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Rinko Kikuchi: 'I Would Take on Any Role from Any Country'

Poster art for Alejandro González Iñarritu's Babel (2006).

Poster art for Alejandro González Iñarritu's Babel (2006).

NEW YORK, October 25, 2006 - Rinko Kikuchi, the young Japanese star of Babel, was recently named to Variety's "10 Actors to Watch" list. As Alejandro González Iñarritu's Babel, one of the year's most talked-about films, was about to open in New York and Los Angeles, Rinko spoke to Nermeen Shaikh at Asia Society about why she auditioned for the part, the challenges of playing a deaf-mute teenage girl in Tokyo, and what she thinks of the film as a whole.

How is it that you got the role for Babel? How did you hear about the film? And why did you choose to audition?

The audition process actually took about a year. I had seen 21 Grams and Amores Perros, and I was very much aware of Alejandro [González Iñarritu] as a director. I respected him very much from these two movies, and I very much wanted to get involved.

I heard about the audition through my agent in Japan, and I immediately applied for it. They actually sent me a videotape of a deaf-mute person telling me that this was the kind of thing they were expecting.

Obviously, I felt watching a tape wasn't enough so I went to a deaf-mute school and spent time with the students, going out with them, interacting with them, going to movies, etc. That's how I got involved in the audition, and that's how the whole process began.

You say you had to learn sign language to play a deaf-mute character. Can you tell us a little bit about the character? Who is the character you play? What is her story? What was the most challenging part of playing this role for you?

Well, the character I play is Chieko. The two important things about her are that she's a deaf-mute and she's 16 years old. I think one of the driving motives for the character is that her mother committed suicide, and she resents her own father because her mother committed suicide with his rifle.

So to add to that, being a deaf-mute, she is also isolated from society around her. And being a teenager, she carries a certain anger and all these typical teenage emotions inside her. She's basically struggling with all this and trying very hard to sort of contain all these things within her.

But obviously when someone tries to hurt her or push her around in some way then this provokes some radical behavior on her part. In that way she's a very sensitive character, like a bomb waiting to explode.

So what was the most challenging part of the role?

I think pretty much the hardest part is the climax, the scene where my character tries to do everything to prevent this cop from leaving the house, trying whatever she can to get him interested in her.

This was the most difficult scene, and I knew it was going to be very, very hard to play, but this was also the scene that Alejandro [the director] used for the audition many, many times so I knew how difficult it was going to be.

It is the scene where she exposes her own animal instincts, by which I mean that she tries to do everything she can to hold on to this guy, this cop, whom she feels a little close to, or at least she feels that he might be able to help her in some way. So maintaining this kind of emotional edge in that scene the whole way through was very, very difficult.

Another aspect of the character that is striking is the way she expresses her sexuality. Could you talk about that particular aspect of your character?

Being sexual is certainly part of her character, but as far as that scene is concerned, yes she does strip herself naked, but it's more emotional longing, a basic human need, a desire to have someone by her side who understands her.

That was the most important aspect that I paid attention to, in that scene she basically has nothing to lose, nothing more to lose, so she is throwing herself at this man just so she can have an emotional connection. So to me that feels like a very basic human need.

Variety, the leading entertainment trade magazine in the United States, has termed you one of the "10 Actors to Watch." How do you respond to this?

Me being named in this list, or the film-winning prizes, those are great things. But if more audiences are taking notice, however it is that their attention is drawn to it, that is the most important thing. The more audiences take notice of this film, and go see this film, the better. That is ultimately the most important thing. I am certainly happy about it

What did the film mean to you when you saw all the parts together, the final version? What is it about the story in the film that particularly struck you, that meant something to you, that makes you think that people should go see this film?

What struck me in the film was the whole notion of communication within a miscommunication. Miscommunication has certain negative connotations that suggest there is no communication but actually miscommunicating can reveal the possibility for more deeper understanding.

What you think might be wasted effort or wasted time caused by this miscommunication can enable you to think about other things or consider things from another perspective so I think there's a lot of meaning that can be discovered from that.

Though the film is ultimately about miscommunication, I think the film is also representing miscommunication in a positive way, showing all the consequences but ultimately also having all the characters develop a deeper understanding of themselves and the world that surrounds them precisely through these miscommunications.

You have worked only in Japanese cinema before this. How was the production of Babel different from the other films you have worked on in the past? Would you like to do more international productions now?

Since I have only worked on one Hollywood production, I can't really compare, but I actually think that it's really more up to the director rather than where the film is being produced, whether it's Japanese or Hollywood or anything else.

It's up to the director, and Alejandro was a very passionate man and the way he did things was very much his own way. The way you cast and the way things work on the set really depends on the director, so that's probably the most crucial aspect of a film.

As for international productions, I'm not necessarily interested in so-called "international productions," that's not so relevant for me, as long as there's a role that I can be passionate about, that I can be serious about and that I feel is worth investing myself in, I would take on any role from any country.

Interview conducted by Nermeen Shaikh of the Asia Society.