirs of a Geisha and really didn’t like it. I think a lot of people in this country also complained about that, but I am sure they wanted a Japanese person for that role, they just couldn’t find anyone.
I think that is something we should feel a little ashamed about and try to learn from.
This void gave you an opportunity to star in your first film, how do you think it went?
I absolutely love acting. Being my first time it was obviously hard at first, particularly the action scenes as I didn’t really want to hit people! With the help of the stunt team I gradually improved. As for the general performance, I am not sure if I was good or not, though the director said I was, so that is positive.
“It’s funny, the first memory I have of Hugh Jackman is how jealous he made my British ex-boyfriend around 10 years ago.”
Can you tell us a little bit about your character?
Mariko is a strong, independent girl. Her family is extremely wealthy and they want her to eventually to take over the running of their business, but she has other ideas. Then she meets Wolverine (Jackman) and the adventure begins.
What was it like working with someone like Hugh Jackman?
I know it is a boring answer to say he is so nice, but he really was a dream to work alongside. I have heard some big movie stars can be cold towards fellow cast members who aren’t actors per se, but being one of the producers he appreciated everyone’s support and really took care of us all.
He gave me a lot of advice. This was my first time on a movie set and I didn’t even know what ‘on’ and ‘off’ camera meant. He would tell me where to stand and what I should be focusing on and other little things like not eating too much during the meal scenes in case there were many takes. While it might sound very simple, tips like that really helped me.
Above, the international trailer for the Wolverine, on release this summer.
Did you get close to him on a personal level?
Yes, he is a really open person who wanted to bring the cast and crew closer together. I remember on Fridays he would buy every single person on set a scratchcard. He thought it was a good way to get people communicating. Apparently he has been doing it for around 12 years.
He also invited all of us to dinner during and after the shoot, which was a lot of fun. We got to meet his wife and two kids, who are so cute. A lot of people say he is such a hot guy, but for me he is like a super nice dad. Of course I mean that in a complimentary way!
Were you a big fan of his prior to this movie?
It’s funny, the first memory I have of him is how jealous he made my British ex-boyfriend around 10 years ago. We were watching the X-Men DVD and I didn’t really like sci-fi films at that time so I wasn’t massively into it, but I remember mentioning to my boyfriend about how cute the main star was.
He really wasn’t happy about that and I think he will get quite a shock if he goes to the cinema and sees me as Hugh Jackman’s girlfriend!
It must have also come as quite a surprise to your family and friends, how did they react?
My parents used to be actors so I think they were pretty happy that I was kind of following in their footsteps. I invited them to the set, which they were excited about. My mum was like a stage-mum, trying to analyse my performance. I felt I wasn’t doing well early on and she was adding to the pressure so I eventually decided to send her home. I haven’t really spoken to (my friends) about it yet because I am not so confident about my performance.
Is a lack of confidence something you suffer from when modelling?
Yes, I would love to be more confident. It is the one thing I would most like to change about myself. From a young age I have really had a complex about my looks and especially my height. People would point and stare at me, which made me feel terrible, so I would try to bend my knees or somehow try to stand lower. Anything to make myself look shorter.
After moving to England I started to become a little more confident. My height was less of an issue there and this made be feel better about myself. Doing well as a model has also helped. I have met some really wonderful people in the industry, like (designers) Zac Posen and Philip Lim, who have been really supportive.
Most of your modelling success has been overseas, do you think your look is more popular for foreign audiences/designers than Japanese ones?
Definitely, which makes me feel a little sad. Here in Japan I am often described as an ‘Asian Beauty’, which sounds good, but actually can be negative. People often view it as being too traditional or old-fashioned and as a result I wasn’t what Japanese designers were looking for. On the other hand whenever foreign designers came to my shows they selected me every time. The decision to move abroad was therefore quite an easy one.
You left at a young age [Tao moved to Paris in 2006], how difficult was it to adapt?
It wasn’t easy, though I think it is the same for anyone who leaves their home country. Not being able to speak French while living in Paris was hard and then I moved to this tiny village in Kent, England, called Tenterden (about 90km south-east of London), where there were not really any places for young people to go out, so that was also difficult. I think some people in the area hadn’t seen an Asian person before and didn’t know how to treat me. I even had kids throwing stones at me.
During my first few months in New York (in 2009) I was having a hard time and almost ready to give up on modeling. I was told that that was ‘fine’ as there were a number other Asian girls who could easily replace me. That made me feel really terrible, but I decided to persevere and really try to make a go of it.
There have been times when I have wanted to return to Japan and give up (on modeling) but … my time abroad has generally been very positive. I’ve had some wonderful job opportunities, met some great friends, learned English and lived in some of the world’s most vibrant cities, so I definitely shouldn’t be complaining.
So what’s next? Does your new acting career mean we are going to being seeing less of you as a model?
I am not sure about that. There is still much I want to do as a model, like work for Christian Dior and John Galliano, so I am definitely not ready to give up on that industry yet. Having said that I would love to be in more movies. Hopefully when the film is released and my name is out there, there will be further opportunities. If there are, I will have to be careful about striking a good balance between the two.
Finally, is The Wolverine really worth watching?
Of course! I think it will be particularly interesting for foreigners living in Japan as there are a lot of places they will have been to and things they will have seen like the Shinkansen etc. I just hope they like my performance too.
The Wolverine is on general release in Japan on September 13. If you are in the US or Europe, you’ll be able to see it in July.
Magazine cover photo by Koichiro Doi. Main Image: Tao Okamoto and Hugh Jackman in The Wolverine (Courtesy of Fox)