You might have known him as a dancer and a performer, now start familiarizing yourself with Naoki Kobayashi the actor. He is an established performer that has been adored for over a decade in his home country of Japan. There, Kobayashi is a member of J-pop groups EXILE and J Soul Brothers, so performing in front of tens of thousands is nothing new to him. And now, he is gracing screens all across the globe as an actor.
Kobayashi recently starred in his first non-Japanese film—“Earthquake Bird,” which is produced by Ridley Scott—alongside Alicia Vikander. And no, this is not his first time on a film set as his acting career started in Japan back in 2014. For his international debut in the aforementioned “Earthquake Bird,” which is a Netflix original film, he plays as Teiji, a photographer who gets caught in a love triangle between Lucy (Vikander) and Lily (Riley Keough). Don’t let that bit about love triangles fool you because “Earthquake Bird” is a psychological thriller and his character is a not an easy one to play. He spent months preparing for the role, trying to find the connection between himself and Teiji. DAMAN chats with the charismatic performer to find out more about his global aspirations.
DA MAN: Hi Naoki, thank you for having us. So, how are you doing these days?
Naoki Kobayashi: Hello DAMAN, thank you for having me. I’m doing great. I have been receiving a lot of comments and feedback for “Earthquake Bird.” I am very happy and excited to see how the word is spreading.
DA: On that note, what was the story behind you being cast for the part?
NK: I was cast as Teiji after auditioning for the role. It was my first English-speaking role and it was actually a while before I heard back about the audition. In that time, I started working on my English, wishing to work more with creators from outside of Japan. Thanks to that effort, I got the role.
DA: How did you feel about working on your first international film project? Were there any big differences compared to your experience with Japanese film production?
NK: I still feel very excited about it because it was always one of my dreams to play a role in an international film. Film production is a form of art created by experts from various fields working together. In terms of that, I didn’t see any difference between Japan and Hollywood. With that being said, Hollywood has cast and crew members from different countries and backgrounds, and it was inspiring to see such different perspectives in comparison to Japanese production. I feel that brought out the best in me as someone born and raised in Japan.
DA: Your character, Teiji, is a tense and complicated character. How do you relate with him? Was it a challenging role to play?
NK: I related with him in terms of his values and beliefs. He guides himself by his own values and pursues his own truths that are no one else’s. He is not easily understood by people and he appears to be mysterious. But, I think he only looked that way because he was so committed to pursuing his own truths. He is a photographer and he chose photography over words as a means to pursue his truths. I found this relatable because I chose dance over words as a way to pursue my own truths because I believe there is always something beyond the limit of what words can express. That was how I began understanding Teiji.
As for challenges on playing the part, because he uses film cameras, I had to learn all the processes of analog photography, from development to printing. It was tough, but fun. I actually still really enjoy taking photographs with film cameras. Another challenge was that I had to face my own pain and regrets that I had previously avoided. I needed to come to terms with my choices in order to develop a connection with Teiji.
DA: What went through your mind when you first read the script for Teiji?
NK: From the first moment I read the script, I had a strong feeling of sympathy for him. I read the script before I took the audition, but I somewhat already knew that taking this part was going to be a milestone in my acting career. At the same time, I knew that through taking this part and getting to know Teiji, I would end up finding something important inside myself after the production.
DA: Who is the person you admire the most amongst the cast and why?
NK: I was inspired by everyone, but if I had to choose, it’d be Alicia [Vikander]. I admire her because of her skill set and experience, but above all, her personality. On the set, she was doing everything she was expected to as the leading actor and protagonist and she was doing it so naturally. She could be easily trusted as an actor, as well as a person.
DA: What do you enjoy most about being an actor?
NK: I’m a method actor and I find it a privilege to be able to live other people’s lives through my profession. It’s always inspiring to be someone else and look at myself through that someone’s perspective. Also, the experience of re-living the scenes is something I can only experience through acting.
DA: Is being a full-time actor something that would be in your agenda in the near future?
NK: Yes. Absolutely. I started dancing to express myself and now I realize that acting is also an extension of my art. There are certain levels of expression that I can only deliver through acting. I will need to immerse myself in acting world full-time in the near future.
DA: What do you hope people take from watching “Earthquake Bird”?
NK: I think that the feeling of regret or guilt from one point of life is something that everyone bears. One of the themes of the movie is to retrieve your life by facing the sense of guilt. I hope people receive that message from the movie. However, I don’t want to force my view upon the audience, so I want them to take it as they like. I hope you enjoy the quality noir thriller.
