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Ken Watanabe

Memoirs of a Geisha

SOUND BITES

Which director would you like to work with that you haven’t before?? “It’s a secret. If I tell the press, then it doesn’t become a reality.”

How do actors balance commerce vs. art?? “Sometimes I want to play in a big entertainment movie, and sometimes an artistic movie. I’m always looking for a good script and a good director.”

Up next: “I shot a movie in Japan last summer called ‘Memories of Tomorrow.’ It’s a young Alzheimer’s patient story, and it will be released in Japan next May. Of course, I want it to be distributed in the United States and Europe.”

Japanese actor Ken Watanabe knew what he was up against when he stepped into the role of the Chairman in Rob Marshall’s film adaptation of the bestselling novel “Memoirs of a Geisha.”

Namely, he would face millions of female readers with an image of the heroine’s love interest — a kind but enigmatic businessman — firmly in their heads. “All women love the Chairman,” the 46-year-old actor notes, laughing. “It was a lot of pressure. But Rob said not to worry about it. He said, ‘You are the Chairman.’ I trusted him. He knows the actor’s mind. I was so comfortable.”

In fact, when they were shooting the scenes that take place during World War II, the director invoked another classic war-torn love story to Watanabe. “He also said, ‘You are Clark Gable and this is like ‘Gone With the Wind.’ ”

Nevertheless, playing someone who keeps his feelings close to his chest was a new challenge for the soft-voiced performer and towering screen presence. “I always play strong guys, active and aggressive,” notes the thesp, a major star in Japan who recently entered the consciousness of American moviegoers with his Oscar-nominated perf in “The Last Samurai,” and the formidable Ra’s Al Ghul in “Batman Begins.” “But this character was completely different from anything in my career. He is so generous, simple and smooth, and doesn’t show his passion. If I say I love you 20 minutes in, this movie is over. I have to keep up suspense until the last scene. It was tough but very interesting.”

With a handful of Chinese actresses having to play Japanese women onscreen, Watanabe was occasionally called upon to authenticate. “He loved to help us with our Japanese, both language and costumes,” says Ziyi Zhang, who plays his admirer from afar, geisha Sayuri. “I remember he told me how to walk, kneel, all those small gestures. He was very nice.”

Watanabe stresses, however, that more important to him was his emotional focus: “I had to find the true moments. It’s not a documentary.”

It’s a principle that’s allowed him to win over audiences, whatever language he’s speaking onscreen. “Making a film anywhere, it’s the same thing: connecting to feelings. Language is not important. It’s immaterial,” he says.

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