A Japanese martial arts hero joins ‘Westworld’
The robot cowboys and saloon girls of “Westworld” met their match when the HBO show, now in its second season, revealed the parallel universe of Shogun World. But ninjas and geishas programmed with narrative loops similar to their gun-slinging counterparts wasn’t the only highlight of the Japanese theme park.
One of the leaders in the “host” rebellion against the park’s pleasure-seeking guests is Musashi, a fierce master samurai who can fell an entire army, and he gets plenty of opportunities to swing his sword. Musashi is played by master swordsman Hiroyuki “Hiro” Sanada, and the role continues the 57-year-old actor’s run as a crossover star and martial arts hero over a career that’s stretched from childhood roles of the 1960s to his American breakthrough in “The Last Samurai” to being featured in a forthcoming chapter of Marvel’s “Avengers” franchise.
The L.A.-based Sanada, who also starred in the last season of “Lost,” spoke with The Times about sword play, reciting Shakespeare and more:
You’ve been acting since you were in grade school and have easily starred in over 100 productions across film, TV and the stage. In all that time, have you ever played the role of a robot?
I have played an immortal being before, but not a robot. Now I’m a robot Samurai.
Were you a “Westworld” fan before landing the role of Musashi?
Oh, yes. I watched all of Season 1, and in real time when it aired. So when I saw they were working with the samurai warriors at the end of last season, I saw possibility. A samurai and a Shogun World?! I was so curious. So I just kind of crossed my fingers. When I received the offer for this role, I was so excited. They have great ideas, crew, cast, talent, and they use all the (latest) technology. Everything is so high-grade.
How would you describe your character?
His name, Musashi, is also the name of a real, legendary Japanese sword master, and he has a great skill for fighting. He always tries to fix the story by his sword. He’s a host (robot) who fights to save himself and others. And regular “Westworld” characters are crossing over into Shogun World, so we have an interesting relationship that connects us.
It’s probably safe to assume you’ve filmed more martial arts fight scenes than anyone who was on the “Westworld” set.
I don’t know. (Laughs.) But I’ve done so many samurai movies and the fighting scenes before, so they respected me as a sword master on set. I suggested some things and had some ideas for the fighting scenes and worked with the choreographer and coordinator to make it the authentic samurai way. We’ve worked to create the best balance between authenticity and entertainment.
And do you still do all your own fight scenes?
I like creating scenes with stunt guys and a choreographer, but I did all the fighting by myself. No stunt double at all. Sometimes all-day fighting, including my birthday. From the beginning to the end, all day, fighting, fighting, fighting.
You had to slay the enemy on your birthday? That seems unfair.
(Laughs.) But at lunchtime they brought a big birthday cake on set and then all the cast and crew sung happy birthday. It’s one of my favorite birthdays ever.
What inspired you to start acting at such a young age?
I watched a lot of American and European movies. The great leading actors doing their own stunts. I wanted to act and do everything by myself — that was my thought. I started martial arts training when I was 13, also traditional dance and singing. And I was already thinking about working in the world market.
Later, when you would see martial arts scenes in American films, what did you think?
I was training and could see that some movies coming from America misunderstood our culture. I was so frustrated. I decided then that I wanted to correct these mistakes about our culture. But I was working just in Japan until I was 40.
What was your breakthrough in terms of crossing over to an international audience?
When I got the chance to work with the Royal Shakespeare Company (in 1999). It was my first experience speaking English in front of an audience. It was like mixing cultures and making something new no one had ever seen.
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