USA-FF Q&A: Hiroyuki Sanada Explores ‘MR. HOLMES’, ‘SUNSHINE’ & How Professional Ian McKellen Is


20150427_143910Preston Barta // Features Editor

Most of us are familiar with the story of Sherlock Holmes, the detective known for his astute logical reasoning, his ability to adopt any disguise, and use of forensic science to solve the most difficult cases. However, MR. HOLMES, based on Mitch Cullin’s 2005 novel A SLIGHT TRICK OF THE MIND, finds us following a very different Sherlock Holmes– an older, wiser, and more “human” London-based detective.

This may not be the vigorously good, action-based Sherlock narrative that we have grown accustomed to – especially after Guy Ritchie and Robert Downey Jr. entered the picture back in 2009 – but it’s still a riveting story– a rather sly, serene, and sincere tale, where the characters involved are the special effect.

MR. HOLMES pivots around an aged, retired Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen) who looks back on an unsolved case that has made a mark on his life.

Sir Ian McKellen carries the film and gives a wonderfully nuanced performance in the title role. It’s the kind of performance that awards were made for. But McKellen isn’t alone in terms of talent brought forth. Laura Linney, Milo Parker and Hiroyuki Sanada all give life to their individual parts, making the film feel all the more genuine and profound.

Fresh Fiction had the opportunity to sit down and talk with one of the films stars, Hiroyuki Sanada (THE WOLVERINE), at the Angelika Film Center in Dallas, TX, yesterday (as a part of the USA Film Festival). We discussed his role in the film as a Prickly Ash enthusiast, iconic figures in his life, and other roles in films such as SUNSHINE.

Hiroyuki Sanada: “Did you see the movie last night at the USA Film Festival?”

I did! I really enjoyed it.

Sanada: “Oh, really? Very good. Thank you.”

Hiroyuki Sanada in SUNSHINE (2007). Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Hiroyuki Sanada in SUNSHINE (2007). Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

As soon as I heard you were coming to town for this, I jumped at the opportunity. I’m a huge fan of SUNSHINE.

Sanada: “Oh! Thank you. Thank you. I love that film. One of my favorites. Originally that part was not written for a Japanese actor. Danny was looking at all different people for it, but then he decided to give me the part. He said maybe it says something about Japanese being in power at that point in the future. It was just an interesting part to play.”

That is interesting. When you complete a project with someone, do you still follow their work– like Danny, Alex Garland, and the cast?

Sanada: “Yeah! All the cast and Danny. I sometimes text Danny and call him to give him my opinion of his most recent work [Laughs]. Every time, yeah. He always responds, too. He did this theatre-play, which he directed in London–“

FRANKENSTEIN with Benedict Cumberbatch?

Sanada: “Yes! I was shooting 47 RONIN in London and I called him. He invited me to see his play. I sat next to him and the art director during the show, and he sat there taking notes during it. I really enjoyed that.”

That would been cool to witness. Did you see Alex Garland’s EX MACHINA?

Sanada: “I haven’t.”

You should. The poster is down stairs and they are actually showing it here. It’s Garland’s directorial debut, and if you liked SUNSHINE and its horror/sci-fi aspect, I think you’ll enjoy this one.

Sanada: “Wow! I should see that. I will have to see it.”

You’ve shot films in different countries– Japan, London, and America– have you noticed a different kind of treatment on set?

Sanada: “Oh, yeah. Every country has its different customs and different way of hospitality. Filmmakers are the same all over, though. They have the same smell [Laughs]. The lighting guys, the prop guys, or whoever– they have the same smell.”

That’s an interesting observation [Laughs].

Sanada: “Yeah [Laughs].”

Ian McKellen is Sherlock Holmes in MR. HOLMES. Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions / Giles Keyte.

Ian McKellen is Sherlock Holmes in MR. HOLMES. Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions / Giles Keyte.

To focus on this film, Sherlock Holmes is unquestionably an iconic figure, and this film offers an fascinating perspective of the man in his later years. It’s a more human approach to the character in my opinion. Are there any iconic figures you grew up admiring that you wish you could see in the later stages of their lives– to see what they’ve been up and how they are when they’re older?

Sanada: “Oh! Hmm. Famous icon, right? And not only in Japan?”

Anybody you grew up admiring, whether they are from Japan or not.

Sanada: “Yeah! Some kind of superhero, like Birdman [Laughs].”

Birdman? [Laughs] Yeah. I kind of wish we could have seen the actual Birdman movies within the actual film.

Sanada: “That’s a great example, I think [Laughs]. But not really on the same level as Sherlock Holmes. I also grew up watching Peter Falk play a detective.”


Sanada: “Yes! I loved that TV show. I grew up with I LOVE LUCY [Laughs]. It was very popular in Japan, too.”

Really? That’s really neat. I’ve always been curious of what American shows are popular overseas.

Sanada: “We could call it I LOVE GRANDMA LUCY [Laughs]. I would want to see that.”

I didn’t expect you to pick that at all [Laughs], but those are good ones. Anyways, like I mentioned, they took a very human approach, especially when they discuss some of Sherlock’s misconceptions. There’s a scene where he says he doesn’t smoke out of a pipe and that he actually prefers cigars.

Sanada: “Yeah!”

He doesn’t even wear the hat he’s known for. It’s like making a fiction story true, yet it’s still fiction. You know what I mean?

