Starting today through July 10, Keito Okamoto will play the role of Song Liling in David Henry Hwang‘s play “M. Butterfly” at the New National Theatre Tokyo. The play will continue on to Osaka, Fukuoka, and Nagoya in July.
I recently sat down with Keito on a video call (all in English) to discuss the play, its LGBT content, his time in New York at drama school, his departure from Hey! Say! JUMP, and more. Check out Keito’s first English language interview below!
The first thing I want to ask about is your accent! Some fans know you speak English, but many were surprised to hear your English accent in your Christmas video that was posted on the Johnny’s Twitter account. How did you acquire this particular accent?
I learned English in the UK, when I lived there from the age of 9 to 14, in a place called Suffolk. When I speak English, I don’t think I’m speaking with an English accent.
When I was 25 I moved to New York, and I had trouble speaking English. When I speak to Americans, they don’t really understand me. Speaking to Americans and speaking to English people is totally different.
During the first year of my drama school (the American Academy of the Dramatic Arts), I didn’t really get a lot of feedback on my acting, but on my speech instead. The teachers would say, “I’m sure you’re acting well, but we don’t understand you.” That was my major difficulty at first. Then I started learning the International Phonetic Alphabet. And then I found my dialect. I’m Japanese, but I lived in England, and now New York. I didn’t really know what English I was speaking.
There was a class in drama school that dealt with analyzing your own accent / dialect. And I think that’s the reason I speak this way. And I also love Shakespeare.
Also during the summer break at my American drama school, I went back to England and studied Shakespeare for three months at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. I think that’s how I got the English accent back.
You spent time in New York studying acting at the American Academy of the Dramatic Arts. What was the experience like for you, both professionally and personally?
It was an amazing experience, an amazing experience. It was tough when I was in New York, but I think that toughness will stick with me for the rest of my life. It was a turning point in my life, as a person.
There weren’t a lot of Americans at the American Academy of the Dramatic Arts, but there were people from all different parts of the world, people who want to study acting, people that love acting. I’ve always loved acting, I’ve always loved stage acting. Before I went to school, I didn’t have any friends that shared my love of acting. But when I went to New York, I met people from all over the world who love acting, who love the theater. Having that community was a great experience for me.
I learned that the acting styles in America and Japan are different, though I’m not saying one is better than the other.
How are they different?
The theater in Japan is focused more on theatrical formalism, while in America it is more about truth, realism. I learned the Stanislavski technique. I learned the truth of acting, being true to yourself, jumping into an imaginary situation and being truthful. That’s when I learned what acting really is. Knowing that caused a major difference in me. When I was in Japan, I thought that acting was just acting, but being in New York I learned to be true to myself. That really helped me personally and professionally. Now I don’t have to be someone else. I’m just lending my body to the character.
That’s really insightful.
The first homework I got in New York was writing 40 pages of self-introduction.
All of the students were like “What the hell?” I thought, “How am I going to write 40 pages? A page is enough for me.” But then I thought about specifics. “I was born in Tokyo, Japan.” “The first thing I remember is…” “My father is…”
What is the first thing you remember in your life?
I was in a swimming pool, drowning a little bit. I saw a light above, maybe the sun, from under the water. I didn’t know what that meant until my father showed me a picture. It was me, as a baby. My father was trying to recreate that Nirvana album cover with the baby naked, trying to catch the money underwater. Then I realized what my first memory was.
Your first memory was you trying to reenact a Nirvana album cover?!
Yes, that’s right! Now that I think of it, it may have been a traumatic experience for me because I was a baby that didn’t know how to swim.
Were any of your classmates surprised to find out who you are?
At first I tried to hide it. I don’t know, maybe that’s just a very Japanese thing to do. I believe it was like the third day of class, we had all had to do presentations on ourselves in front of the class. I was speaking, and this guy, who’s my best friend now, yelled out, “Ohh, you used to be in a boyband in Japan! Why don’t you say that?” And I was like “OMG no!”
How did he know? Did you tell him?
No, I didn’t! He and his siblings love Japanese culture, so maybe he heard the news that I was going to the American Academy of the Dramatic Arts when it was announced. I was afraid of what my classmates would think after this was revealed, but they all thought it was cool. They said they were proud of me and what I’ve done, and I had actually never heard that kind of comment when I was in Japan.
