Cosmo Jarvis And Anna Sawai On FX’s ‘Shogun’ And Sword-Fighting Bootcamps

Nearly half a century since James Clavell’s best-selling epic was published, and 44 years since it became the second most-watched miniseries of the 1980s, a new take on Shogun is hoping to prove event television can still exist in the streaming age. If early reviews are any indication, that effort is a success.

Tapping Top Gun: Maverick writer Justin Marks and producer Rachel Kondo, FX’s remake is the closest thing to a Game of Thrones successor fans are likely to see. Filled with sweeping action sequences, dense historical ties, and thrilling political intrigue, the 10-part limited series tells the story of John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis), an ungovernable English pilot who washes ashore in feudal Japan just as the country’s emperor dies, disrupting long-held hierarchies and the country’s tenuous trade agreement with Spain and Portugal.

Blackthorne may be a newcomer in a strange land, but Marks and Kondo cleverly eschew those convenient white savior tropes, wielding their “main character’s” ignorance to introduce the show’s real power players – men like Lord Yoshii Toranaga (Hiroyuki Sanada), a respected daimyo fielding assassination attempts by his rivals within the Council or Regents, and women like Lady Toda Mariko (Anna Sawai), a mysterious samurai from a disgraced family who becomes Blackthorne’s translator.

Uproxx spoke to Jarvis and Sawai about the heavy responsibility of bringing Shogun back to life, the series’ grueling, 10-month shoot, samurai boot camp, and avoiding the mistakes of the past.

What about this story and these characters made you want to sign on?

Cosmo Jarvis: I very much appreciated how interesting of a premise it had with regard to the time period and the country it’s set in. And the archetypal story strokes that were involved in it, which wasn’t something I’d come into contact with very often. You don’t often get a chance to play archetypal work, and that was interesting to me. But foremost, it was the adventure of it.

Anna Sawai: For me, as a Japanese person, I think it was very important that if we were covering a Japanese story we were going to do it right. And meeting Justin and hearing his version of it, it really felt like they wanted to do it authentically. Hearing how Hiro was going to be part of producing it and Eriko being a producer on it too, I think it felt safe for me. It didn’t feel like we were going to [make] the same mistake that has been done, and that was important.

There’s quite a bit of action within these ten episodes. Did you have to go to samurai boot camp?

Jarvis: Well, there wasn’t really any boot camp.

Sawai: Well, there was. You didn’t have to do much. We had a little bit of a sword-fighting boot camp, which you probably weren’t part of because there’s not much sword-fighting for you.

Jarvis: Blackthorne’s a terrible sword fighter.

What’s fascinating about this period is how deeply it’s set in its customs and rituals. There’s so much intentionality in movement. Was that challenging for either of you?

Sawai: I had to forget everything that I usually do and just focus on what women back then were supposed to do. If I wanted to laugh or if I wanted to gasp, I couldn’t put my hand in front of my face normally. I would have to cover my fingers and then bring that up to my face so it would take some time. The first time I went on set and I was faced with [a scene where] Mariko’s talking to Toranaga, I was just doing it looking at him and Hiro was like, ‘You shouldn’t be looking right into my eyes. You should just be looking slightly below.’ And so I had to get used to talking to people without looking at their eyes and that would be so strange. But towards the end, I think it felt more natural. It was a lot of getting used to the mannerisms of the 1600s.

Jarvis: There were lots of things to do every day, but the workload physically wasn’t notable for me. [Blackthorne] was supposed to be fairly unruly and ungoverned by many customs. In terms of the educational process, there was still a lot of that. There would always be rules, like not stepping on the cracks between the farming mats, which even if they weren’t dwelled on too heavily in the story, they still were incredibly interesting to learn about along the way.

Sawai: I don’t know if this is a little bit off-topic, but I would hear you screaming in your trailer. Isn’t that part of physicality too, in a way? You’re [getting] your throat ready for Blackthorne’s voice?

Jarvis: I guess. I would keep things in check for Blackthorne’s vocal quality, trying to maintain consistency. I would smoke a lot of cigarettes, scream a lot.

Sawai: That’s dedication.

Because of COVID-19, you were shooting this for 10 months or more. Was there ever a breaking point or at least a thought of, ‘I might be filming this show for the rest of my life’?

Sawai: I think we were all feeling that [around] the ninth or tenth month. Every month they would be like, ‘Oh, we’re just doing one more, just one more.’ The crew were calling it The Never-Ending Show. They had a name for [it].

Jarvis: We probably shouldn’t say that.

Sawai: It was true. We really didn’t think it was going to end. It was a tough one and there was a lot of work that went into it. But I mean, I’m glad that we got to take our time because otherwise, it would’ve not been the quality that it is now. And I feel happy that I got to know Mariko for that much longer.

Does it make it harder to let go – not just of the character, but of the mannerisms, how you’ve been physically moving through the world for so long?

Jarvis: Yeah, it does. I guess part of the job is dispensing with yourself for a period of time and you can’t help but pick things up from the man that you’ve allowed into yourself, and that includes vocabulary and the way that he carries himself and how other people see him. And they didn’t see me that way afterward. So that’s all of the interesting stuff that happens.

It’s pretty sad too because it’s just been such an all-encompassing task. That’s not just for the actors, that’s for everybody involved in every department. Everybody was working their asses off and they really gave everything to it, so much love and blood went into it.

Right. Returning to everyday life – to family and friends – has to be a bit of a culture shock after something like that.

Jarvis: I tried [not] to speak to them that much.

Sawai: Really?

Jarvis: I mean I did, but it’s just about staying with the people that you’re going to be working with. Eleven months is pretty long, but it was a very necessary experience, I think, for me to be faced with such a thing, to figure out the methodology with which it could be achieved. It’s all about learning.

Women in this period aren’t normally given much to do on-screen. What about Mariko feels different compared to how similar stories have treated their female characters?

Sawai: She’s not looking for anyone to come and save her. I think that in the beginning, she’s a little bit lost, but she understands that her destiny is in her hands. She finds her own purpose. And I thought that in a lot of previous Japanese-based stories, we would see someone come and scoop the lady up, and I didn’t want this to be that. Mariko is definitely not that kind of character, so I was very happy to hear that Justin wanted to give more voice to the female characters in the show.

Anna, you’ve been in Monarch: Legacy of Monsters and Pachinko. Cosmo, you’ve done Peaky Blinders and Persuasion. When something big gets put in front of you, do you ever think of what’s going to happen in your professional and personal lives once it’s done?

Sawai: I don’t think I’ve ever thought about that. Have you?

Jarvis: I try and focus on being unemployed and [then] trying to stop being unemployed, to get another job, I guess.

Sawai: I don’t think it’s as glamorous or as sparkly as it may seem.

Roughing it in Vancouver for 10 months isn’t glamorous?

Sawai: A lot of rainy days.

Jarvis: Beautiful place though. Very, very old trees.

Sawai: You love trees. How did I not know that?

Jarvis: Trees are excellent. We should look after trees.