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Hiroyuki Sanada talks swordplay and improv in action-comedy 'Bullet Train'


"Bullet Train," a new action-comedy film, features a man on a mission to retrieve a suitcase from a high-speed train in Japan. But little does he know that a collection of assassins are riding the same train, all with their own mysterious reasons. Hiroyuki Sanada plays one of these passengers, The Elder, who's there to get revenge on a long-time personal enemy. The Japanese star has a long acting career and is best-known for his roles in action movies like "The Last Samurai," "Mortal Kombat" and "Rush Hour 3." But for "Bullet Train," he had to learn a new skill - improv. His co-star Brad Pitt - you might have heard of him - would add some lines to a scene every now and then, sometimes adding jokes to a serious scene.

HIROYUKI SANADA: I was so scared, so I had to listen carefully. What coming next? Sometimes, hard to - don't laugh. I had to keep in character, of course. Then I have to react and then return some words. So every take - so fresh and interesting and thrilled for me. And then when I saw the movie, people laughing at our, you know, improvisation, I felt OK.

RASCOE: It worked out. It worked out.

SANADA: Yeah. My sweat never wasted, I thought.

RASCOE: (Laughter). How hard was it not to laugh? Because Brad Pitt was very funny, very charming, but your character is super serious.

SANADA: It was hard. But I love this kind of comedy. You know, do seriously, but audience can laugh, like situation comedy, like - so I really enjoyed that.

RASCOE: So this film is a little bit complicated. If you only had, like, a couple of sentences to describe this film, like, what would you say it's about?

SANADA: This movie based on the novel from Japanese author Kotaro Isaka. Mystery, thriller, action, comedy, drama, I think.

RASCOE: (Laughter.) It's all of that. It's all of those things, right?

SANADA: All in one, I believe, yes.

RASCOE: All in one. I know you talked about the book. It's a Japanese book - and that they adapted it and made it more kind of international. There are some people who were concerned that most of the characters were changed to be non-Japanese. Did you have any reservations about that?

SANADA: I thought it's a great adaptation for the international cast. And then I heard that the author, Mr. Isaka, loves this adaptation and - yeah, a good chance to introduce Japanese novel to the world, so we needed the international cast. So it's a natural thing, and then everybody happy about that.

RASCOE: So I have to say, like, you in "Bullet Train," you were, like, one of the coolest characters. Seeing you in action, I was like, this guy is so cool. Do you ever, like, pose with the sword and look at yourself in the mirror or see yourself onscreen and go, like, I look so cool? 'Cause I would, like, want to get pictures of myself. Is that just me, or do you ever do that? (Laughter).

SANADA: I - trying to be cool, but I just think about the character and situation with emotion. So just be a character and then - script has a power, editor has a power to make my character cooler or not cool, you know?

RASCOE: (Laughter).

SANADA: I just do my job into the character. That's it.

RASCOE: So you don't look at yourself and go, oh, man, I look so cool with that sword. You never look - like, I look so tough, like, I could beat everybody up. You don't think that?

SANADA: No. No. No. No.

RASCOE: You're 61 years old, and the character that you play in this movie is called The Elder. You've done so many action movies over the years. Do you feel like you have learned about how to be characters in a different way over the years? What have you taken from that experience of being in so many of these sorts of action movies?

SANADA: Yeah. I started as a child actor when I was 5 years old. Then I saw a lot of great movies from Hollywood, Europe, and then I saw a lot of great actors doing own stunts or singing, dancing. So when I was 9 or 10 years old, I thought, if I can continue acting in the future, I'd love to do everything by myself. Then I started training for singing, dancing, sword fighting or horseback riding or something and just continued training. For me, action is not so special, just a part of acting.

RASCOE: What type of singing do you do? I just - I'm just interested in this, 'cause I didn't know, so what type of singing do you do?

SANADA: Like, you know, pops or sometimes theme song for the movies. Maybe - I've done four or five movies - an ending theme I sung, and then I've done some musical from "Big River" - "Huckleberry Finn," sorry. I was Huck in Japanese. And I've done "Little Shop Of Horrors."

RASCOE: Oh, wow.

SANADA: In Japanese, Seymour. So mixing between Japanese and English.

RASCOE: I feel like the American audience hasn't gotten to see you that way as much because we're more seeing you in "Westworld" and "Rush Hour." We're not getting to see this other side of you.

SANADA: Yeah - musical, comedy.


SANADA: I've done a lot in Japan, but after I came to U.S., the image is like a samurai or yakuza. But I think, yeah, I want to do more different genre, more comedy or romance-comedy or something.

RASCOE: OK, well, people need to listen to this and see you need to be in a romcom, and that needs to happen. And you can sing, so I think someone needs to make that happen. That's Hiroyuki Sanada, one of the stars of "Bullet Train," in theaters now. Thank you so much.

SANADA: Thank you so much for having me. It was so much fun. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.