The Sydney set of Unbroken had a super-famous icon showing up to work every day. Angelina Jolie was there, too.
For many around the world, Miyavi, who plays a notorious internment camp guard in the World War II drama Unbroken (due out Dec. 25) has more wattage than director Jolie. Prior to getting cast, Miyavi was best-known for a rock career that’s included stints with Japanese bands Dué le Quartz and S.K.I.N. as well as solo albums. “The sin repeats, yeah / Your body’s screaming” goes a recent single; this is a far cry from 1940s history.
Now he finds himself in a key role — as Mutsuhiro Watanabe or “The Bird,” the chief tormentor of American P.O.W. Louis Zamperini — of a major holiday release. It’s the sort of brutal but subtly humanized villain that tends to get Oscar attention (as Michael Fassbender and Christoph Waltz both know), but it was fraught for Miyavi, both because of the emotional demands upon a first-time actor and because of Japan’s relationship with its wartime history. As Miyavi points out, Laura Hillenbrand’s book Unbroken, the film’s source material, has yet to be translated into Japanese. “We’re moving on, in Japan,” he tells TIME. Still, whether his core audience will embrace his turn as a historical villain remains an open question.
And yet Miyavi drew inspiration from Zamperini’s return to Japan for the 1998 Winter Olympics; prior to his torture in Japan during World War II, Zamperini (played by Jack O’Connell) had been an Olympic track star at the 1936 Olympiad. He participated in the torch relay for the Nagano Games, and tried to reunite with Watanabe while there. Watanabe refused, but the message resounded. “This is what we want to achieve,” Miyavi says. “Louie is not just an American hero, he’s an international hero.” And one, evidently, who can inspire both an American screen queen and a Japanese rocker.
TIME: What was it like working with Angelina Jolie?
Miyavi: First of all, she was not a superstar onset. She’s so down to earth and natural to everyone. She comes to set every day. She’s so passionate and motivated. So, you know, for me, this was a big challenge and a hard decision to tackle this role. I was hesitant and scared — but this is her mission, she was so determined to create something meaningful, a bridge between Japan and America. This is her mission.
On set, she was confident and focused. Now, it’s our mission. I was so surprised how much she trusted us — especially me, with no experience as an actor. She’s so determined.
We didn’t have any actual rehearsal. We did a camera test and dialogue lessons, but no actual rehearsals. When I was in Australia, I kept asking her if we’d have rehearsal, and she just said “Follow your instinct.” She knows how actors operate on set, and that’s why we wanted to dedicate ourselves to this creation for her.
Was it difficult to be around the actors you were torturing in front of the camera? Did you interact with them when the cameras weren’t rolling?
We kept distance from each other every day. The Bird is such a brutal character. But he was also sensitive and vulnerable, and isolated from everyone, even the Japanese guards. So I was separated from everyone. I haven’t acted like this before. I didn’t know — I just tried not to act. I didn’t have any switch going on and off. I was The Bird the whole time in Sydney. It was tough. I wanted to hang out with Jack [O’Connell] and everyone else.
But it’s [a] controversial [subject], and it’s a responsible role. We didn’t want to make him a caricature of a villain who’s one-dimensional. We tried to put humanity into the character. The Bird was a human being. That was a challenge to put humanity and sensitivity into the character. Trying to imagine if Jack or the other actors killed my family — I would do anything to protect them. That’s the situation everyone in the war was in. We’re living on their sacrifices. What we want to pass onto the next generation is what it takes to not let that happen again.
Can you talk about deciding to take on this role — given what I must assume are the anxieties in Japan over the darker side of the country’s history?
It was tough to watch this film for me. I didn’t want to represent any negative side of the country where I was born and raised. But thanks to Angie’s words, I had the determination to play the film. Then I saw footage of Louie running in the Olympics in Japan and I was so impressed and surprised he came back to the country where he was traumatized to give forgiveness to the local people. In the footage, everyone was smiling.
This is the answer. This is what we want to achieve. This global message. Louie is not just an American hero, he’s an international hero. We need to learn from his attitude how he survived and overcame every boundary. I’m confident even Japanese people can receive his message from this film.
Do you learn about Japan’s treatment of American prisoners in Japanese schools?
We learn the history—the occupation of China, Pearl Harbor, the history of the war. Every country has a dark side of their history. But I didn’t know this story. Unbroken, the book, is not translated in Japan. This story’s not popular in Japan.
But you don’t hate Germany after watching Schindler’s List or war movies. We’re moving on, in Japan, and we didn’t have war for 70 years. And when I learned what happened in a prison camp—I have to thank Angie. She tried to portray the Japanese as [having] real personalities.
Did you intend to get into acting at some point before your casting?
I had no agent — I was just making an album! So I had no idea. [A Japanese casting agent] came to my office out of the blue, in Tokyo. Through her, I got this offer. Before I met Angie, I heard she wanted to cast a rock musician, someone used to performing in front of a cast of many people.
Did you get to put your musical abilities to use at all on set? Has she ever heard your music?
After the filming, I had a performance for the movie crew in Sydney. I was so surprised how much fun they are. On set every day was so intense and the only thing they knew was me on set. They had no idea what kind of performing I did. Angie said she wanted to show them. Angie flew my crew from Tokyo and we had a gig. Everyone was dancing, even Angie was dancing, and we really enjoyed the moment. Jack and I even had a jam session.
What was the biggest lesson about screen acting you took from Unbroken?
Acceptance. The thing in the very end, the last scene, The Bird knew he was going to be executed — and I had to express confusion, madness, fear, and depression at the same time because I knew I was going to be killed. It’s a lot of pressure. It’s a huge project. Universal Pictures, Angelina Jolie… I couldn’t control myself. I couldn’t stop crying! I ended up throwing up in that moment—three or 400 people were waiting for me to get to the set. It was too much pressure.
And Angie came to me and said, “Trust yourself. Be yourself. And accept yourself.” I was trying to get to that point as an actor. I felt like at that moment The Bird was nothing. I could accept that I had nothing. So I went back to the set empty.
It’s really important to create something, like with my creations as a musician. Just let it flow. Focus on how to deliver message to audience. Don’t get ego. I was praying on set every day. There were so many people that sacrificed on this story. I had to go with the flow and accept everything.
Would you act again?
If there’s an opportunity. This time, it’s all thanks to Angie, everyone, other actors in cast—I didn’t know when they started filming the first day, I had no idea what was going on — but in the future, I’ve learned many things, so I’d like to, if there’s a role I can do.
What sort of role checks those boxes for you?
This time was a really meaningful challenge, and fruitful. It’s about humans, with a message! As long as the movie has a meaning and a message, I would love to do it. It’s really intriguing to portray a character like the Bird — or hopefully a little more peaceful.