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Everest - Naoko Mori interview (exclusive)

Everest, Naoko Mori

Interview by Rob Carnevale

NAOKO Mori talks about the challenge and appeal of making Everest with Jake Gyllenhaal and Josh Brolin, including what it was like to go through the altitude training and having a close encounter with a herd of yaks on a narrow suspension bridge.

She also talks about some of her research into real-life mountain climber Yasuko Namba and reflects on her own career to date, including breakout roles in the West End version of Miss Saigon and becoming a Torchwood regular.

Q. What was the appeal of playing Yasuko Namba, the second Japanese woman to reach all of the Seven Summits, including Everest?
Naoko Mori: For me, there’s always a huge attraction in playing real people. But with it comes an incredible sense of responsibility because you’re playing a real person in a real event. But having read the script and done the research on her, I just felt so passionate about telling her story… as did the other guys. We were all very, very committed to this project. We did an incredible amount of research and feel so strongly towards the people we’re portraying. Now, we just hope we’ve done the story and the people affected justice. It’s difficult because there are so many people involved and a lot of it got cut, because we can’t keep people there [in the cinema] for 10 hours. But after seeing the film, I hope people will have learned about this incredible event that took place.

Q. How much research did you do on Yasuko? Did you speak to any of her relatives? Or any survivors, as some cast members did?
Naoko Mori: Sadly, with Yasuko, there’s not really that much information. I wasn’t able to speak to her husband. I actually came slightly late onto this project, so I didn’t have a lot of time before we started shooting. But I read all the books and all of the accounts. And rehearsal week was very intensive – we all learnt a lot from other people’s research. But one thing happened to me that was quite amazing when we were shooting. We were in Nepal on the Everest trek, and had reached this horrifically terrifying suspension bridge. We were waiting for the cameras to be set up and I suddenly became aware that there was a Japanese lady behind me, who said the name Namba.

She was referring to the back of my back-pack, where I had written Yasuko’s surname. So , this lady saw my backpack, saw the name, and she was visibly upset. She was with an elderly Japanese gentleman. She then asked me what I was doing. And I told her that we were filming Everest and that I was playing Yasuko, to which she replied: “Actually, she was my friend.” It still gives me goose-bumps now. But I think that was utter fate. And having met her and spoke to her, I got a lot of insight into Yasuko. So, that was a God-send, really. It almost felt as if Yasuko was making sure we’d met at that point. We were only 10 days into filming. But we subsequently kept in touch and she told me a lot about Yasuko.

Q. What did you learn about her that you hadn’t already by that point?
Naoko Mori: I think you always want to find out enough about the person without being too intrusive. But I think I learnt her essence in a way and why, maybe, she loved climbing. She was a 47-year-old businesswoman, who was a very experienced climber – she had been climbing since university and had already completed six of the seven Summits in the world, so this would have made her complete. Everest was the seventh summit of the seven, which was also incredible for her because she didn’t have a lot of commercial backing or sponsorship. She did it privately. She was quite reserved, but also feisty and determined. I think we all have things in our life… demons or things, and I think it [climbing] was her way of dealing with certain things – and it did help her. She loved it so much. She used to get up in the middle of the night and train before going to work, and she would run up and down staircases in skyscrapers during her lunch break to train. She was incredibly committed. I would have loved to have met her and had a chat with her.

Q. What was the physical training like for you?
Naoko Mori: Oh gosh, a lot of the guys had the option to go and climb with Guy Cotter [CEO of Adventure Consultants] in New Zealand. But because I came late I didn’t get that chance. But I do have a friend who is a personal trainer, so she really thrashed me [laughs]! I have never seen that side of her and our friendship has never been the same since [laughs]. No, we’re still great friends. But I’ve always done rock climbing and things like that, so while they’re obviously very different, I had some kind of foundation. And I also did a lot of walking. I did get to speak to Guy Cotter and he said the best thing you can do is to carry a really heavy ruck-sack and climb and walk, up hills or mountains. So, that’s all I did – every day.

As far as the altitude training was concerned, we all had a day where we went down to Portsmouth in a mini-van… [laughs] So, I was stuck in a traffic jam in this mini-van with Jake Gyllenhaal, Josh Brolin and the guys. It’s not a bad place to be! But then we all got thrown into the altitude chamber and, believe me, you have no idea until you experience it, what it [altitude] does to your body, your mind and your brain. It was just an amazing experience! And once we got up there, once we reached Namche Bazaar, which is about 3,400 metres, you really feel it. All of us, the cast and the crew… there’s no way out. You just had to fight it. And it affects people differently. I didn’t get nausea or headaches, but I did get the sleep apnoea, which is where your body stops breathing in the middle of the night, and it then wakes you up and makes sure you start breathing again. That was an interesting experience! You kind of get used to it but it means that you’re not getting proper sleep. So, that was also a taste of what was to come – -20 degrees every day, no hot water or no toilet… I was the only female cast member, so that was a bit nerve-wracking, hiding behind a yak to pee and making sure no one was watching! But we bonded so quickly on that Nepal leg that we became such a strong family. And all that goes out of the window and you’re just there, together, on this epic adventure.