DA: You’re a natural in front of the camera. Where does that confidence come from?
NK: I’ve been in front of cameras for over a decade. On top of that, I was able to work on thorough rehearsals with Wash [writer Wash Westmoreland] and Alicia before shooting for “Earthquake Bird.” Through that process, each of us threw out new ideas for the scenes and the lines changed naturally. They became something of my own. I was also able to build the trust with my co-stars. I think that’s one of the reasons why I was able to act so naturally in front of cameras once the shoot actually started.
DA: By the way, you’re also a member of two J-pop groups. What do you love the most about being a musical performer, especially a dancer?
NK: Well, I think it adds up to being able to perform live in front of the fans. It’s really priceless to be able to have that sort of communication with the ones who support you and it is absolutely amazing to be able to perform in front of 50,000 people at each venue and one million people annually.
DA: Have you always dreamt of becoming a performer?
NK: Although I’ve had the urge to express and share what I was feeling since I was a little kid, I started dreaming of becoming a performer when I was in high school. I saw a dancer performing for a TV show that I was watching, and then thought “I might want to try this.”
DA: How does the dream compare to the reality of actually being in the entertainment industry?
NK: I think those two things are very different. The world is becoming so small now because of the Internet, and what people want from people who work in showbiz, like me, keeps changing rapidly. This forces me to adapt to the changing trends of the world. Yet, perhaps because of that, I realize that my own art shouldn’t be affected by those trends because my own art is something only I can do. My first priority is and will always be to perfect it.
DA: Looking back to the early days of your career, what’s your earliest memory from being on set?
NK: The first time I acted was for a theater play. I was given literally one single line. [Laughs]
DA: What is your greatest fear?
NK: I think I’ve always been afraid that people will forget about me. I’ve feared this since I was a little kid. I am honestly not sure where that fear comes from. There was this one performance that influenced me when I was young. It was extremely impactful for me, not necessarily in a good way. The performance was very scary, I think I was even traumatized a little. Then, I thought if I could leave a scar like that on someone’s heart with my art, they wouldn’t be able to forget me. I think that is the first and ultimate motive for me to start performing.
DA: You have a huge following on social media. What do you think the pros and cons of being active on social media in your line of work and the effect it has on your personal life?
NK: I’m not really good at social media, so I’m trying really hard. [Laughs] But I like socials because they connect me to other people. For example, I met Mike Moh at this one party in New York City and I was surprised because he actually knew of me from my socials. Another good thing about socials is that I can get kind messages from someone on the other side of the world.
DA: What were your teenager years like?
NK: One thing for sure is that they were not anything you can write in the magazine. [Laughs] I only started my showbiz career after my school, so I’m sure they were not so different to regular teenagers’.
DA: Where do you want to be in ten years’ time?
NK: I want to be on set. I don’t know which city or country, but I want to be a part of film production in 10 years’ time.
“I read the script before I took the audition, but I somewhat already knew that taking this part was going to be a milestone in my acting career.”
DA: What is your ultimate dream project?
NK: I’ve been working on this project to teach kids to have dreams through dance lessons or talks. It will teach them how to dance and tell them how important it is to follow their dreams. It is still a domestic project, but I would like to do the same thing with kids all over the world eventually.
DA: You’re a dancer, choreographer, actor and model. Are there any other hidden talents you haven’t shown us yet?
NK: Are there any? Maybe photography is my hidden talent. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve been continuing to practice photography even after “Earthquake Bird.” I did take some photos for a Japanese magazine. Maybe I can do it for if you guys if you could be so generous!
DA: Are there any mottos or sayings you live by?
NK: “The truth is in the details” is one of the sayings I try to live up to.
DA: What are your plans for 2020? Are there any exciting projects you can share with us?
NK: I am currently working on some new projects as an actor. As a dancer, both of my groups, EXILE and J Soul Brother III, are going on big tours in 2020. LDH, the bigger umbrella that houses EXILE and JSB, is rolling out this big project called LDH Perfect Year to hype up Tokyo and Japan which will be hosting the Olympic and Paralympic games. I’d love for the readers to join us if they happen to be in Japan this year.
PHOTOGRAPHY Mitchell Nguyen McCormack
STYLING Monty Jackson at Swa-Agency.com
GROOMING Anna Bernabe using Caudalie and Shu Uemura Art of Hair at thewallgroup.com
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