The Quick Saga, Vin Diesel and Pachinko
Akina Chan – courtesy
Anna Sawai smiles when she remembers telling a teenage friend that she wanted to be an actress. Her friend said to her: “You seem to be in Fast Furious. Sawai had no idea that she would one day land the role of Elle, a mysterious girl who loses her parents at age 11 in F9: The quick saga, released on June 25. “She had a very traumatic childhood, but she’s a fighter,” Sawai says of Zoom from Tokyo.
The 29-year-old actress grew up between New Zealand, Hong Kong, the Philippines and Japan due to her father’s work in an electronics company. During this time, her mother, who studied opera, taught her how to sing, which helped her secure the title role in a Tokyo theatrical production of Annie. From there she made her film debut in 2009 Ninja Assassin and performed as part of a J-pop group named FAKY.
Join a well-oiled machine like the Quickly the franchise was intimidating, but director Justin Lin couldn’t have been more welcoming. “He knew I didn’t have a lot of experience and really walked me through it,” she says. Next, Sawai will play Naomi, a savvy businesswoman in Apple TV + adaptation of Min Jin Lee’s landmark novel. Pachinko.
Here the actress is discussing F9, working with Vin Diesel and breaking down stereotypes about Asian female characters.
How does it feel to join the Fast Furious franchise?
I still don’t believe it. It’s something that I grew up watching, and Tokyo drift was so huge in Japan. Fast forward to now I’m a part of it and it’s so iconic and it still feels like a dream. I think once it’s out and people watch it, I might feel like it really happened, but at this point it feels unreal.
Do you remember when you heard you had the part?
It was a few weeks after my audition, and it was my birthday. I was in my bed in my Tokyo apartment. I knew I could hear from my reps overnight, so I woke up to check my phone several times. It was the most incredible gift I have ever received.
Can you tell us about your character Elle?
She is a 19-year-old woman who lives in Tokyo, and she loses her parents at 11. His parents are scientists. She has this really big secret that hasn’t been revealed in the movie yet, but I think that’s all I can say. I don’t want to spoil it!
What was it like working with director Justin Lin?
He was so patient with me. We have some moving scenes in there, but he would just look at me and ask, “Are you okay?” You can really feel he was there for you. The way he approaches actors is so sweet and he’s very collaborative. He’s open to hearing what you think, and it’s been such a wonderful process with him.
How was the chemistry of the cast on set?
It was such a warm environment. Everyone was so welcoming, but obviously I was really nervous to be the new kid out of nowhere. But Nathalie Emmanuel [who plays Megan Ramsey] came up to me, and she said, “I totally understand how you feel. I was the new girl too a few years ago, but you have nothing to fear. I am here. Do it. let me know if you need anything.
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What was it like working with Vin Diesel?
He’s really like the character you see in the Quickly movies where he treats everyone like family. I remember him telling me that he was really proud of what I had done so far and that there was a lot to come. He treats everyone equally and watching him made me think, when I’m finally at this point where I have a lot of experience, I want to be able to treat everyone the way he does. With so much love and care.
Then you play in the Apple TV + adaptation of Pachinko. What attracted you to this project?
I liked the book so much. My character Naomi is one of the few that doesn’t appear in the book, but when I read the description of the audition, I knew it was something I wanted to do. She works at a time when, even more than today, women did not have the same opportunities as men, and they were not taken seriously in society. She struggles to prove herself to the men in the office.
How do you approach the choice of the characters you play?
The characters that I always play [represent] something that I think is important. Yes, She’s Asian and does action, but there’s a reason. She had to become a fighter to protect herself. There is so much depth in it. And Naomi struggles to defend herself at a time when it was really hard for women [to do so]. I don’t want to perpetuate the stereotype of Asian characters because there are still a lot of characters like that. I just want to try out different roles.
An abridged version of this article appears in the June / July 2021 issue of ELLE.
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