Akina Chan – with permission
Anna Sawai smiles when she recalls telling a friend as a teenager that she wanted to become an actress. Her friend told her, “You look like you could be in Fast & Furious.” Little did Sawai know she’d one day land the role of Elle, a mysterious girl who loses her parents at age 11 in F9: The Fast Saga, out June 25. “Elle had a very traumatic childhood, but she’s a fighter,” says Sawai over Zoom from Tokyo.
The 29-year-old actress grew up between New Zealand, Hong Kong, the Philippines, and Japan due to her father’s job with an electronics company. Meanwhile, her mother, who studied opera, taught her to sing, which helped her secure the title role in a Tokyo stage production of Annie. From there, she made her film debut in 2009’s Ninja Assassin and performed as part of a J-pop group named FAKY.
Joining a well-oiled machine like the Fast franchise was intimidating, but director Justin Lin couldn’t have been more welcoming. “He knew I didn’t have much experience and really guided me through it,” she says. Next, Sawai will play Naomi, a savvy businesswoman in the Apple TV+ adaptation of Min Jin Lee’s historical novel Pachinko.
Here, the actress discusses F9, working with Vin Diesel, and eliminating stereotypes for Asian female characters.
How does it feel to be joining the Fast & Furious franchise?
I still don’t believe it. This is something that I grew up watching, and Tokyo Drift was so huge in Japan. Fast forward to now, I’m part of it and it’s so iconic and it still feels like a dream. I think once it’s out and people watch it, I’ll be able to kind of feel like it’s really happened, but at this point it feels unreal.
Do you remember the moment you heard you got the role?
It was a few weeks after my audition, and it was my birthday. I was in my bed in my Tokyo apartment. I knew that I might be hearing from my reps during the night, so I woke up to check my phone multiple times. It was the most amazing gift I could ever receive.
Can you tell us about your character Elle?
She’s a 19 year old woman who lives in Tokyo, and she loses her parents when she’s 11 years old. Her parents are scientists. She has this very big secret that is yet to be revealed in the film, but I think that’s all I can say. I don’t want to spoil it!
What was it like working with director Justin Lin?
He was so patient with me. We have some emotional scenes in there, but he would just look at me and ask, “Are you okay?” You can really feel that he was there for you. The way that he approaches actors is so gentle, and he’s very collaborative. He’s open to hearing what you think, and it’s just been such a wonderful process with him.
How was the cast chemistry on set?
It was such a warm environment. Everyone was so welcoming, but obviously I was really nervous being the new kid coming from nowhere. But Nathalie Emmanuel [who plays Megan Ramsey] came up to me, and she was like, “I totally understand how you feel. I was the new girl too a few years ago, but you have nothing to worry about. I’m here. Just let me know if you need anything.”
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What was it like working with Vin Diesel?
He’s really like the character you see in the Fast films where he treats everyone like family. I remember him telling me that he’s really proud of what I’ve been doing so far and that there is a lot to come. He treats everyone equally and watching him made me think, when I’m eventually at that point where I’ve had a lot of experience, I want to be able to treat everyone the way that he does. With so much love and care.
Next, you’re starring in the Apple TV+ adaptation of Pachinko. What drew you to this project?
I loved the book so much. My character Naomi is one of the few who doesn’t appear in the book, but when I read the description for the audition, I just knew that it was something I wanted to do. She’s working in this time when, even more than now, women didn’t have the same opportunities as men, and they weren’t taken seriously in society. She’s struggling to prove herself to the men in the office.
How do you approach choosing the characters you play?
The characters I play always [represent] something that I think is important. Yes, Elle is Asian and does action, but there’s a reason why. She had to become a fighter to protect herself. There’s so much depth to her. And Naomi is struggling to stand up for herself at a time when it was really difficult for women [to do so]. I don’t want to perpetuate the stereotype of Asian characters because there are still a lot of characters like that. I just want to try different roles.
An abridged version of this article appears in the June/July 2021 issue of ELLE.
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