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Memoirs of a Geisha - Ken Watanabe interview

Ken Watanabe in Memoirs of a Geisha

Interview by Rob Carnevale

Q. Did you know the book? Was the book very well known in Japan?
A. Yes. Eight years ago every actress read the book. I also read the book, so I knew the story but Steven [Spielberg] didn’t know me at that time. I didn’t get an offer. I didn’t worry about that. I was so impressed – a novel written in English about the Geisha world.
At first, I was a little bit confused and wondered, “is it a true story or not?” After that I read some more and found it was fiction. That really impressed me.
Three years ago I met with Steven after the premiere of The Last Samurai. He explained a lot with incredible feeling and imagination. He said he wanted me for the chairman and I thought, “Oh, God – The Chairman? Every female loves him! Oh my goodness! I can’t do that!” But then I met Rob and I talked with him about the story and the customs and the culture and I thought about it more and more. We tried harder with three languages on set – English, Chinese and Japanese.
The music’s tune was written in English, but the music’s note was in Japanese. Geisha is opera in Japan; beautiful costumes, wonderful music and wonderful dancing. It’s kind-of like being at the opera. They’re wonderful women; traditional. And Rob Marshall is the best of the directors.

Q. This is the first Hollywood film you’ve not killed anyone in – how did it feel being a male in a very female story?
A: I always look for the best opportunities and I found this curious. The Chairman is a very strong guy and like anything my questions were, who is he? How old is he? There was a lot of pressure. It was tough work but interesting as an actor. I wanted to work with Rob, he’s a different type of director.

Q. The little girl who played Sayuri when she was young was remarkable – you’d worked with her before, too?
A. I worked with her in Japan and she played my daughter. Before shooting she was really concerned. “Last time I played his daughter, and this time… his lover?” It was so funny. She’s so cute. The director on the Japanese movie didn’t always call cut, he’d keep shooting after the sequence and she’d always follow. She’s very, very smart and very talented.