The Germany-based actress talks about working with a star from “Game of Thrones” and the challenges of performing overseas.
Yuho Yamashita’s acting career began at the age of 11 with a leading role in the family friendly musical “Annie.” She then appeared as the child star in the popular NHK morning drama “Amakarashan,” but soon got tired of life in the entertainment industry and decided to knuckle down and focus more on her studies.
Interested in the environmental sector, she moved to Freiburg after graduating from University as it was considered the most eco-friendly city in the world. However, after relocating to Berlin she caught the acting bug again and featured in a number of German language productions including “Viva Berlin” and “Der Alte” (The Old Man). In recent years she has switched her attention to more English-speaking roles, such as the part of Sakura in Jason Zada’s first feature length film, “The Forest.”
Starring Natalie Dormer from “The Game of Thrones,” it is a supernatural horror film set in and around Aokigahara, also known as Japan’s suicide forest, though most of the film was actually shot in Serbia. Dormer’s character Sara Price decides to visit the creepy site after hearing from the Japanese police that it was the last place her twin sister had been seen before she mysteriously disappeared, presumed dead. The movie was released in Tokyo last weekend so we decided to sit down with Yamashita to hear more about it.
Firstly can you tell us about your role in The Forest?
My character is a rebellious teen, which is quite interesting considering I’m in my thirties [smiles]. It’s a small part, but I think it’s an important one because in my scene with Natalie I tell her about the secrets of the forest and yurei (figures in Japanese folklore analogous to Western legends of ghosts) and this is really the key point in the movie. It explains everything.
What was Natalie Dormer like to work with?
She just came across as a true professional – a very strong lady who knows exactly what she wants. It was like, “here is this camera, there’s that one: now, let’s get on with it.” A lot of the time she was the one directing, really pushing to get things going. At one stage she actually went on strike because she didn’t feel comfortable working with Jason. They had to take a day to discuss how to make things better. I heard about that 24 hours before my shoot and I was really worried that they might cancel everything. Fortunately they worked it out and Natalie put in a fine performance. Her quality was evident throughout.
Did you feel nervous doing the scene with her?
I did. I had to do my lines six or seven times and I was really struggling. I’m generally good at memorizing words, but it’s not so easy doing it a second or third language. I also knew it was a pivotal scene with the leading lady. She’s worth a lot of money so I was really worried about taking up her time. I went up to her at the end and apologized for taking so long and she told me that I’d done great and the scene was really impressive. It meant a lot to hear that. She supported me throughout even at times when she didn’t need to be there.
Did you hang out after filming?
No she was a typical star who went straight to her trailer. I did introduce her to my son who she said was really cute. I also met Lady Gaga at the hotel [her former fiance Taylor Kinney plays a reporter who goes into the forest with Sara]. She was really nice.
What are your thoughts on the film in general?
It’s not bad [laughs]. I think Jason wanted to make a movie that was different from a typical Hollywood horror [film], but also not make something that was too Japanese. There are new elements brought into it. Once in a while there are some genuinely scary scenes, though not throughout. With it being an American horror [film] based in Japan I really wasn’t expecting much, yet I was pleasantly surprised and could understand what the director was trying to do. While I do think it could have been better, it wasn’t completely boring like some of the zombie films you see coming out of the States.
What about your own performance?
I think that could have been better too, but I always think like that when I see myself on screen.
You’ve taken a very different path than other Japanese actors and actresses have. What was it like starting out in Germany?
I initially didn’t know anything about the film market there and in some respects that made things a little easier. I accepted everything. Of course that got me into trouble sometimes. I was a typical naive Japanese girl who lost money because I believed in people. It was tough, but at the same time a good experience. You learn to become more independent. Over there you have to promote yourself, whereas in Japan your agency does everything for you. I also think acting is taken more seriously. I went to a school called Actor’s Space where I learned the Meisner technique for the first time. It really opened my eyes. In Japan everything is so vague. Actors without talent can get by just because they look good.
Was it difficult to find work in Germany?
There are jobs for Asian actresses there, but they tend to be stereotypical roles – like as a prostitute or a doll-like character that’s similar to Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. Finding something with a bit of substance is not easy. I’m still based in Germany with my son and husband, but I now travel a lot between England and Japan.
So looking ahead you’re aiming for more English-speaking parts?
Yes. I went to the UK in 2013 trying to find work and I quickly realized that my English skills had really gone downhill since I had been living in Germany. When I tried to speak German words would come out. I decided to go to an Actors’ Center in Covent Garden and really work on my English pronunciation. It seemed to do the trick. As well as “The Forest” I also got a role in “Billionaire Ransom” [originally titled “Take Down”] which features a number of exciting young actors like Jeremy Sumpter [“Peter Pan”] and Phoebe Tonkin [“The Vampire Diaries”]. It was an exciting project to be involved with and I hope to do more like that. I think there are far more opportunities in Britain than Germany; however, I am really worried about the whole Brexit thing. The day of the referendum decision I got a call from my agent saying that one of my jobs had been cancelled. I just think there is a lot of uncertainty right now.
“The Forest” was released in Tokyo on November 5.