Karen Fukuhara always dreamed of being an actress, but she never thought it was attainable. “Coming from immigrant parents, we didn’t have the means to know how the industry worked — who we needed to contact, what classes we needed to take, what are agents anyway?” she told NBC News.
Now, just two years after graduating from the University of California, Los Angeles, she is playing Katana in Warner Brothers’ “Suicide Squad.” As one of the few female Asian superheroes to ever grace the silver screen, Fukuhara’s role as Katana is her first movie role ever.
In an interview with NBC Asian America, Fukuhara opened up about her Japanese-American childhood, her experiences becoming an actress, and what’s next.
You were born in Los Angeles — what was your childhood like?
Born and raised! I grew up in a unique environment where I was immersed in both Japanese and American cultures equally. In my household, it was as if I was living in Japan. We spoke Japanese, ate Japanese foods, celebrated Japanese traditions and holidays. My first language was Japanese. Outside the house, I was treated as a normal American kid. I would go to school Monday-Friday just like anyone else, but in addition, I would attend Japanese school on Saturdays. I did that for 11 years! Looking back on it, I am so happy my parents chose this type of double education because knowing two languages fluently and having an understanding of both cultures has opened up so many doors. However, I must admit that there are times when I feel as though I don't completely belong to either group because there are certain parts (of knowledge) missing - for example TV shows or popular music - Who is Dora the Explorer?
When did you know you wanted to pursue entertainment?
It has always been a dream of mine but I did not know that it was something attainable. Coming from immigrant parents, we didn't have the means to know how the industry worked - who we needed to contact, what classes we needed to take, what are agents anyway?
"We can of course play the stereotypical ninja, the martial arts master, the accountant, the doctor, but we can be more than that!"
I lucked into the entertainment world when I auditioned for a role on a show called "Disney's Movie Surfers" back in middle school. My friend invited me to an open call, and I booked! The show was amazing! We went behind-the-scenes of upcoming Disney movies, showing sets, premieres, interviewing producers, directors, actors, animators... Previous to the show, I had taken a few acting classes but I never expected it to result to this!
After "Disney's Movie Surfers" ended, I booked a reporting gig on NHK (Japanese broadcasting network), and I still go out for that to this day. I did it all throughout college and it helped me pay for school.
Upon graduation, I hit a wall. All of my good friends from UCLA were taking on jobs they were passionate about, and I felt left behind. It took a bit of soul searching but in the end, I finally had the guts to pursue acting.
What was your career like before getting the "Suicide Squad" role?
I was a struggling actress! I've worked as a part-time translator, subtitle editor, and a waitress at a reggae-themed sushi restaurant.
What were you doing when you found out that you got the "Suicide Squad" role? And how’d you react?
I was in New York working as a translator for a Japanese model (just for a couple days)! My management team called and I was ECSTATIC!! I couldn't believe it! At the time, I didn't know how big the role was, but I remember I was just excited to book a role.
The fan base for "Suicide Squad" is incredible. When I got the call, I don't think I quite understood how iconic "Suicide Squad" was going to be. My team definitely knew, because she said she cried. So sweet!
What about your character, Katana, made you interested?
Katana has her own comic book, so her backstory is very much established. I was drawn to her connection with her sword (Soultaker) and her husband who is trapped within it. She has a dark past yet she continues to bring the world justice. I'm intrigued to see where the writers take her story. I love that she is not only physically strong but mentally as well. Katana is very much independent and doesn't need a savior. I look up to strong women like that.
What do you think about Asian-American roles in movies today? Do you think we’re in the right place regarding diversity?
I think it is an exciting time to be an Asian-American actress today because there are so many more opportunities than in the past. However, I still think there's a lot more room for improvement. We're nowhere near diverse. I'd like to see more Asian-American roles where the ethnicity of the character can be swapped to another. We can of course play the stereotypical ninja, the martial arts master, the accountant, the doctor, but we can be more than that!
Now that the movie’s about to come out, what do you think is next for you? Is there a dream role/casting choice for you?
I adore actors/actresses that have range; someone that can transform into a character that is far beyond who they truly are. Charlize Theron and Johnny Depp are amazing at this. So for now, as a newcomer, every role is a dream role. Everything will be an exciting challenge and I can't wait to delve into psyche of the characters!
I think it's hilarious because everyone thinks my life has changed 360 degrees since I've worked on "Suicide Squad." This is of course true on some days, but I still come home to live with my parents at the end of the day. Nothing is glamorous about that, haha.