Ayako Fujitani in “Man from Reno”

Ayako Fujitani stars in Dave Boyle's "Man from Reno."
The Japanese actress, who is based in Los Angeles and spends time in Japan, plays the lead in Dave Boyle's "Man from Reno."

After watching Dave Boyle’s Man from Reno, the first thing you might do is Google Ayako Fujitani. (You will find out she is the daughter of actor Steven Seagal and aikido master Miyako Fujitani). She might look familiar, but you will definitely recognize the star quality in her acting and wonder what other films she’s been in. Fujitani plays Aki Akahori, a Japanese crime novelist who decides to take a trip to San Francisco. Akahori is caught up in a real-life mystery, as she both writes and tries to solve the crime.

While Fujitani may be unfamiliar to U.S. audiences, she has acted since age 13 in Japan, including in Gamera by Shusuke Kaneko. She also wrote a novel, which was later turned a movie, the only live-action movie that came out of Studio Ghibli. Fujitani also starred in Michel Gondry’s short film, Tokyo! Fujitani previously worked with Boyle in Daylight Savings, where she had a cameo as a love interest of musician Goh Nakamura. Boyle wrote the role of Aki Akahori in Man from Reno with Fujitani in mind as the lead actress.

Man from Reno is now playing in select theaters and opens in San Francisco April 10, 2015.

In a phone interview, Fujitani talks about her earlier works in Japan, working as an actress in Japan and the U.S., and how the actors prepared for their roles in Man from Reno.

Momo Chang

Ayako Fujitani. Photo by Chika Okazumi.
Ayako Fujitani. Photo by Chika Okazumi.

What did you think of the script when you first read it?
When I first read it, I thought, this is a great mystery. It was beautiful. [Director Dave Boyle] said I could make any suggestions, so I told him, “Why don’t we make our character a little darker?” So that’s how we kind of started off.

Can you tell me about your background?
I was born and raised in Osaka. I started acting when I was 13. Acting jobs happen more in Tokyo, so I moved to Tokyo when I was 15. I came to L.A. to learn English when I was 17. Then went back to Japan doing movies, until probably 5 years ago. I decided to try out to come over here in L.A. It was kind of hard to get a job in LA until I met Dave and did Daylight Savings.

In Japan, did you mostly act in TV or movies?
Mainly, I did movies. I started off with Gamera (she plays the only person who can contact the Godzilla-like monster) movie. That was my debut with Director Shusuke Kaneko. It’s actually a really good movie and I was very lucky to debut with that great film. Then after that, I wrote a novel (Touhimu). [Japanese animator] Hideaki Anno, the director of the Neon Genesis Evangelion series, wanted to make a movie based on my novel, so we made that film (Shiki-Jitsu/Ritual) with Studio Ghibli. [Filmmaker] Shunji Iwai and I starred in it. It’s the only live action movie that Studio Ghibli made. When people watch it, either we get, “What is this movie?” or people just love it.

Then after that, I did a move called Tokyo! with Michel Gondry and Leos Caraz and Bong Joon-Ho. Those three directors made three short movies together. I was in the movie Michel Gondry directed. That kind of made me push me to come out to the world, like overseas, working with Michel Gondry and meeting all these great filmmakers from everywhere. That’s one of the big reasons why I decided to come to L.A.

When you moved to L.A., you mentioned it was tough to get roles. Can you talk more about that?
First, it was difficult for me to get into this audition system because in Japan, you don’t have that audition system as much as America. So the first couple of movies I did in Japan, yes, I passed the audition, but after that, people just offered jobs. I never understood the system here or how I should be doing acting at the audition office, so I kind of froze when. I’m like, am I supposed to look at the camera or the casting director? It took me a logn time to get used to that. That’s the first big thing. Another thing is, I didn’t know, but now I know, there’s not enough roles for Asian actors out there.

So then Dave Boyle created Man from Reno, and your role is bilingual in Japanese and English. Which is perfect for you.
It’s like a dream come true. This is what I want to do.

What was it like working with the other actors like Pepe Serna and Kazuki Kitamura?
I think we got a really good cast of not only those two, but all the other actors. Working with Pepe was really, how can I say? I don’t know how or why Dave just kind of had a feeling the matching between me and Pepe would be interesting. But it worked out. It worked out well. I didn’t know that would happen. We had almost a year to rehearse together. Me and Pepe would meet at a café or office or wherever, and we would just rehearse based on the script. Dave would be watching us rehearsing. He would go home and rewrite and we’d rehearse again. That process was just so beautiful. You wouldn’t expect that a Japanese author and a small town almost-retired sheriff would have a relationship like that.

Kazuki is a big star in Japan, but I was very surprised he would come to S.F. and really take time to work on every single line and go through everything slowly.

Is there anything else you want to add?
I hope a lot of people can watch Man from Reno, because it’s a very interesting, unexpected thriller and a good movie. So if people can watch it and they like it, I hope they can tell people to watch it. And just a warning, don’t give away the ending because it’s a very unexpected ending.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.