‘Shōgun’ Stars on the Challenges of Acting in Seven Layers of Clothing and Adopting Sailor Accents: ‘All the Detail Is So Important’

Rexa Vella

‘Shōgun’ Stars on the Challenges of Acting in Seven Layers of Clothing and Adopting Sailor Accents: ‘All the Detail Is So Important’

Amidst the chaos of a fire alarm going off and security ordering (and later calling off) evacuations on the red carpet of the “Shōgun” premiere on Wednesday night in Los Angeles, the stars of the new FX series still found the time to share their experiences working on the most recent adaptation of James Clavell’s 1,200-page novel.

Acting in a show like “Shōgun” — which features numerous fight sequences and tense dramatic scenes — would not be considered a relaxing task to most. But for Hiroyuki Sanada, who plays the lead role and serves as a producer, being in front of the camera was a “simple” task compared to his producing duties.

“As a producer, I prepared everything before I go to set, so when I was acting in front of the camera, it was so relaxing … It was so fun. I felt like it’s a reward,” he said.

Sanada found producing to be a much more stressful task but said that making these small adjustments made all the difference when it came to achieving authenticity: “All the detail is so important to introduce our culture correctly. The words, movement, position of the teacup, position of the sword — every movement or every detail changes a lot.”

Rooted in real history, “Shōgun” follows Sanada’s Yoshii Toranaga on his quest to become the shōgun, the military leader of the nation, joined by his translator Lady Mariko (Anna Sawai) and English ally John Blackthorne (Cosmo Jarvis).

To accurately reflect the time period, the actors had to not only do historical research — with some studying their characters’ real-life counterparts — but also engage in physical training. Though the series includes a number of action scenes, physical training wasn’t just about combat. Sawai said one of the biggest challenges for her was learning to walk while wearing her character’s costumes. For 10 months, she wore up to seven layers of clothing at times, in addition to having a wig on with a thick ribbon on it: “I remember coming out of it and having to get treatment on my shoulders because they were so buffed up.”

To get into his character, Jarvis attempted to research how his character would have spoke English during that time period. He first looked into historical linguistics, and then looked for audio recordings of sailors from as early as he could find. After modeling his voice after one of the sailors, he found it did not fit the archetype outlined for Blackthorne in the script, and co-creator Rachel Kondo suggested he make his voice lower.

“I started again, and I modeled him on my father because my father was a merchant sailor. I figured maybe there’d be something in common,” he said.

Of working with the primarily Japanese cast — a rare occurrence for an American production — Jarvis said, “It was nice to be around such pride in the telling of this story because these people are based on real people from their history. That set the bar of the level of of care that had to be taken and the level of effort that had to be given to try to maximize what this could be together.”

Sawai said that she was used to seeing portrayals of Japanese women in Western media and thinking, “That’s not me. That’s not us.” However, she said Kondo and co-creator Justin Marks did not want to “fantasize anything”: “They showed everything in a way that as a Japanese viewer, I can relate to.”

“This is the first thing that I’m probably going to be able to talk to my friends about and not make any excuses that we did something a little off,” she added.

Sanada said he wants “Shōgun” to serve as an example to Hollywood of how to tell stories from another culture authentically.

“That’s why I am hoping this 2024 version of ‘Shōgun’ will be a big footstep to the future. I hope it’s gonna be a new normal style to create another culture’s story,” he said.

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