By Nigel M Smith | Indiewire January 24, 2014 at 12:17PM
Since netting an Oscar nomination for her astonishing performance as a troubled deaf teenager in Alejandro González Iñárritu's "Babel," Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi has remained active on the English language film front, appearing in Rian Johnson's crime caper "The Brothers Bloom," Guillermo del Toro's "Pacific Rim" and "47 Ronin," opposite Keanu Reeves. At Sundance, Kikuchi is receiving some of the best reviews since her breakout turn for her lead performance in the Zellner brothers' oddball odyssey, "Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter."
In the narrative competition contender, set both in Japan and the U.S., Kikuchi plays Kumiko, a reclusive woman living in Tokyo whose only friend is her bunny rabbit Bunzo and who becomes convinced that the satchel of money buried in the Coen brothers' classic "Fargo" is, in fact, real. Using her boss' credit card, Kumiko books a flight to the Minnesota wilderness to embark on a quest to find the hidden treasure. "The actress barely speaks more than a few words," Indiewire's Eric Kohn said of Kikuchi's performance in his Sundance review, "but her serious, calculated gaze hints at the confounding thought patterns unfolding beneath it."
Indiewire sat down with the soft spoken actress to discuss the role.
Were you familiar with the work of Zellner brothers before coming across their script?
Actually, I met them in 2008. That was right after Oscar nomination. At the time, I received a lot of scripts, but with typecast roles. This was a unique role. I just fell in love with the script and I immediately loved it.
I don't know what they had made before, so I then watched all of their films. I really wanted to do it after seeing them.
When you say ‘typecast roles,' what do you mean?
Like really serious, small roles with hardly any dialogue. And with Asian films, I was offered a lot of kung-fu type stuff.
You play a deaf teenager in "Babel," and barely speak in this and "The Brothers Bloom." What about silence speaks to you as a performer?
For me, it's easier than if had a lot of dialogue actually. I can use my everything, you know, my expression. And also if I don't have any lines, my feelings are really deep inside of me. I love the silent movies too. It's fun to have to use the imagination. That's key to a movie without dialogue.
Did you grow up watching a lot of silent film?
Yes. I love Buster Keaton!
On paper Kumiko must have been hard to pin down. You do a beautiful job of breathing life into her, but she still makes for an opaque character. How did you go about playing her?
I think she just tries to be 'out of' every relationship, you know, her mother, her family. That's why she's only friends with her bunny, Bunzo -- it's a one way relationship. It's really sad. She can't trust with someone. So that's why she also trusts the movie ["Fargo"]. I think she tried to believe what she needs to believe. That's why she goes out of Tokyo to get her treasure. That's her hope.
Your performance as Kumiko is remarkably naturalistic. Did you stay in character while on set?
I did that on the set of "Norwegian Wood." That movie was really deeply sad. At the time I found something. But now I have to turn it turn off, because it's too much for me to wear that character all day, all night.
Did you think of Kumiko as mentally unstable?
No, I don't think she has any mental problems. She's just unique, you know. I thought she's really tough because she doesn't have to be nice to everybody. She's so tough, she just wanted to get what she needs, what she wants. I really loved that. That is really cool.
She is a remarkably ambitious woman. She sets her sights on a goal and just goes after it without looking back. Do you see any of yourself in her?
I don't know...maybe some part that I can't find. [Laughs]
You strike me as a cinephile-type, given your choice of projects.
Yeah. I grew up with a lot of movies, like, horrors and sci-fi, Chinese movies. I really love all kinds of old films because I learn a lot from those movies. I've learned about British music, love, family, history of music and everything from watching the movies. I really like to act in movies, and I also really love to watch movies.
But in the United States, I have been studying English for two years and that has been really challenging for me. You know, English is beautiful and I've learned a lot. Also, directors really take care of me because they know ‘Rinko doesn't speak much,' but if I'm on a set, I really do my best. So I learn a lot from directors and crew members.
Did you film "Kumiko" following "Pacific Rim" or did you do "Pacific Rim" first?
I did "Pacific Rim" after.
What was it like going from an independent set to your largest film to date?
"Pacific Rim" was almost like a 700 crew member set, and this is really small. But I think I can say it depends on the director. Guillermo really took care of me and he gave me a lot of space and the Zellner brothers too.
Going forward, how are you selecting projects? Based on the filmmaker, based on the role — both?
I think it depends on the director because the director makes everything: the idea, the atmosphere, the casting.