Sanada: “Yes. Very unique. He lived in the fiction. Fiction plus fiction equals reality, right?”

Right [Laughs].

Sanada: “That’s why I like my role. I asked [Sherlock] on the behalf of all the audiences: ‘you’re not wearing the hat? You don’t have the pipe?’ I love that scene!”

Me, too. It got me thinking about some of the misconceptions of the film industry. I have my perspective of the business, but you’ve experienced it first hand, having acted in films for many, many years. What are some of the misconceptions of the film industry? What do you think are some things people don’t know about it?

Sanada: “Yeah. When I was young, I did a lot of action movies. I learned some skills just for acting. I not a martial artist per se. Some actors come from the stunt or martial artist’s bakground, but I did not. I was just a child actor who learned along the way. I was an ordinary actor. When they would see me on the screen, they would say, ‘Oh my God. He’s so short. He can’t do action. No way!’ But then again, that gap was good for me. I could used that image gap to play different characters.”

Yeah, absolutely. I feel like you’ve had a lot of characters with actual meat on their bones. You get to play fully-fleshed characters, and not an action role where they are all the same kind of character.

Sanada: “Yeah. I’ve played all kinds of different characters. Keeping with the same image your whole life– I could not do that.”

Prickly ash.

Prickly ash.

Your character, Tamiki Umezaki, is a Prickly Ash enthusiast. Do you see some sort of symbolic meaning in the plant and the way that it was found in this film– as far as it growing from the ashes from the Hiroshima bombing and yet it helps the body? It almost offers a new beginning or being rebirth from the ashes in a way.

Sanada: “Oh, yeah! That was a very symbolic scene when Umezaki finds the plant in the ash. I thought that was one of the more interesting themes of the movie– after any kind of disaster, green would grow up. It was a hint for Mr. Holmes as well as everybody. That emotion linked to the ending scene as well. They were such beautiful scenes.

My role was deeply involved with the story. Umezaki has a father complex. Mr. Holmes is a kind of hero to him, and also the hint of his father.”

Yes. I was actually going to bring that up. Umezaki was still learning all about his father and who he truly was after he past away. I know your father past away when you were very young. Do you feel like you are still learning what kind of person he was now?

Sanada: “I think so, yeah. You miss something but you learn something, more quickly than others, I think. I may have lost my father but I’ve had people in my life that have filled in that role, whether it was my master– I’ve had a lot of masters.

For Umezaki, it was Sherlock Holmes. He read the novels about him and probably saw the movies as well. I could easily imagine that process, because my life was like that.”

This film also touches on regret and dwelling on the past. Are you someone who lives with regret, or do you feel like you grow from it and try not to think about it?

Sanada: “Of course, I have a lot of regrets, but I’ve learned from them. Every experience has a meaning. It’s good to take a negative thinking and make it a positive thinking. I lost my father when I was 10, my mother when I was 28, and I had a lot of other things happen to me between then and after– but every time, I look up at the sky and wonder why it happened to me. But then I take it as a learning experience and go on to the next thing. I use each experience to better myself for the next thing. You have to go forward. I’m thankful for all my experiences, all the people I’ve met– even if they hit me down. All the past is past. The experience is training for the future.”

Ian McKellen in MR. HOLMES. Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions / John Stow.

Ian McKellen in MR. HOLMES. Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions / John Stow.

Well said. I agree. Since you and Ian McKellen are both a part of the Marvel universe, did you guys talk at all about it during your time together?

Sanada: “[Laughs] Not a lot, actually. After he finished the makeup – two hours of makeup – he’s always in the world of the character. He walked like an older man and talked like an older man, so we didn’t have to say any jokes. We thought about each scene. So I didn’t have to worry about acting opposite Ian McKellen. It was like acting opposite a 93-year-old man. That’s why I could relax. I could be Umezaki.

We didn’t have conversations while they were adjusting the lighting; it was just feeling. During the take, we could have a conversation, with every take being different, of course. It was like a live session, so I just enjoyed that.”

Very professional and cool. Because this film is based on a book, were you disappointed at all about any scenes they cut with your character?

Sanada: “[Bill Condon] made my character a more simple and honest guy. From the novel, it was more tricky. He had more of a strategy. In the short term – less than a two-hour movie – it’s so hard to describe everything.

In the screenplay, [McKellen] and I had one more long scene that didn’t make the final cut. It had more jokes and conversation. I loved that scene, but it was cut. [Condon] told me it was cut later. I saw the film at the Berlin Film Festival and understood why. My character was more pure because of it and less complicated. If it were a longer movie, perhaps we could have left it in.

I especially loved the ending and how they changed it. The ending was so sad in the novel, but I liked what they did. They didn’t want to make the movie too heavy. It was a good change, I believe.”

What about in your own life? What if Bill Condon made a movie about your life– what kind of cuts do you think he make from your life?

Sanada:[Laughs] Interesting. I would hope he wouldn’t cut a single moment. Like what we were talking about earlier, it’s all a part of the experience. So no wasting time in life. My favorite director, Kinji Fukasaku, told me that. When I was 17-years-old I first met him and worked with him. He told me, ‘no wasting time in life, especially for the actor. Don’t miss it.’ Those words helped me a lot. That’s why whenever I have a hard time I say, ‘OK. I cannot escape this.’ I have to force myself through it. I wouldn’t want to cut any moment.”

MR. HOLMES opens in theaters on July 17.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction ( as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.