An Interview with Denis Akiyama
Denis Akiyama is an actor who sees the ironies in life and is able to express them in humorous quips. His performances in Miss Saigon on Broadway (1992-1993) and in Toronto (1993) at the Princess of Wales Theatre put him on the map. He has acted in historically and artistically significant plays like Song for a Nisei Fisherman by Philip Kan Gotanda, Naomi’s Road by Sally Han, M.J. Kang’s Dreams of Blonde & Blue, and Hiro Kanagawa’s The Tiger of Malaya. His numerous feature film credits include David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers, Sidney Lumet’s Guilty as Sin, and the sci-fi thriller, Johnny Mnemonic, in which Denis’s portrayal of the villainous Shinji is a role which many movie fans remember. Recent TV credits would include principal roles in the TV series, She’s the Mayor, and Warehouse 13, while in the select world of voice work, Denis is best known for providing the voice of Malachite in Sailor Moon and Sunfire in the X-Men Animated Series. Born in Toronto in 1952, he grew up in Toronto’s east end just down the road from the Watadas (Terry Watada’s family). This JC actor and voice actor — who fundamentally considers himself a performer — once told me he has a BA in Psychology from York University in Toronto. ‘Perfect if you want to understand peoples’ motivations’, he drily observed. A few years after university, Denis would study acting at George Brown College’s theatre program in Toronto. Then, several years later in 2004 or 2005, I recall Denis saying to me at a TV commercial audition, “Theatre keeps you honest.” I thank him for sharing that. It’s interesting, the things we remember.
Can you talk about preparing Japanese accents for your roles?
Again, it’s ‘ironic’ that I’ve had to learn to speak with a Japanese accent — and that process is an evolving process — because of the demands of the business. I have to be prepared to speak with a Japanese accent or with a facsimile of an accent. (Smiles) Somewhere between Jerry Lewis and David Carradine there’s some kind of acceptable level. At this point, though, I’d want to avoid the stereotype, be true to my self, and do the job. But there’s another thing — what I call ‘meter.’ Meter’s important, compared with the actual pronunciation of the [accented] words (which people can’t understand anyway). Meter [the pace and rhythm of your words] can replace an accent in your role. David Carradine (Kung Fu) spoke as a wise Chinese in a kind of meter. But for me, I’m creating a character, and whether they’re Japanese, or a generic Asian person, I’d have to understand what people expect to hear. And because it’s entertainment, we have to understand who we’re pandering to when we’re asked to ‘pull it back’. Actually, my real mentor is Lawrence Nakamura, a kendo sensei I knew years ago. So decisive. We’d be in a restaurant, and when he decided it was time to go, he’d abruptly stand up, throw on his coat and say, “We go.”
This is a two-part question — can you talk about the star system in Canada among actors working in TV and film? and, where do you think you fit in?
Is there a star system? In Quebec there’s a star system, but not outside of Quebec. People decide that. I don’t. People make you a star. In Toronto, it’s more about celebrity than a star system. I become a star whenever someone recognizes me, too.
Did your Dad raise you to be a strong Japanese male?
I was raised to have a strong appreciation for being Japanese. My Japaneseness was separate from the community. My dad raised me to be a respectful person ... but he was kind. Don’t display it.
Just curious, your son has a Japanese name, doesn’t he? That strikes me as a serious choice.
Yes, my son’s name is Kintaro. The name came to me when I was sitting in the kitchen.
Metaphysics. My grandmother’s surname was Kin, my grandfather’s was Taro. Also, kin means gold, and taro, son. I remember my wife, Danielle, telling Jesse Nishihata that we’d settled on the name, Kintaro, for our new-born son, and Jesse exclaimed, ‘That’s like naming your son Rumpelstilskin.’ I think the name’s acceptable in Canada, but not in Japan.
Did your parents approve of your acting? I suppose this is another way of asking if they wanted you to be a psychologist or a doctor?
In the end, my parents were very proud of me. Civility was always important to my dad who wanted me to be respectful of others and be a good presence in the community.
Do artistic genes run in your family?
Absolutely. My mother’s a great artist — she plays piano, she sings, she danced and taught o-dori in the camps. She was a Yamada. My mother taught me the meaning of beauty. She’d say — “that’s beauty.”
Can you describe how you felt when you declared yourself an actor and you decided to go to theatre school at George Brown?
I had my degree in psychology and I was a child care worker. I was a responsible adult, but I was also playing music at the time with Parachute Club and the Pukka Orchestra. Since we only have one life, and I chose to be true to my talents, it was a very serious moment for me. I always knew I had a purpose; I had to really be courageous. I just wanted to do the work. I wasn’t concerned about fame — and, I knew my Japaneseness was going to influence the outcome.
You once said to me, “Theatre keeps you honest.” For the readers, can you expand upon this?
In theatre, you’ve got to get it right — the audience has paid money — and there’s no room for mistakes. You’re literally walking the performance tight-rope. Your preparation, and subsequently the development process, is very exacting, whereas in other mediums [film, TV], they can fix mistakes in the editing. The drive for perfection is great in theatre because between yourself and the other actors, there’s a number of things that can go wrong. That’s why the rehearsal period is so comparatively long in theatre.
Was it difficult in any way to transition from acting in theatre and musical theatre to acting for film and TV? What kind of adjustments, if any, did you have to make?
I actually started in film. There’s different technical things to consider in both mediums. It’s different playing to a camera versus playing to an audience. However, the expectation to give a solid performance is always there.
What’s on your mind these days? Any interest in directing, or is acting enough?
Not so much directing. I still love acting. I’ve considered writing ... possibly directing … but I’m more focused on getting work — that’s part of the actor’s job. Also, I try to expand my repertoire of knowledge. Learning, experiencing things, and keeping an open mind — and self-directing — is important to me when seeing movies ... TV ... literature ... visual arts ... writing.
But it’s ‘personal’ — I don’t like to talk about writing and directing. When I’m not acting, I write and play music.
How do you deal with bad reviews?
I don’t put much stock in reviews, whether good or bad: unpleasant is bad; pleasant is good. I wouldn’t be where I am if I didn’t believe in my own review.
How involved are you with video games? What about Skype, Facebook, Twitter, and blogs?
I’ve claimed my Twitter name. Video games, no. Space Invaders was where I last left off. I’m not so interested in all that. Facebook I don’t do. I use email and am learning to compress PDF files. I still have a great interest in the analogue world — it’s not dependant on computers; it’s a different world: it’s a unified, emotional world, where, for example, like your pen that’s taking down what I’m saying right now, there’s a graphic connection to the world, a close connection. I’m not a Luddite, however, the industry requires that I become more computer-savvy.
Are you happy with your life?
I’m very happy with my life and grateful for my family’s situation and my successes. But I’m unhappy that I still have to confront the same problems and same questions and am expected to come up with answers. Really, my nature and my struggle to be the best I can be is what concerns me. And it’s not about being better than you.