By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
Rafu Entertainment Editor
BEVERLY HILLS.–It was early and Ken Watanabe still had his edge…but it was going to be a long day. The Japanese actor was taking part in a day-long press junket for “Inception,” the new film from director Christopher Nolan which opens Friday.
Looking comfortable and fresh in a houndstooth jacket and t-shirt, Watanabe, 50, spoke about his role in the new film, a part written expressly for him by Nolan.
“I had no reason to decline this project,” Watanabe said. “I was shooting a Japanese film last year in Kenya when I was asked to come to L.A. When I heard it was from Chris Nolan, I said, ‘Okay!’”
Watanabe said Nolan, with whom he worked on the inspired 2005 blockbuster “The Dark Knight,” is keenly familiar with his style of acting. Also, the chance to play a contemporary character that was not based on being Asian—such as in “The Last Samurai”—was irresistible.
“I’m proud to be involved with this film,” the Oscar-nominated actor said. “This is a result of working in Hollywood for eight years now, and also working with a director who knows my abilities well.”
In “Inception,” Watanabe plays Saito, a wealthy and connected Tokyo businessman who offers thief of the subconscious Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) an arrangement he can’t readily refuse: the chance to earn his way home. The film’s plot is the antithesis of what summer movies have become; there are no superheroes, it doesn’t revolve around special effects and—thank the gods of originality—it isn’t a sequel.
The story involves a group of international bandits who steal not money or property, but ideas, by putting the subjects of their larceny to sleep and invading their dreams. What Saito wants is for the team to infiltrate the subconscious of one of his rivals and plant a notion that will lead the competitor to reach a conclusion “on his own,” that will benefit Saito’s company dealings.
Needless to say, the plot, with its intricate concepts and multiple levels of dreams within dreams, caught Watanabe off guard at the initial reading.
“I got through the first 30 pages of the script and I had to go back. I had no idea what was going on,” he explained. “I usually get the feel of a story at the beginning, but not this one. I had to go back and forth to understand what was going on.”
A true testament to the directorial abilities of Nolan—who transformed the comic book movie with his visionary interpretation of Batman—is the fact that despite diving into increasingly deepening layers of the sleeping mind, “Inception” is not a jumbled mess. On the contrary, the story is surprisingly easy to follow without ever feeling the need to stop and explain itself to the masses.
And while they are not the foundation on which all else rests in the movie, the special effects are stunning and unexpected. One particularly impressive scene features a brilliantly executed zero-gravity fight sequence down a hotel corridor, one of the many stunt segments that Watanabe said involved everyone in the cast.
“It was tough, because everyone in the cast is younger than me,” the actor said. “They are skilled emotionally, physically, and it was tough shooting. Chris wanted us to feel reality, with all the deep layers of emotion.”
Watanabe’s character is wounded, a situation that persists through each level of subconscious reality. He said he needed to mark his copy of the script with several colored markers to keep track of which “Saito” belonged where.
“Each layer had a different level of pain and it was really challenging to perform each one,” he explained.
One mind-bending visual has six of the characters, including Saito, unconscious and stacked together as there are moved though a hallway. Watanabe described that although there was some amount of computer-generated imagery involved, the cast members were indeed wrapped into pairs, with he and Tom Berenger getting bundled up close and personal.
“Tom and I are very close friends after that,” he joked.
Watanabe said that he recently received a call to discuss being in a new movie with one of his “favorite directors,” but he wasn’t at liberty to reveal the name. He insisted that he makes it a point not to look too far ahead, and to be ready when the next quality role comes up.
“I try not to set any goals for my next project,” he explained. “New projects come suddenly, so I need to leave my canvas wide open. I’ll go anywhere.”