It felt like an expedition in itself. You can take two steps and you’re out of breath, so imagine what it feels like when you get to the summit, at 26,000 feet, where there is so little oxygen that you can’t survive. The summit of Everest is also the height at which planes cruise. So, if you plonked someone on top of Everest, you’d die within one or two minutes, which is why you climb, come down, acclimatise, and then climb, come down and acclimatise again. Your whole body is shutting down and trying to survive with no oxygen. So, it’s an incredible feat to achieve. And I have a completely renewed admiration for all these climbers.

Everest, Naoko Mori

Q. Being a rock climber, do you now have a taste for going further yourself and trying such an expedition? Or has doing this film given you enough of a taste?
Naoko Mori: You know what? It’s kind of flicked a switch that I didn’t think existed! It makes you want to do it more, so I can now kind of understand why people do it – and keep doing it. You don’t get it until you start. What I’d love to do, at some point, and I’ve been talking to Guy, the current owner of Adventure Consultants about this, is do the trip to the actual base camp. I would love to do that. This has certainly changed my viewpoint… when you see such nature and the sheer vastness of it. It’s huge. It puts a lot of things into perspective. It’s been a life-changing experience for a lot of us. So yes, I definitely would like to get into more trekking and climbing stuff. It’s awakened me.

Q. Obviously, the earthquake in Nepal happened towards the end of filming this movie and some of your second unit were still on location. How did you react when news came through?
Naoko Mori: Oh my God, we were just absolutely gob smacked. It didn’t really start with that either. It felt a little strange because a week after we left Nepal there was a terrible plane crash involving one of the airlines we’d actually flown with and there were no survivors. Lukla is the world’s No.1 most scariest runway – it’s basically a short runway in the middle of the mountain and some pilots refuse to fly there. So, that was the first tragedy we heard about. And then came news of the avalanche. Kent Harvey, our director of photography, was still acclimatising at base camp and we did lose some of the Sherpas we’d worked with. I remember I had just been emailing with Guy Cotter, and he was there, in camp 3 or 4 when it struck. The producers of Everest emailed us and let us know they were fine straight away. But it serves as a reminder that it’s such a treachorous and dangerous place. If you go to the official website for Everest, we have a charity link to Oxfam that encourages people to give in support of the relief that is still needed there, and we’ve been doing fundraising through Working Title and Universal. So, hopefully, if people see the film, they can chip in because they still need support and help.

Q. It does seem to have been forgotten about in some ways now that it’s faded from the headlines…
Naoko Mori: You’re so right. They’ve had such terrible luck but they really are the most beautiful poeple and it’s such a beautiful country. They really give a lot…. they’re incredible people. A lot of them live in remote villages, deep in the Himalayas. I remember talking to one of the sherpas that I’d got friendly with, and he told me that he was going to see his family, who were quite close – only a three day walk! These are incredible people so it would be really great if we can keep helping them, and if this film serves as a little reminder.

Q. How much did you enjoy working with the likes of Jake Gyllenhaal, who in recent years seems to have taking acting to an even higher standard with some of the roles he’s inhabited?
Naoko Mori: He’s astounding. And I’ve always been a huge fan. I think I gushed when he came and sat down next to me at the read through. I literally couldn’t look at him. I’m a huge fan of Josh Brolin as well. But I think Jake has been so under-rated. People don’t know just how capable and brilliant he is. Certainly, in the last couple of years as you say, the fims he’s done have been incredible. So, it was such an honour and a privilege to be working with these poeple and to be stuck on a mountain with them, 24/7, in freezing conditions. We were together pretty much all the time and we bonded so much. Jake is amazing and he’s such a lovely guy – he plays the guitar and sings too. It was lovely to watch and see how everyone works because they all have different processes. So, it was a huge learning curve as well. I was in heaven anyway because I was the only female cast member who had been there from the beginning in this sea of bearded, burly men and eating Italian food – which has always been my favourite. But we all knew this was going to be a challenge. And it was physically and mentally challenging, the whole four months we were together – just being in the cold, in the snow, in a real harsh environment. Baltasar Kormakur [director] was always telling us that he didn’t want any acting…. and we were in the environment and got to experience that, so there was no acting required a lot of the time.

But I have to add, Josh [Brolin] was a complete hero as well. He’s one of the funniest people you will ever meet. He had us in stitches. He’s so kind and so funny and down to earth, but also so professional and brilliant. I honestly learned so much. And Josh is also a true life hero. When we came across this long, long suspension bridge… I thought I was good with heights until I started to cross it and my knees buckled. But he grabbed my hand and walked me across, like a true gentleman. It turned out he was afraid of heights too, so we were helping each other! But we were also in the middle of this suspension bridge during one take when one of the yaks panicked and started a stampede towards us. And this was a narrow bridge with literally nowhere to run. So, we got kicked and headbutted. I went down. But he jumped on top of me and covered me from all the other yaks.

