To enter Ken Watanabe’s dressing room, backstage at Lincoln Center Theater, you must pass through a yellow-and-black curtain that extends halfway down a door. At the top corner of the curtain is marked a tiger, the emblem of Watanabe’s beloved Hanshin Tigers, a Nippon Professional Baseball team currently in first place in Japan’s Central League.
While the Hanshin tiger roars fiercely, the actor himself, as I entered his dressing room the other day, was calm. Seated on his day bed, his composure was contagious, even for someone like me who had just inhaled an iced coffee. His bearing reflects the kind of inspiring leadership he has exerted backstage on the large company of The King and I.
“I don’t like leadership that has to use a loud voice,” he told me, as his invaluable assistant and translator, Satch Watanabe (no relation), occasionally joined the conversation. “I like people who lead by example.”
Here is the example that Watanabe, who is entering the last two weeks of his current King run, has been setting. (Though plans are not definite, the actor is very likely to return to the show in early spring 2016.) He usually arrives at the theater at least two hours before showtime. His warm-up is various, and just before “places” are called he listens to music. “It’s usually classical,” Watanabe said. “Horowitz playing the piano, or someone doing Mozart.”
Watanabe said that “music is really important to me. Not one particular category, but all kinds.” Born in Koide, Japan, he studied the trumpet for 7 years, and music still seeps into his professional projects.
The last play he did, before The King and I, in fact involved his pre-performance pianist, Vladimir Horowitz. In this work, titled A Dialogue with Horowitz, by Koki Mitani, Watanabe portrayed Franz Mohr, a piano technician. When the production was announced, in 2012, Watanabe, who had not been onstage in 12 years, said, “I come back when people forget, like a cicada. Returning to the stage always means something very extraordinary as it created my basis as an actor.”
Firmly rooted in theater, Watanabe has had an illustrious career onscreen. He is hugely well-known in Japan for playing samurai, and in fact caught the attention of American audiences in the 2003 movie, The Last Samurai. Worldwide moviegoers also know him from Inception and Letters from Iwo Jima. After his final 2015 performance in The King and I, on July 12th, Watanabe will return to Japan to star in a drama called Anger. “I will be playing a strong father – a very different kind of king,” he said.
Watanabe has tended to confine his regal roles to the stage: he played Richard the Lionheart in The Lion in Winter and the Atahualpa, the Incan emperor, in The Royal Hunt of the Sun. He says he doesn’t prefer the stage to movies; they are too different to choose. “Making a movie is a jigsaw puzzle. Every day, you put in a new piece.”
By contrast, on stage, “one show is one show. The next show we can make new things.” Watanabe’s adeptness in coming up with fresh approaches, he said, is of course different in English than in his native Japanese. “In Japanese, if I lose my line I can make it back to the next line. In English, I have to rely on my memory.”
You might think that the limits on Watanabe’s ability to ad lib would affect his effectiveness, especially in getting laughs. Not a bit. I tell him that many people, after seeing The King and I, have told me how impressed they were by his mastery of the lighthearted moments. The end of the first act, he replied, when he and Mrs. Anna change physical positions to establish rank, is “a kind of stand-up comedy.” And he loves playing the scene.
Watanabe has lavish praise for his Mrs. Anna, Kelli O’Hara, as well as for the entire cast and crew, and mentions what for him has been a high point in the whole King and I experience. “It was a performance at the end of previews,” he said. “Right after ‘Shall We Dance?’ The audience was clapping. I looked at Kelli’s face. I saw something there, and I knew we had finally found an emotion important to the King and Mrs. Anna’s relationship. It was very powerful.”
Powerful also, as I mentioned above, has been the example Watanabe has set backstage through his leadership. This comes primarily through a strong physical work ethic, but there are occasional spiritual moments as well. He mentions the ritual, held every night before the performance, in which he and the cast members pray for the success of the show. “We do it in the same style as in Japan,” Watanabe said. “The god of the stage is everywhere.”
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.