MASUMI, singer-songwriter and first-time actor, talks to us about her lead role in new feature Yakuza Princess, shooting the film in Brazil opposite Jonathan Rhys Meyers and her husband Kenny Leu, and the journey that lead her there from Japan after surviving the devastating earthquake in 2011.
There are few things more nerve-wracking for a new actor than being thrust into a lead role in their first feature film. That is exactly where MASUMI found herself when cast as Akemi, starring opposite Jonathan Rhys Meyers in Vincente Amorim's Yakuza Princess.
However, before we speak about her experience shooting the film in Brazil, we first speak about her time in Japan. Having moved there from the US as a young child, she would return to the States years later to pursue a career in music - a move motivated by something far more frightening than landing her first lead role.
"What motivated me was the 2011 earthquake and tsunami we had in Japan. At the time, I was having a coffee with my friend in an underground bar. Japan has a lot of underground bars and the stairs tend to be very narrow, 90 degrees almost. So, when the earthquake happened, a bigger one than we'd ever had before, we were basically trapped there. The earthquake lasted six minutes in total, but it felt like forever. We couldn't get up and out to the ground because every time we tried, we would get pushed down by other people.
"When I finally got out of the bar, I was hearing a lot of screams, there were a lot of windows shattered, and I just had this moment of realisation, 'Oh, this is it for me'. Then I thought, the one thing that I regretted was not ever doing music, so I told myself that if I survive this day, I will go to America and pursue music the way I always wanted to.
"So I did survive, obviously, then three months after that, I auditioned for a music school in the US and I got in, so I just left. It's crazy, because I left in September 2011 to come to LA, and 10 years later in September 2021, the movie is coming out. It feels like a full circle."
It may seem like a fairy tale ending to what must have been a traumatic experience, but MASUMI's journey pursuing music in America was not all plain sailing.
"When I came out to the US, I kept feeling guilty because so many people had died in the earthquake and the tsunami. Why did I survive? Why did I get to be the one to chase my dreams? I also felt guilty that I wasn't able to really give back to Japan. Music was tough. After nine years of doing music, I then had a big opportunity to do something in Japan, but I walked away, really not sure of my path in my music. Then I met my husband, Kenny Leu, who is an actor, and he suggested I try acting a little bit, just to keep being creative while not putting so much pressure on my music.
"So, I went to his acting school, then after three months I got this audition for Yakuza Princess, which was all just really strange to me. Why would somebody want to audition me? Somebody that has basically three months of acting experience. It was just an intro to acting course too! So, I really didn't feel qualified at the time, but when I read the script, I honestly felt like the story was meant for me. I really related to the character, so I auditioned and I got it!"
Although clearly a natural, what was it like taking those first classes and discovering acting for the first time?
"Well, the school that I went to was very intense. It was very strict. We had a lot of homework, and it really felt like we were putting a lot of time into crafting something. Because I always want to be a straight-A student, in the beginning there was was a lot of stress because I never felt like I was doing enough, that there was never an end to the work. And I think that was good for me because if I didn't have that regimented work ethic for those first three months, I don't think I would even have been able to understand how to craft a character or how to start thinking about acting. After that introduction class, I was able to think about the characters on my own and understand them in my own way. And I felt confident in doing that. It was a great experience."
Learning to act is one thing, but learning to audition is another craft altogether. How did she find auditioning for the film?
"Well, before I started the classes, I was getting a lot of auditions because I was signed as a commercial talent. So, although I had absolutely no acting skills, I would go into these auditions completely blinded by the whole thing. But after going through the classes, I started to feel a lot more comfortable because I wasn't trying to do something that had been taught to me. I wasn't trying to get it 'right'. I started to understand this feeling of living a character. Sometimes I was still absolutely nervous and would kind of go blank in audition rooms, but thankfully with Yakuza Princess, I was able to do a self tape. My husband helped me through that, so I was able to turn in something that I was happy with."
Of course, her happiness increased tenfold when finding out she'd landed the role. It was a mixture of joyous disbelief and obvious affirmation in her belief that the character was meant for her. What was it about the script that spoke to her so clearly?
"It's a comic book adaptation about an orphan girl who grew up in São Paulo, Brazil, that realises she is the last heiress to a powerful Yakuza syndicate in Japan, half of whom want her dead. Her story really begins though, when she meets an assassin called Shiro, played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, who tells her their fates are intertwined because of a haunted sword. What was relatable to me was that she is a Japanese girl living in São Paulo, feeling like she doesn't quite belong there, but she probably doesn't feel fully Japanese either.
"I've felt that way as I was born in America, but then I moved to Japan when I was young. Having that experience of being Americanized so young and learning English as a first language, I always felt like I didn't quite fit in Japan. In America, even now, I don't feel like I quite fit here either because I consider myself Japanese. That feeling of not belonging anywhere, along with the tragedy she has to go through, reminded me of my tragedy that I had to go through with the earthquake. All of a sudden, you question whether or not you get to live or die. You have to make decisions very quickly and choose your path for yourself."
MASUMI's path took her, and her husband Kenny Leu who also stars in the film, to Brazil for shooting. What was it like living and working on there for months?
"People on the team made it very easy for me to settle in, but I am used to going into different countries and not understanding what people are talking about. There were difficulties with communication sometimes because not everybody spoke English, but that kind of brings you together with other people, when you're working hard to understand each other beyond the language. There were challenges there, but it was more that 90% of the shoot was night shoots, and doing a lot of fight scenes from around midnight to 6am. That was the real challenge for me."
One look at the trailer for Yakuza Princess and you see how much stunt and fight work must have been involved during production. Still being relatively new to acting, how did she find also having to learn swordplay and stage combat?
