Nakajima Yuto: Japan Star Talks Acting Role in Berlin’s ‘#Manhole’

The Berlinale Special section of the Berlin Film Festival is a showcase for movies that are intelligent, but less arty than those in the main competition or festival sidebars. And in showcasing mainstream non-English-language films the section is also a springboard for performers who may be big news at home, but who are little-known outside their core markets.

Japan’s Nakajima Yuto fits that description perfectly. He has a dual career as a singer with boy band Hey! Say! Jump! and more than a decade as an actor. His acting credits including the Mike Ross role in the Japanese remake of hit U.S. series “Suits.” In his position as a music idol appealing to a volatile, younger demographic, means that selecting acting roles is — normally — something requiring careful consideration.

Yet, Nakajima told Variety, he leaped at the chance to star in “#Manhole,” where the male lead has to both carry the entire film and reveal an unexpectedly negative side to his character.

Why did you sign up for “#Manhole”?

After 15 years of playing younger men, it was time to play a negative character, with really dark emotions. I first heard about it from the producer of the film. And when I read the script, I was blown away. The title “#Manhole” says it all. It is basically one setup and in a narrow space. It knew it was going to be tough, but that’s why it was worth doing.

Your character is on camera in almost every scene of the movie and is by far the most dominant person in the film. That’s quite a stretch for someone who doesn’t seem to do a lot of movies. How did you prepare for such a meaty role?

Actually I didn’t have as much time as I wanted to prepare for this role as I was busy shooting a TV drama. So I really leaned in to try and focus on the character’s emotions before and after he falls into the manhole, the contrast between his normal life and the events afterwards.

This movie expresses tons of negative emotions of the kind that we try not to experience in our real lives. I found them quite difficult. It takes place almost entirely in the narrow space of the maintenance shaft, it is dark and [tells the story over] a limited time frame. I don’t usually watch this kind of movie and I don’t see many like it being made in Japan.

You joined the Johnny & Associates talent agency in 2004 and made your debut as a singer in 2008. When did you decide that acting was something that was important for you?

Actually I had a lot of roles from age 10 or 11. But I didn’t really think about what I was doing with them as I was also still in school. It only really changed for me when I played in [recurring NTV series] “The Ideal Son” [from 2012]. Later, with the “Suits” role, as a fake, intelligent, lawyer, I made sure to watch every episode of the original show [in order to be up to the task].

Are you still able to fit in both acting and singing?

They are very different. But they balance each other out. On stage, in front of fans, my role is to shine like a star. Whereas with an acting role like “#Manhole” I have to focus much closer to home.

With music so focused on young fans, is acting something that you will do more of as you get older?

That is true. I love to do both still. But I definitely look forward to bigger acting roles, while keeping the singing as fun. I’m not allowed yet to discuss the next role I’m preparing. But I can say that I’d love to play something like the “Joker” role or a psychopath.

Aren’t you worried about affecting the fans of your music with something like that?

Now that I’ve experienced a role like the one in “#Manhole,” I want more variety. To be able to show more sides of myself to my fans. And show that I can do anything.

What interests you about traveling to Berlin with this film?

I’m interested in experiencing the different audience reactions. In Europe, people may not be so familiar with the Japanese music scene or know that I’m an idol. Instead, they’ll see me from this negative and dark film role. I’m really excited.

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