In her early twenties, Kiki Sukezane headed out to the States in search of the “Hollywood Dream.” She’d only previously featured in two low-budget domestic films, yet chose to follow a different path than most Japanese actors, who tend to try and establish themselves at home before seeking opportunities overseas.
So far, things have worked out quite well. She got her big break in the NBC drama series Heroes Reborn back in 2015 and recently finished filming for the Netflix show Lost in Space, set to premiere later this month. So, what were those experiences like and how did she get started in the industry? TW recently caught up with the Kyoto-born actress to find out.
“Growing up I always wanted to do humanitarian work or something related to the environment,” Sukezane tells TW. “After a variety of part-time jobs in my late teens I went to Tanzania at 20 hoping to volunteer, but soon realized I didn’t have the skill set or knowledge to contribute anything. I started thinking about other ways I could make a difference. That was when I decided to become an actress.”
Sukezane’s aim was, and still is, to become a big name in America and use that fame to spread her message about humanitarian causes, similar to celebrities like Angelina Jolie and Leonardo DiCaprio. To make an impact on a global scale, she felt it was important to spread her wings beyond Japan. Before doing that, however, some training was necessary at Yoko Narahashi’s famed UPS Academy.
“I studied acting there for two years then flew out the US in 2012,” recalls Sukezane. “I went for as many auditions as possible and within a few months managed to book a pilot for a show produced by the Jonas Brothers, which felt like a big deal. It was pitched to all the major networks, but unfortunately, none of them picked it up. Another drama I did that was shot in Okinawa also didn’t get aired. While these false starts are frustrating, it’s just the way things are in this industry. If you have a near miss or get rejected you just have to stay positive and move on to the next one.”
Continuing to plug away, Sukezane earned a living appearing in commercials and Internet shows. She believed her big chance would eventually come, and in 2015 was proved right when she was cast as Miko Otomo in Heroes Reborn, a miniseries following on from Tim Kring’s popular science fiction drama Heroes. Many of the original cast members were persuaded to return, including Masi Oka (Hiro Nakamura) and Jack Coleman (Noah Bennet).
“It was really exciting as that was one of the American shows I watched in my teens,” says Sukezane. “I heard about the part from the mother of a schoolboy who was in my sword fighting class. Her casting director friend from NBC had been having trouble finding a Japanese female trained in sword combat so suggested I try. I sent in an action reel, including me doing some martial arts, and got a call to audition. I cried when I heard I got it as I was so happy. Leading up to filming, though, I became a little cautious because of previous experiences.”
She needn’t have worried. Heroes Reborn was commissioned to run for 13 episodes, and her character played an integral part in the story. While the program received mixed reviews from critics, the sword-wielding superhero Miko immediately became a fans’ favorite, and Sukezane took to the role immediately, which given her family history, came as no surprise.
A long line of ancestors on both my mother and father’s sides were samurai
“A long line of ancestors on both my mother and father’s sides were samurai,” she tells us. “I know one fought on the side of the Ronin samurai during the famous Sakuradamon Incident [when daimyo Ii Naosuke was assassinated], and another was part of the Heike no Ochimusha, so it was nice to be able to honor that history in a small way. The whole Heroes Reborn experience was great. I got to play an entertaining character, and the cast members were all super nice. We went out together often and still sometimes meet up.”
Compatriot Toru Uchikado was the person she spent the most time with both on and off screen. They also formed a close bond with fellow countryman Masi Oka, who became like a mentor for the pair. He’s been a regular on American TV since the first season of Heroes began, and Sukezane was hoping the show would have a similar impact on her own career. In the months after filming had ended, however, she failed to book anything despite going to auditions on a regular basis. Things were more positive at home where she appeared on a range of talk shows, including Another Sky and Mezamashi TV. Last year she briefly featured in the second and third movies of Exile’s High & Low franchise, and was cast as Yui Sakuraoka in the spy drama Code Name Mirage.
“My parents were far more excited about seeing me on the box in Japan than they were about Heroes Reborn,” says the recently turned 29-year-old. “I enjoy working in both countries, but as you’d expect it’s very different in terms of acting style. The focus in America is on realism, whereas Japanese directors, possibly influenced by noh and kabuki, tend to want more exaggerated expressions and dramatic lines.
“Also, I think things are, generally speaking, easier in the States because there are unions,” continues Sukezane. “I joined the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) after moving to the US, and as a result I am allowed a 12-hour break between shoots. In Japan, you are afforded nothing like that. Sometimes it might just be two hours, which is not ideal, but in this profession, it’s important to be constantly working.”
Fortunately for Sukezane, her latest part is in an American drama. She plays a scientist called Aiko in the Netflix science fiction series Lost in Space, which is based on the 1965 show of the same name. Starring former Bond villain Toby Stephens, the story centers around the Robinson family, whose spaceship Jupiter 2 crashes into an unknown planet after encountering a space-time anomaly.
“I was shooting for Code Name Mirage in Japan when I got the call about Lost in Space,” recalls Sukezane. “I had to fly out within a week of getting the news so it was all a bit rushed. The first thing that struck me when I got there was how big and expensive the set looked. I’d never seen anything that impressive before. From a visual perspective, the show is amazing and the story is interesting. It was a pleasure to be a part of the production and, like on Heroes Reborn, everyone was really friendly, especially [Argentinian-American actor] Ignacio Serricchio who helped me a lot.”
Looking ahead, Sukezane’s main goal in the short term is to secure more roles in high-profile American shows. In the long term, she still hopes to become more influential in the industry so she can help humanitarian causes.
“My biggest asset is the fact that I’m from Japan,” says Sukezane. “If there’s a part for a Japanese woman then I believe I have a good chance of getting it. At the same time, I’d like to play characters where ethnicity or nationality aren’t important, but I feel I need to improve my English before that can happen. Hopefully one day I can get some leading roles in Hollywood and then I can achieve my ultimate ambition of aiding non-profit organizations.”