Having achieved icon status in her native Japan with over 60 films to her credit, Kaori Momoi, 52, is about to become as recognizable to U.S. movie-goers as fellow countryman Hideki Matsui is to American baseball fans, with the nationwide release of Memoirs of a Geisha.
Directed by Rob Marshall (of Chicago fame ) and based on Arthur Golden's 1997 novel of the same name, Memoirs tells the story of a young girl, separated from her family and sold into geisha boot camp. As "Mother," the stoic, shrewd, albeit eccentric, Cruella Daville-esque owner-operator of the okiya, or geisha house, Momoi gives an authentic portrayal of a surrogate parent who unwittingly helps her subject Sayuri (Zhang Ziyi) realize her own destiny.
Momoi was born in Tokyo and at age 12 moved to London in order to study dance at The Royal Ballet Academy. She later returned to Tokyo and graduated from Japan's School of Dramatic Arts. Along the way, she was schooled in the art of the geisha tea-making and dance, which prepared her well for her current roll.
PAPERMAG recently caught up with Momoi as she wrapped up a day of shooting a commercial for the Japanese cosmetic giant SK-II. Over beers and a pack of Seven Stars Japanese cigarettes around the pool of the W Westwood, Momoi gave us a the low down on what happens when East meets West -- Hollywood-style.
Phil Smrek: Are you a mysterious woman?
Kaori Momoi: Gorgeous, stupid and crazy maybe, but not mysterious.
PS: How was working with director Rob Marshall?
KM: I was really happy that he was willing to try out and
experiment with new ideas right up to when we starting rolling. I feed
off that type of fearless creative spirit.
PS: Do you think Japanese actors will ever be a successful in the U.S. as their baseball counterparts?
KM: Baseball players live or die based on their statistics. They are not bound to transform their performances to accommodate an American audience. If Japanese actors can get past concentrating on their English and focus on their game or craft they could certainly be as successful.
PS: What is the difference in "star treatment" between Japan and the U.S.?
KM: All I can say is that as Rob's appreciation of my performance grew, so did the size of my trailer. [laughs.]
PS: What are you wearing to the premieres?
KM: For Tokyo I'll be wearing a dress that was especially designed for the event by Yoji Yamamoto. For New York and LA I'll wear a kimono.
PS: What's next?
KM: I wrote a script called The Face of the Fig Tree which I'd like to direct and play the roll of the mother. The fig tree does not flower but bears fruit -- it's a story about a family growing a fig tree, passed on from generation to generation.
Memoirs of a Geisha opens nationwide Dec. 23rd.