The following facts are known and true: Ken Watanabe is a movie star. Ken Watanabe is Japanese. But Ken Watanabe is not Japan’s only movie star. Nor is he, as a profile in The Japan Times put it last year, the country’s “flag-bearer in the world of entertainment.” At least, that is, according to Ken Watanabe.
"I don't think so," the actor says with a hearty laugh the other week, when asked about his unofficial position as an ambassador for his home country. "I don't think so at all. I just want to make movies, work in the theatre. I want to work piece by piece, and just act. I'm not that."
Watanabe is on the line from Los Angeles, where he’s in the midst of promoting Godzilla: King of the Monsters, the latest blockbuster to plaster the actor’s face on posters and bus stops and television screens across the globe.
Despite the actor’s humble persona, and despite his best wishes, Watanabe may indeed be Japan’s biggest cultural export. Consider: In addition to 2014′s Godzilla reboot and this summer’s sequel, the steely actor – all piercing eyes and immediate gravitas – has co-starred in a pair of Christopher Nolan sensations (Batman Begins and Inception), been a constant presence in the Transformers series (he voices Drift; that’d be one of the good alien robots) and just recently helped kick-start a brand-new franchise (Pokemon: Detective Pikachu).
Somewhere in between, Watanabe has found the time to make acclaimed work in his home country (Memories of Tomorrow, Rage) and collaborate with American cinema’s most celebrated artists (Clint Eastwood, Wes Anderson, Gus Van Sant). It is Ken Watanabe’s world – we’re just watching it.
What’s more: The new Godzilla film affords Watanabe his greatest Hollywood opportunity so far: an actual three-act narrative arc that positions the actor’s Dr. Ishiro Serizawa as a film’s out-and-out lead hero, and not just a samurai/businessman/bureaucrat hanging on a story’s periphery. Without diving into spoiler territory, Watanabe takes the challenge director Michael Dougherty’s new Godzilla film hands him, and monsters it.
"After the first film with [director Gareth Edwards], my agent said if this one is a big success, we need to try to do a second. And I did get the offer, but I wanted to read the script first," Watanabe says, sometimes with the aid of an English translator. "And when I read it, it was just great. I felt better about the role than before, and I knew I wanted to do this."
And it was this chance to go deeper into Serizawa, a scientist who believes Godzilla may be able to save humanity rather than destroy it, that excited Watanabe the most. The fact that Watanabe’s character gets significantly more screen time in King of the Monsters than its predecessor – enough to rival even the film’s ostensible star, the big-boy lizard himself – is a rare opportunity for not just the Oscar nominee (he received a nod for 2003′s The Last Samurai), but any performer of Asian descent.
King of the Monsters may be, ultimately, a silly movie about big things crashing into other big things, but it is also a historic moment for representation. Which is all to say that, yeah, Watanabe had other reasons for joining the project than any simple nostalgic attachment to Japan’s second-most-famous export, a radioactive lizard.
“I didn’t have strong feelings for the Godzilla movie,” the actor says of Ishiro Honda’s original 1954 film, which introduced the world to a fire-breathing behemoth who’s gone to appear in 36 movies and countless toy aisles. “The original black-and-white film, it makes me really proud of my home country’s film industry. But I just enjoyed it as a kid’s movie.”
Post-Godzilla, Watanabe is keeping his options, and global cultural footprint, open. He just wrapped a starring role in the Japanese film Fukushima 50, which dramatizes the 2011 crisis at the nuclear power plant following the country’s devastating tsunami, and is looking to keep working on the stage, too, having starred in last year’s The King and I in London’s West End.
“Whether I work in Hollywood, or Japan, or London, which is better for my career? I decided, all countries are important for me – I cannot become one kind of actor,” he says. “I work in Hollywood, but I hold all my feelings about being Japanese, too. I want to go everywhere.”
Godzilla: King of the Monsters opens May 31.