It’s not easy being the son of a yakuza crime lord or the owner of a world-class racing team.
Actor Hiroyuki Sanada should know: He’s portrayed both roles in his 51-year career, which has spanned film, TV, and the stage.
But it could be Sanada’s latest role as an astronaut in the upcoming film “Life” opposite Jake Gyllenhaal, Ryan Reynolds, and Rebecca Ferguson that might be the closest to his journey as an actor. In the film, he plays Sho Murakami, one of a six-member crew aboard the International Space Station as they research a sign of extraterrestrial life on Mars.
In real life, Sanada has traveled around the globe on his path to be a Hollywood actor, going from his home in Tokyo, Japan, to England and now the United States.
When Sanada was 5 years old, he booked his first movie role portraying the son of a yakuza member. He also had several minor roles in Japanese television and films, but temporarily quit acting when he was 10 so he could have a regular childhood.
“My manager and my parents said to me that if I want to be an actor in the future that I should spend more time as a normal kid,” the 56-year-old told NBC News. “It gave me a good chance to watch movies as the audience. Before that, my experience watching movies was always in studio so I’d never actually been in a theater before.”
During that time, Sanada said he focused on teaching himself to do other things, including traditional Japanese dance, horseback riding, singing, and martial arts. He took after his role models, who he noticed were all multi-talented. “There were always great actors who did everything themselves whether it was singing, dancing, or stunts,” Sanada said. “I thought that was the best service for the audience so I thought if I cannot be an actor just yet, I want to be able to do everything myself.”
When he was 12, Sanada began training at legendary actor Shin’Ichi “Sonny” Chiba’s Japan Action Club, where he developed his martial arts skills and became Chiba’s protégé. At the age of 17, he restarted his acting career with a part in a film by famed Japanese director Kinji Fukasaku.
From there, he returned to Japanese television and film with notable roles in the original version of the horror film “Ring”and the Oscar-nominated “The Twilight Samurai,” which earned him a Japanese Academy Prize for Best Actor in 2003.
But Sanada said it was the 1998 Japanese stage production of “Hamlet” in London that was the turning point of his career. After the show, English actor and producer Nigel Hawthorne personally invited Sanada to portray The Fool in the Royal Shakespeare Company production of “King Lear.” “I had never done anything in English before so I was scared,” Sanada said. “I had to think about it for a while. But the producers said to me 'You are an actor first before you are Japanese or Asian.'”
"Those words really hit me, and I thought to myself that if they are going to open the door for my me and my career, I have to challenge myself even if I’m scared so I decided to jump in,” he added. ”It was my first time speaking English in front of an audience, and I spent a few months with them. It was a great experience and it was hard, but I knew it was important for the future.”
After his run with the Royal Shakespeare Company, Sanada started to look for roles in the U.S. and eventually landed one in 2003’s “The Last Samurai,” his first Hollywood film.
Afterward, Sanada made the decision to move to Los Angeles at the age of 45 so he could continue finding work in the country. He said he felt that by coming to the United States, he would help continue to pave the way for more Japanese and Asian actors to break out in Hollywood. “There is no wall between East and West or if there is a wall.I should break the wall and make a bridge to the future in our generation,” he said. “That was always one of my missions was to come to the U.S.”
Since then, Sanada has been in films including “Rush Hour 3,” “The Railway Man,” and “The Wolverine.”
While Sanada said he has enjoyed working in both Japanese and Hollywood films, he said he feels as though there is still a lot of work that needs to go into protecting actors and filmmakers in his home country, noting that Japanese actors and writers are not represented by unions and have less legal protections.
“I want to learn the system from Hollywood or the European industry, and hopefully someday we can change the Japanese system little by little,” he said. “I think I will continue working here and learn more, and bring it back to Japan someday. That’s my hope.”
Sanada said that though he’s acted in the industry for a while, he still considers himself a student who is continually learning from his peers. “I’ve worked with a lot of other great, charming, older actors and directors and I see them and I think, ’Oh my gosh. I’m just a student!’ but working with them is the best thing to refresh my craft,” Sanada said. “I love that part.”
With “Life” premiering this week and having just wrapped up filming for his next film, “The Catcher Was a Spy,” Sanada plans on exploring different characters as long as there is an audience watching.
“The audience’s reaction is my energy,” Sanada said. “If they’re enjoying themselves and have a good reaction then I think ‘This is it. I’ve tried my best for this moment so I can feel that.’ Without an audience, our job as actors would be nothing. That’s why I try to create a different character every time and I think it’s refreshing for the audience — even those who have watched me for over 40 years to see that I have a different side.”