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Rinku Kikuchi, ‘Babel’

Supporting actress contender

Rinku Kikuchi is most likely the least familiar actress in the Oscar race this year.

A virtual unknown, the Japanese thesp doesn’t speak one line of dialogue during her performance as a deaf-mute teenager in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s “Babel.” But as Catalina Sandino Moreno proved with her lead actress nod for “Maria Full of Grace” in 2004, it is possible for foreign newcomers to get noticed by the Academy.

The depth of Kikuchi’s performance as Chieko, a teenager reeling from the recent death of her mother, is powerful in any language. Over the course of a single day, she taunts boys with brazen displays of sexuality, takes drugs, pines for the attention of a police officer and struggles to connect with her heartbroken, overworked father, who was once considered a suspect in her mother’s death.

Displaying an extraordinary ability to convey emotion through facial expression and movement, Kikuchi delivers perhaps the most memorable performance in “Babel,” a considerable accomplishment given the caliber of talent in the film’s other segments.

“Every aspect of this role was a challenge, and that was what excited me,” Kikuchi says. “Chieko has these tremendous emotions inside her, and a very strong sexuality. She has so much anger towards society, but at the same time she’s very afraid. All of those different feelings just made it a great part to play.”

It took nearly a year for the 25-year-old actress to land the role. Gonzalez Inarritu was originally dead set on hiring a deaf actress for the part, so Kikuchi did her homework, spending time with deaf girls and learning sign language before her first audition. She landed the role a mere three days before shooting started, after Gonzalez Inarritu asked her to compose her own version of the heartbreaking letter Chieko writes in the film.

“When he read it, he said, ‘My version of Chieko and your version of Chieko are the same. We don’t have to worry about anything.’ By the time we started shooting, he didn’t need to give me direction. Our rehearsal time happened during the audition process,” Kikuchi explains.

Favorite film of the past five years: “The Child” by Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes

Actor who impressed you greatly after working together: “Yakusho Koji, who plays my father in ‘Babel.’ Once he hears action, he just has incredible focus. Once I was nervous and I asked him, ‘What can I do?,’ and he just said, ‘Don’t try to act.’ That was incredibly helpful.”

Next project: Japanese love story “Koi suru madori”