HOLLYWOOD – Unknowns making a big splash can be exciting in this industry. Just last year, Barkhad Abdi stood toe-to-toe with Tom Hanks and landed an Oscar nomination for his troubles, when just a year prior, he was driving a limo in Minneapolis trying to find his way. Rocker-turned-actor Miyavi is a different story, though. He never planned on acting. He had carved a place on the stage for himself long before Angelina Jolie came calling, but after “Unbroken,” he might be getting a few more calls.
Miyavi stars in the film as Mutsuhiro “The Bird” Watanabe, a brutal POW camp foreman who made Louis Zamperini's life a living hell. His chemistry with actor Jack O'Connell on screen is one thing, but together on the Q&A trail, they're quite a delight. Miyavi and I recently talked about that, about trying to instill some empathy into his character and about his thoughts on Coldplay's closing credits track, “Miracles.” Because if you're going to ask someone, you might as well ask the musician in front of you. Read about all that and more below.
“Unbroken” opens Christmas Day
HitFix: Congratulations at the top here on your first screen role. What has this experience been like for you?
Miyavi: Overwhelming. Because, of course, [I have] no experience as an actor. And everything is new to me. It's crazy. But at the same time, such a responsibility. Every single interview or press conference or Q&A screening, the role, there is a responsibility. So it's intense.
Had you ever in your wildest dreams had any desire to act before?
No. Not at all. I was not sure if I was capable of doing this. I perform and I slap the strings, I play the guitar, but it's me. 100% myself. So acting as someone else is a totally different experience, and much more responsibility. That's why I was hesitant to tackle this role, because it's not a typical entertainment movie. It's more human and more meaningful and the story's really controversial, and it's an actual person, The Bird. And as a Japanese, I didn't want to represent any negative side, dark side of the country I was born and raised in. I thought it was pretty meaningful because it's not a typical war movie. It's more focusing on Louie's life and on his attitude toward life and how strong a human being can be, so I thought the more evil I become, the more dramatic the story can be.
I've heard you talk before about being wary of how you represented the character and your country. How did you deal with that, knowing there's this superficial element of obvious antagonism at play? Talk a bit about working through that.
First of all, we don't say what The Bird has done is right, but we found an article that he was writing about how much he wanted to see his mother while he was hiding in the mountains for seven years, kind of escaping from his criminal acts. There is a totally different picture from what we heard or learned from the book “Unbroken” and [what is] in the article. He was scared. He was struggling. We were able to find his humanity. He was also a son. He also wanted to see his father. So, once again, we don't say what he's done is right, but at the same time he's a human being and he's a son. So as an actual person, Angie and I didn't want to portray him as a typical villain, because it's one-dimensional. So to put in humanity and sensitivity and a vulnerability into the character was really important. He had kind of a hard relationship with his father when he was a child. So much expectation. He wanted to achieve something like what Louie achieved, but he couldn't. He really wanted to be like Louie, but he couldn't. So he couldn't know how to be loved and how to love people. So there was a love and hatred kind of feeling toward Louie. We found a similarity between them and tried to show his – not affection, but his emotion toward Louie. Not only hatred. Like he tried to be like him, but couldn't, and that's why the only way he could do it was to break down Louie. It's kind of a twisted feeling.
Yeah. It's envy, yeah. Especially in those extreme conditions in the war, so much expectation and responsibility as a corporal, and he ended up becoming a sergeant. But he was isolated from even the Japanese guards. He was a lonely person. That's why it's really, really important to express that kind of sensitivity and vulnerability.
I'm curious about the differences or similarities for you between the high of performing your music on a stage and now performing as an actor in a film.
On stage, I do rock. So it's making the moment with the audience together. It's mutually affected. On set, it's really similar. To me it was like a jam session with the other actors, especially Jack. I was not just reading the dialogue or just acting. I was having a real conversation with him as a person. That's why I tried to hate him. I tried to imagine if he kills my family, I would do anything to protect my family or people I love and treasure. So I tried to hate him. It was really hard. It was the toughest process on set. Because I just wanted to hang out with him. He likes music and, you know, he's a very charming person. But with respect to everyone who sacrificed on this story, we needed to show what they endured, especially Louie, so that we won't let that happen anymore. So the more evil I become, the more dramatic the story gets. It's like the relationship with the audience. It's interactive.
Do you have any ambition to pursue acting further, or was this just a special case for you?
If there's an opportunity like this, the message and an intriguing character to portray – I thought this was really artistic. So the message of this movie itself is really similar to my creation as a musician, just delivering positivity, hope, so that people – challenge, in their lives, it's really positive. It's a totally different experience on stage. I'm 100% myself. This time it felt like just being a track on an album. One track, kind of dark. But the whole “album” is filled with passion and strength and spirit. So if there is some creation like this in the future, I'd love to. It's so meaningful and fruitful. I learned many things as an artist. It's all about message. It's about passion and emotion. No technique. Especially me: no technique. What I could do is just put passion and emotion into the performance. But that's OK. That's really important to performance as a musician, too. That's what I learned. Sometimes I just rely on technique on stage, but it's not about technique. It's about how much you want to deliver the message to the audience. That's all.
And since you're a musician, I'm curious what you thought of the closing credits song by Coldplay, “Miracles.”
The whole film, I couldn't watch it objectively. Even my performance or the scenes I saw behind the scenes, I couldn't concentrate to watch the film at all, and even the track – actually, Angie showed me the lyrics before the movie [was screened]. So I knew the lyrics, not the music. So it was hard to feel the creation objectively. But I really, really respect their attitude toward the music, especially this time. It's way simpler than their usual attitude, their usual way. I could feel the respect toward Louie's life. More raw. More simple. I really, really respect their attitude, yeah. And also [composer] Alexandre Desplat. He's an amazing person. I wish I could join them as a musician. I really respect their work.
Which reminds me, Jack said you guys were able to do a little jam session with “Louie Louie” and such. Where was that?
Sydney. The Metro club in Sydney. Angie said she wanted to share my performance with the movie crew members, because the only thing they knew was, like, just me with a green uniform and hitting people with a bamboo stick. They had no idea what kind of performance I did. So Angie called my drummer and my manager and music staff from Tokyo to Sydney, and then we had a gig. And then after that, Jack and I had a jam session. We made a band with Garrett [Hedlund] and the producer, Matt [Baer], he played the drums. It was a great moment. Angelina Jolie was dancing. Everyone was dancing. It was a great night, because on set, every day was intense and the weather was really hard. And even when we're shooting winter scenes, it's freakin' hot, and we had a coat and pretending that we're shivering. So at that moment, everyone enjoyed it. We kind of celebrated. That was a precious moment, and I was happy to kind of hang out with Jack finally.
Great man. Well congratulations again. It was very nice meeting you.
Thank you. It was nice meeting you, too.