"I'd never had any fighting experience. Luckily, my husband is a martial arts US champion, so he knew how to teach me and I'm really grateful for that. Without that, I don't think I could have performed a lot of the complex fight scenes. I also have a phobia of sharp things, so having to use a sword made me nervous. Even though I knew it was plastic, that we weren't using actual swords, I was still very worried in the beginning about hurting people. That was a challenge that I didn't really tell anybody about, because I didn't want anybody to be worried about my pointy phobia [laughs]. It was something that I had to internalise and believe that I wasn't this person with a phobia, I was Akemi.
"And I think I would say I got a little bit greedy. I didn't have to do all of my stunts because we had a double, but when I was learning the moves I felt like I could do them, and I wanted to do so them, so I basically did 90% of my own stunts. Looking back, I think I could have focused more in the short time we had. If you're doing rehearsals for the action scenes and you're also the lead, you have to choose which one you're going to make more important, the action or the performance. I wanted to do everything because it was my first time, so I ended up not having a lot of rest time. Even if we did get two days of rest in a week, I had to go in and rehearse for the action scenes. So, yes, it was tough, but then I don't regret it because that was a good learning experience for me."
Another experience was working alongside Jonathan Rhys Meyers, well known to audiences here in the UK. What was it like working with such an experienced actor in her first feature role?
"Oh, man, it was amazing working with him. His aura was so big that on the first day I thought, 'Oh my gosh, I don't know if if I can act alongside him'. This insecurity, this fear just came over me. So I went up to him when he was taking a break and I said, 'Jonathan, I have to be completely honest with you. I don't know if you know, but I am a complete newbie and I'm really going to need your support to navigate through this'. He looked at me and said, 'I completely understand how you feel. I was there once before. Don't worry, I'm never going to let you do something to embarrass yourself. I'm going to look out for you, we're going to support you all the way'.
"And he really meant it. He was always looking out for me, teaching me how to work with the camera, and sometimes when I was having a hard time giving a certain emotion the director wanted, he helped me. I'm so grateful for him, such a supportive team player."
But, of course, the most support was to come from her husband Kenny Leu, who she married only days before heading off on production, and who also ended up with a role in the film too. Not your usual honeymoon.
"Oh, that was weird! That was really strange and a little bit distracting in the beginning. I've only been used to Kenny directing me or helping me like a coach when I was acting, and then all of a sudden, we were equal in this film, in that energy. He was his character, I was mine, and there was nothing between us. It was in the first time we'd worked together, so I was feeling this weirdness and I was getting in my head, but then after we got used to it, I really liked it. I thought, 'Maybe we can be in another movie together'."
And speaking of other movies, MASUMI has now been bitten by the acting bug and, alongside her music, wants acting to be part of her life going forward.
"Absolutely. Acting and music are completely different ways of expressing myself. Music, to me is very, very healing. It's like water to me, so I think I will do that until I die. Acting, I feel, makes me a better human being. I feel like I learn more about myself and others. I learn more about my criticisms and judgments towards people that I don't really understand. It makes my life richer because I am learning about characters that are completely different from me. And being Japanese living in America, you start to create these sorts of judgments or perspectives about things. You have to constantly challenge that if you want to portray your character, so it's a very humbling process. I want to keep exploring that and get better at it, keep seeing the world in richer ways."
Her music was something that MASUMI was able to bring to Yakuza Princess as well. A song she wrote and performed, 'Run Baby, Run' appears in the film. What was it like combining her first love with her new love?
"Well, they knew I was a singer-songwriter, and they were looking for a song for me to sing. I think they already had a song in mind, but then were just curious to see if I already had a song because they thought it would really be great if they could use a song that I already know. So I showed them a few of my songs that I had, and one of the songs I wrote is called Run Baby, Run'.
"I wrote the song right before I decided to do acting, around the time I was having difficulties with music. I wrote the song as kind of a fight song, to keep going, to overcome my fear, and keep on fighting in this thing called life. So, theme wise, it was perfect for the movie. They made the song a little bit edgier because I think originally they were looking for something that was more punk rock, but it easily transitioned into a punk rock vibe. I was really happy that they were able to use it."
Asking MASUMI if she's already seen the film, and if she's excited by its upcoming 3rd September release, she can't hide that she is.
"I'm really excited! I have seen the whole movie, yes. I'm really proud of what it is. The actors are incredible. I mean, when I was working with them I thought they were incredible, but watching the movie, I'm really blown away. I almost wish I was a better actor, to be on the same level as these great actors, but it's my first time acting. So then, of course, there's a lot of criticism in the back of my mind, but I think my feeling of being so proud of this movie and being part of this production is much larger than that voice, so I'm really excited. I think it's a great movie and I think people are going to enjoy it."
Coming back to the fact this was her first experience acting, if she could go back to the start of the project knowing what she knows now, what advice would she give herself?
"You know, this being my first movie, I had a lot of fear during the shoot that really didn't serve me. How do I look on camera? Am I going to look pretty? Is that important? What happens if I gain a little weight by eating too much Brazilian food? I'm sure 'beginner' kind of thoughts because I didn't know any better. It was a good thing that the director essentially didn't show me the playbacks, because it would have got in my head even more.
But I think what I would tell myself, is to be really be present, and not try to be something I'm not. I think I was trying to portray myself as something more in the beginning, at least in my head. And now I think I was perfectly capable of playing Akemi. I didn't have to be 'more'. I was able to do exactly what I needed to do, and so I would tell myself to chill out."
You can follow MASUMI on Instagram: @masumi.music