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'Finding My Way': Sumire Matsubara on Acting, Diversity, and Connecting with Her Roots

The 25-year-old actress, singer, and model will receive the Rising Star Award from the Asian World Film Festival later this month in Los Angeles.
Sumire Matsubara will receive the Rising Star Award from the Asian World Film Festival in Los Angeles, 2015.
Sumire Matsubara will receive the Rising Star Award from the Asian World Film Festival in Los Angeles, 2015.Leslie Kee

From a very young age, Sumire Matsubara was born to be on stage. The 25-year-old actress, model, and singer, who was born in Japan and raised in Hawaii, spent her childhood watching her parents--actors Junichi Ishida and Chiaki Matsubara--navigate and flourish in the Japanese entertainment industry for decades.

Watching her parents' careers helped inspire Matsubara to put as much passion and dedication into her own craft, but while she followed in their footsteps into entertainment, her journey has been much different.

“I have always had a bit of an identity crisis," Matsubara told NBC News. "By blood I am Japanese, my heart is American. I am always in between."

“I am still finding my way, but I am much more comfortable with who I am now."

When she was seven years old, after her parents' divorce, Matsubara moved from Japan to Hawaii with her mother, who wanted to shield her daughter from the press and embark on a new journey--away from the spotlight and the paparazzi.

“Although she was not able to speak English very well and she was going to be a single mother, she was able to start her life over again,” Matsubara said. “My father...continued to work a lot as an actor in Japan while the industry and the media were very cold to my mother.”

Matsubara recalled many times when she was bullied at school because she couldn’t speak fluent English. In response, she would ignore the remarks and focus her attention, instead, to the arts, where she was cast in several lead roles for musicals at her high school and other community theater events in Hawaii.

It was also her mom, Matsubara said, who inspired her to pursue singing as another outlet where she could express herself. “[My mom] would often take me to see musicals, Disney movies, and we would go karaoke together and perform for each other," she said.

Matsubara eventually enrolled in her school's choir and went on to star in Punahou School's "West Side Story."

“That’s when I cultivated my passion for acting and the stage," Matsubara, who is also a dedicated dancer and has trained in ballet, hulu, holoku, jazz, and hip-hop, said. "I knew then for sure that I wanted to work professionally," she said.

Matsubara said one of the biggest milestones of her life was when she got accepted to Carnegie Mellon University, where she pursued her BFA in musical theater and acting. But she said she found herself to be one of the few Asian-American actresses in the conservatory program, located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania--a stark contrast to Hawaii where she felt it was much more diverse.

“It was a great program, the students and professors were very gracious and supportive, but I did feel some racial discrimination from the people of the town,” Matsubara said. “After being in the school, it was amazing, but something in me was telling me that this place was not the place for me.”

After studying at the university, Matsubara decided to go back home to Hawaii to be with her mother following news of her grandmother’s passing in 2010, and the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Tohoku, Japan, which took the lives of tens of thousands of victims in 2011.

“It was a hard time for my family. Personally I was having a hard time being so far away from home,” Matsubara said.

Actress, model, and singer Sumire Matsubara will make her Hollywood film debut in "The Shack," a faith-based Christian drama film.Yoshihito Sasaguchi

While at home, she said she was able to gain perspective and realize she didn't want to stay in the U.S. at the time. Matsubara moved back to Tokyo, where she could reconnect with her roots. “I wanted to know who I was and where I came from," she said. Moving back to Japan not only gave her the chance to explore her background, but she was able to reconcile with her father and reconnect with family members there.

But Matsubara struggled with being well-received by audiences in Japan after having spent much of her life in the U.S. and performing for a different audience that was, she said, less conservative in some respects. In some ways, she had to re-train and familiarize herself with new customs.

"[Asian and Pacific Islanders] are here, and we need to break out in the industry."

“Trying to learn how to be a proper Japanese entertainer was very difficult. At times it felt like people expected to be more Japanese than I was. On the outside I look Japanese, but inside I am very American,” Matsubara said. “I felt I had to please people or I became too concerned about being liked or accepted in Japan. It was difficult to come to terms with my American-ness and find my own way of being in Japan.”

One of the biggest challenges for Matsubara was the language barrier and the moments of self-doubt where she constantly questioned whether Japan was truly the place for her to thrive. But in hindsight, Matsubara said moving to Japan was a very necessary phase in her life. “I am still finding my way, but I am much more comfortable with who I am now," she said.

While most of Matsubara's fan base is in Japan, she hasn't been a stranger to American screens--from a guest role on the CBS drama "Hawaii Five-0" to her upcoming Hollywood film debut in "The Shack," a drama based on the 2007 novel of the same name. Matsubara, who joined the cast this past summer, will play the "Holy Spirit" alongside Academy Award-winning actress Octavia Spencer, who will play God.

Sumire Matsubara, Lani Netter, and Jaeson Ma behind the scenes on the set of upcoming Hollywood film, "The Shack."Lani Netter

“Being in both countries and being able to work in both countries is very challenging because I need to adapt to each country’s language, culture, and ways of the industry," Matsubara said. "But ultimately, it is hugely rewarding and a great honor.”

On Oct. 26, Matsubara will travel to Los Angeles to receive the Rising Star Award from the Asian World Film Festival for her ongoing contributions and cross-cultural work in East-West entertainment industries. The festival, which will take place over the course of one week, features dozens of foreign language films from around Asia and panels on topics from film financing to editing for a global audience.

“I would like to thank the Asian World Film Festival for recognizing who I am and encouraging me to be a part of enhancing the East-West filmmaking industries," Matsubara said. "I would like to continue to spread the word and the awareness. [Asian and Pacific Islanders] are here, and we need to break out in the industry."