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Hiroyuki Sanada Talks Sword Fighting and Improv in Action Comedy “Bullet Train”: NPR




‘Bullet Train’ Star Hiroyuki Sanada Talks With NPR’s Ayesha Rascoe About Improving Lines With Brad Pitt In Their New Action-Comedy, Looking Cool With A Sword, And His Desire To Be In a romantic comedy.


“Bullet Train,” a new action-comedy film, features a man on a mission to retrieve a suitcase from a bullet train in Japan. But little does he know that a collection of assassins are traveling on the same train, all with their own mysterious reasons. Hiroyuki Sanada plays one such passenger, The Elder, who is out to exact revenge on a longtime personal enemy. The Japanese star has a long acting career and is best known for his roles in action films like ‘The Last Samurai’, ‘Mortal Kombat’ and ‘Rush Hour 3’. But for “Bullet Train” he had to learn a new skill – improvisation. Her co-star Brad Pitt – you may have heard of him – would occasionally add a few lines to a scene, sometimes adding jokes to a serious scene.

HIROYUKI SANADA: I was so scared, so I had to listen carefully. What comes next? Sometimes hard to – don’t laugh. I had to keep the character, of course. Then I have to react and then return a few words. So every take – so fresh and interesting and thrilling to me. And then when I saw the movie, people were laughing at our, you know, improv, I felt good.

RASCOE: It worked. It worked.

SANADA: Yeah. My sweat never wasted, I thought.

RASCOE: (Laughs). How hard was it not to laugh? Because Brad Pitt was very funny, very charming, but your character is super serious.

SANADA: It was hard. But I love this kind of comedy. You know, do it seriously, but the audience can laugh, like sitcom, like – so I really enjoyed that.

RASCOE: So this film is a bit complicated. If you had just a few sentences to describe this movie, what would you say it’s about?

SANADA: This film is based on the novel by Japanese author Kotaro Isaka. Mystery, thriller, action, comedy, drama, I think.

RASCOE: (Laughs.) That’s all. It’s all of those things, isn’t it?

SANADA: All in one, I think, yes.

RASCOE: All in one. I know you mentioned the book. It’s a Japanese book – and they adapted it and made it more international. Some people worried that most of the characters were changed to be non-Japanese. Did you have any reservations about this?

SANADA: I thought it was a great adaptation for the international cast. And then I heard that the author, Mr. Isaka, loved this adaptation and – yes, a good chance to introduce the Japanese novel to the world, so we needed the international distribution. So it’s a natural thing, and everyone is happy about it.

RASCOE: So I have to say, like, you in “Bullet Train,” you were, like, one of the coolest characters. Seeing you in action, I was like, this guy is so cool. Have you ever posed with the sword and looked at yourself in the mirror or seen yourself on screen and said, I look so cool? Because I would like, like, to have pictures of me. Is it me or are you doing this? (Laugh).

SANADA: I try to be cool, but I just think about the character and the situation emotionally. Just be a character and then – the script has power, the editor has the power to make my character cool or uncool, you know?

RASCOE: (Laughs).

SANADA: I’m just doing my job in character. That’s it.

RASCOE: So you don’t look at yourself and say, oh, man, I look so cool with that sword. You never look – like, I look so tough, like, I could beat anybody. Don’t you think so?

SANADA: No. No. No. No.

RASCOE: You are 61 years old and the character you play in this film is called The Elder. You’ve done so many action movies over the years. Do you feel like you’ve learned to be characters in a different way over the years? What did you take away from this experience of being in so many action films of this genre?

SANADA: Yeah. I started as a child actor when I was 5 years old. Then I saw a lot of great movies from Hollywood, from Europe, then I saw a lot of great actors doing their own stunts or singing, dancing. So when I was 9 or 10 years old, I thought that if I could continue to play in the future, I would like to do everything by myself. Then I started training for singing, dancing, sword fighting or horse riding or something like that and just kept training. For me, acting is not that special, just part of acting.

RASCOE: What kind of singing do you do? I… I’m just interested, because I didn’t know, so what kind of singing do you do?

SANADA: Like, you know, pop or sometimes the theme song for movies. Maybe – I did four or five movies – an ending theme that I sang, then I did a musical of “Big River” – “Huckleberry Finn”, sorry. I was Huck in Japanese. And I did “Little Shop Of Horrors”.

RASCOE: Oh, wow.

SANADA: In Japanese, Seymour. So mix between Japanese and English.

RASCOE: I feel like American audiences haven’t seen you that way as much because we see you more in “Westworld” and “Rush Hour.” We’re not going to see that other side of you.

SANADA: Yeah – musical, comedy.


SANADA: I did a lot of things in Japan, but after coming to the United States, the image looks like a samurai or a yakuza. But I think, yeah, I want to do more different genres, more comedy or romantic comedy or something like that.

RASCOE: OK, well, people have to listen to this and see that you have to be in a romantic comedy, and it has to happen. And you can sing, so I think someone has to make that happen. It’s Hiroyuki Sanada, one of the stars of “Bullet Train,” currently in theaters. Thanks a lot.

SANADA: Thank you very much for inviting me. It was so much fun. Thanks.


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