The actor reflects on her role in Minamata with director Andrew Levitas.
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Taken from the Summer 2020 issue. Order your copy now.
Minami is issuing a call to action. Meet the actor starring in Minamata, a film following photojournalist W. Eugene Smith and his partner Aileen Mioko Smith to Japan, to document the devastating effects of mercury poisoning on its coastal communities. Based on real events, Minami brings Aileen to life with power and nuance on screen alongside Johnny Depp. Here, with writer-director Andrew Levitas, she reflects on the intricacies of her performance, the power of telling a true story, and why Minamata feels timely today.
AL: It’s so wonderful to be talking to you. It’s an interesting and complex time and I’m grateful that we had the opportunity to share our film at the Berlinale before the world took such a turn. So let’s work backwards, I’d like to hear what your experience was like in Berlin and then we’ll go back to how we met and a bit of your life before Minamata.
M: Berlin was my first red carpet experience. I needed to prepare a lot before going. I was so nervous! But once we were all back together I wasn’t nervous any more.
AL: And we came on stage to this incredible 2000-person standing ovation, which apparently lasted over ten minutes! I’m curious how that felt to you, seeing you and your partner artists’ hard work applauded in that way?
M: I feel that everyone was touched by the movie. I think at that moment I wanted to say thank you to you for making the movie. No one did a story about Minamata before and a lot of people discovered what is happening in Minamata through this. At that exact moment I could feel this awareness beginning. What’s happening right now with Coronavirus is part of the same environmental story. People need to be more conscious about our lives and how we live and this movie is sharing this huge message.
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AL: Absolutely. Now, let’s go all the way back to the beginning. It’s around Christmas 2018. You’re living in Paris at the time, primarily working in Japanese and French cinema…
M: I spent my whole life in Japan except for the last few years I spent in France. My debut was when I was 13 years old. I worked on many movies in Japan and a lot of theatre too.
AL: Much of the strength that Aileen has, you express with just a look. In your process, how do you go from being a delicate, soft-spoken woman to someone of such incredible power? How do you switch that on and off for the camera?
M: The experience of working in the theatre helped me a lot. I appeared in more than 20 plays and every day I can play with the same characters and dialogue, but every day it’s not the same. I work minimalistically and play with energy from the other actors or the audience.
AL: We provided you a three-dimensional world and told you to go live, and you did just that. You were able to be neutral and present and consistently your best self. You and Johnny were equals in this film and on this set from day one…
M: I think from when you cast me, I knew I must do it. It’s my life, it’s my destiny! I felt this clearly in my mind, so I had no hesitations. I remember the first day we did test shooting with Johnny, I felt good chemistry. My nervousness fell away and my instincts took over. You and I always talked about my role and the upcoming scenes and my confidence grew day by day. I felt so free to play my role, and that has never happened before.
AL: You were playing a real character, but you and I had talked quite a bit about authenticity coming from the inside out, coming from an emotional connection and spirituality. Did you feel any responsibility to the real Aileen? (who is alive, and was visiting the set regularly)
M: I’m trying not to imitate her and I tried to focus on the performance like she did in the moment. When I saw Aileen for the first time I felt very at ease because I found a lot of similar qualities — we are both strong, stubborn. I’m sure she understood that I couldn’t imitate her and that my focus was to transfer the message.
AL: We had a great team… We made a piece of art, but we also made a film to help people. Nearly all the choices we made were about bringing in an audience, creating a wide platform for real people around the world to be able to access the ideas and themes of this film and see themselves and their loved ones in it. It’s a call to action.
M: In Japan, we still have this argument. People are still fighting. I’m not an activist but this is a fact. This film has a very positive message. It not a story that’s country-specific. It’s not just about mercury, but about environmental issues as a whole… I’m very proud of this movie. Thank you.
AL: Thank you. It was a great treat to work with you and it’s always a treat to chat. You have a very special voice and I hope that we will all get to enjoy your work for many years to come.