As one of the most in demand beauties of the digital age, Tao Okamoto is a familiar fixture on the runways of Paris and in the pages of the world’s most exclusive magazines. Since she exploded onto the scene in 2007 Tao has managed to impress fashion luminaries like Karl Lagerfeld, Giorgio Armani and Ralph Lauren with her nonchalant cool and innate elegance. The next phase of her career begins with a stint on the silver screen starring opposite Hugh Jackman in The Wolverine, the latest installment in the X-Men franchise and a bonafide blockbuster. The transition from model to actress is a jump many have attempted, but Tao succeeds with a strong performance that is already garnering critical acclaim. On the eve of the film’s premiere we caught up with Tao to discover how she felt working alongside Hollywood royalty and what it is like to headline one of the biggest movies of the summer. / View the Models.com Tao film by Miguel Reveriego in MDX
When did the acting bug hit you?
TAO: It was when I met James Mangold in Los Angeles for my second audition for “The Wolverine.” I had never had any acting experience before that, so he taught me about many of the basics I needed. I remember he said to me that I was gifted, which made me more confident. I just fell in love with his way of directing me, and I thought back then, “I wouldn’t forgive myself if I let somebody else play this role.”
Can you tell us a bit about your character?
TAO: Mariko first meets Wolverine in Tokyo. As isolated and lonely characters, they are both very different from others, so of course she didn’t open herself to him at first. But she grew up hearing about Wolverine since she was little, so she is going to be alongside him as they are running away from an enemy.
How did you prepare for the role – did you watch the previous films or read the comics?
TAO: Yes, I collected all the knowledge related to this role. But Mariko is quite different from the comic books because James Mangold rewrote her after I got the role, so I think she is stronger, tougher and more complicated in the movie and I really appreciate that he made her like that. I also had three weeks of rehearsals for martial arts training and reading with other cast members.
What was it like playing this role?
TAO: It was very smooth for me to play the role of Mariko. I imagined that she was quite isolated and outcast from society as she grew up in the wealthiest family in Japan. I used my own childhood memories of being very different from other kids and didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere. I always wished to be born as a much more ordinary figure (Not tall and not skinny) so I didn’t have to feel my differences in a bad way. However, I didn’t know Mariko was trained for martial arts, so stunts were definitely challenging for me.
What was the most challenging part of this particular experience?
TAO: Action stunts and memorizing lines in two languages. We hadn’t decided if it should be spoken in Japanese or English when only Japanese cast members were shooting a scene. We didn’t want to make the scenario unrealistic by only speaking English, but we also didn’t want to make it difficult for audiences to take in so much foreign language. It was double the work, and the director often asked us to use two languages mixed within the same scene, so we easily got confused.
I heard you initially weren’t going to do this role, but later accepted once you heard Hugh Jackman was involved – what was it like working with him?
TAO: I just wasn’t into acting in the beginning, but I always respected him as an amazing performer in films and also on stage, because I’m huge fan of musicals. Now I think it was meant to be, because I wouldn’t make a move to step into a new world if it wasn’t his movie. I can never thank him enough for opening this new door for me, and starting my new career with someone like him feels so fortunate. I could learn so much from him; not only acting skills but also as a human being, because he is truly the nicest man in the world, and I would think that’s how I should behave as an actress.
Even by Hollywood standards this is a huge film, with a built in fanbase & franchise – what is it like participating in such a big movie for your first role?
TAO: I tried not to realize what a big deal this was. It was also a very fast audition process so I didn’t have to think too much. Five months of shooting went so fast, and the whole crew became like a family, so again I didn’t have to feel so much pressure. But after I saw the completed film, I now wish I had more previous experience. I can see myself growing in the movie through the five months, so there are some parts from the very beginning of shooting where I think I can give better performances now, since I have learned a lot.
What kind of part would you like to play next?
TAO: I just want to act more and more! I’m open about any roles but maybe something very different from this time, like a villain. And I want to play a part in a musical one day.
What was the most enjoyable part of the experience for you?
TAO: Creating something with a same team for this length of time. Being a member of the team, knowing each other well and sharing good days and bad days. I often had frustrations when people wanted to treat me just as a puppet on modeling jobs. We are not allowed to speak up on most occasions, and showing up at a studio in the morning and leaving in the evening didn’t make me feel that I was a part of a team. I would love to participate in a much longer process. In these 5 months, I love being asked what I think about this role, giving my opinions, and putting ideas together with others. Even costume, make up and set designs departments asked me what things should be like as Japanese. Those processes made me feel like I was a part of this creation and made me happy