Everest, Naoko Mori

Q. Looking back on your own career, that has been pretty amazing to this point as well. For instance, you were the first Japanese national to land a lead role in a West End play…
Naoko Mori: In Miss Saigon, when I was 17. You know, I’ve been so lucky. And I know that’s such a cliche. But I really have been incredibly lucky. That was a huge job because it was such an amazing part [the role of Kim], so to have that as my first job was quite daunting. To be honest, it still rates as one of the best parts that’s ever been written for an Asian girl, so having been able to do that was a huge honour and I’m so grateful. But I’ve also been very lucky in that I’ve had a very varied career. I’ve always wanted to do a variety of parts and genres. I’m really interested in people and have been able to play some really interesting people – albeit mostly dorky and weird characters [laughs]. But five years ago I played Yoko Ono [in Lennon Naked], which was a very interesting experience. It’s hugely challenging to play someone who is a real person because you do have a huge responsibility. But that was great. And I never ever thought I’d have an action figure – in the form of my character from Torchwood [Toshiko Sato]. So, it’s been surprise after surprise. I never thought I’d go to Nepal and do the Everest trek. I can’t thank God enough.

Q. You also worked with Mike Leigh on Topsy Turvey, which must have been another steep learning curve given his working process?
Naoko Mori: Oh my gosh, there was one day where we did something like a six or eight hour improvisation. It was just astounding. But I love that process. And we got on great. In fact, we kept in touch for a while afterwards. But what I love is finding these immersive jobs. I’ve always wanted a challenge, so working with Mike Leigh was a huge learning curve and a great experience – just to be in character for the duration… to never come out of character. Everest was almost the same but on a completely different scale.

Q. And from having spoken to Baltasar in the past, I know he likes to push his actors to the limit…
Naoko Mori: He is a whole other force of nature – he’s like a pure Viking, isn’t he? Just this big, strong, wonderful, passionate, giant from Iceland – but incredibly funny and kind as well. He really did push us. I remember on one take, I was in so much pain and it was the one time ever that I actually put my hand up and went ‘stop’. But he wouldn’t. He just kept going. And he was right. I was weak at that moment. But he really did go for it and he kept drumming into us that he wanted to make it real. I think he’s also since said himself that Everest is one of the hardest things he’s ever done.

But he’s completely fearless. We’d be hanging off a mountain in -20 degrees and he’d be the strongest man there. There’d be avalanche warnings and experts would be telling him ‘we need to get off the mountain’, and he’d be ‘no, no, no’! But he wouldn’t make us do anything he wouldn’t do himself. So, I have huge admiration and respect for him. He used to be an actor, so he understands things from an actor’s perspective. He helps you get there and pushes you and challenges you. And that’s an incredible power to have as director. I remember another day, we were on the edge of the trek and he asked if we could get a camera down there. But the safety guys said it would take about five hours to set up, so he just said ‘give me the camera’. He’s so committed.

Naoko Mori

Q. So, what gave you the acting bug in the first place?
Naoko Mori: Again, I only started getting into acting properly when I was about 11. Up until then… well, first of all I wanted to be an apple. I thought that was an occupation. This was when I was three! And then I wanted to be Annie after I saw a production of it on Broadway. Funnily enough, Sarah Jessica Parker played Annie, so I actually have her autograph from back then. But I remember wanting to be a red-headed orphan; not an actor. Then I wanted to be a pro golfer and an air hostess. So, I didn’t get into acting until I was 11 or 12. If anything, I wanted to be a singer more, and so had started classical singing lessons. But again, I’ve just been so damn lucky. I have this belief about things happening organically. I believe life has this organic flow in a way. So, basically, it started with school plays, then moving onto local theatre… then I joined the National Youth Music Theatre, and that was the same year that Jude Law and Johnny Lee Miller were there. So, we became friends.

I was then told to go and audition for Miss Saigon and it started from there. It all connected and I really believe in that… that if I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have met this person and wouldn’t have moved onto the next thing. I was looking into going to drama school but was offered the part in Miss Saigon, so took a deferment in order to do Miss Saigon first before going onto complete my A-levels. But after that, I just never left [acting]. After Miss Saigon, I went onto Casualty for a year, and I started doing Absolutely Fabulous while I was still in Miss Saigon. It just kept rolling on. So, I have to thank whoever it is who helped me along the way.

Q. What’s next?
Naoko Mori: I’ve no idea! There’s a couple of things and one that I’m really excited about but we’ve not done the contracts yet so I can’t say anything… But it’s really exciting.

Q. It’s not a Star Wars movie or spin-off?
Naoko Mori: That would be so cool, wouldn’t it? When we were at Pinewood, they were building the Star Wars sets and JJ Abrams actually came over because he and Jake are friends. We were all, like, ‘can you give me a job?’ That would be amazing. No, it’s not Star Wars. Hopefully, I’ll be able to tell you what it is soon. In the meantime, I’m off to LA in a couple of days to have a reunion with the Everest lot at the premiere. So, it’ll be exciting to see them all again.

Read our review of Everest

Everest will be released on September 18, 2015 by Universal Pictures.