Yes. I had been in the group since I was 13 or 14, so it was all so natural to me. My friends at the time knew I was doing that job, so nobody really commented on it. But when I went to America, people were saying how cool what I was doing was. And people wanted to know more of my story. That kind of question made me proud of myself for the first time. It made me happy. And then I started to open up more about what I had done. I never did this in Japan.
You left Hey! Say! JUMP to focus on acting full time. Was there ever a time that you questioned your decision?
When I was in New York, I was supposed to graduate in June 2020, with a graduation play supposed to be in April.. But then there was coronavirus, and we went on lockdown. Most of my friends at school went back to their countries, but I stayed in New York. I was living in Manhattan at the time.
During lockdown, I thought about what I really, really wanted to do. Why I’m here. Why I entered this entertainment business. Then I realized that theater acting is my main dream. But I knew that would be difficult for me to be a theater actor 100% and a Hey! Say! JUMP member 100%. When I was in New York, I met all these people from around the world who wanted to be actors. My friend from Israel who used to be a soldier, is now in New York because she really wanted to act. There was a grandmother who now had the time to do the acting she had wanted to do.
I told my group members what I really wanted to do, and they supported my decision. That was when I started focusing on my acting. Their support means so much to me, especially now when I’m in rehearsals for (David Henry Hwang’s) “M. Butterfly.” It’s a very difficult role, but I have my members at my back supporting me.
So you’re still in contact with the members?
What do you miss the most about being in the group?
Everything. But, right now I’m trying to go forward.
You have to give up something to follow your dream.
I don’t think of it as giving up anything. I’m using my experience in the group, which I’m sure will give me a major advantage when it comes to acting. I’m not thinking “That’s done”, but I’m stepping forward. But that’s life. Like when I went to America I missed my family and my friends.
Last year, you starred with your father Okamoto Kenichi in the play “Le Fils Musuko.” What was that experience like for you? How is working with your father different from working with another actor?
My father was the main reason I entered this agency. Since I was a kid I saw his theater acting, and it’s always inspired me to be an actor like him. Doing my first play with my father is a treasure to me, an amazing experience. But there were some difficult things. The play is about a boy who had traumatic experiences involving his father. When I read the script, I personalized it. I was mixing it with my own experiences to give it life. I was thinking of how when the character’s father speaks to him, it’s my own father saying it to me. My father in the play is my real father, but he’s not really my father at that moment. He is his character Pierre. During the play, I felt like I was having my first argument ever with my father, but it was the characters having the argument. Me and my father would never do that in real life. I’ve never had a fight with my father. When my friends saw that play, there were concerned about my father and I’s relationship!
Speaking of your father, he was previously in the band Otokogumi, which would make you a second generation Johnny. As one of this rare breed, what is this experience like for you?
That’s hard. There is a lot of pressure, there are many walls to climb, because my father has done so much in his career. But I like challenges! I’m not having problems. I feel lucky and happy with this experience.
Did he give you any advice once you were in the company?
He did at first. Otokogumi was a rock band. They wore leather jackets with nothing underneath, like Aerosmith or Bon Jovi, that 80s style. But I was in Hey! Say! JUMP, wearing sparkly and colorful costumes. My dad would ask why I was wearing these costumes and suggested that I wear a leather jacket and I would say, “Dad, I’m not in Otokogumi, I’m in Hey! Say! JUMP, ok?!” He would tell me to put guitar solos in our songs and I would have to tell him we are not a rock band! It was so different, his experience in the band and mine in the group. He did give me lots of advice, but I would ignore it!
But right now he’s giving me lots of advice about acting. I’m very excited about this play because he can actually see it, unlike “Le Fils Musuko” because it was in it. He’s being a father right now, which is different. Normally when we meet, we talk about music and theater, but now he is saying things like “How are your rehearsals going?” I tell him that I’m struggling a lot, but I’m going to keep on going. He then tells me that struggle is necessary to get where I want to go. He really keeps me motivated.
Later this month, you will star as Song Liling in the play “M. Butterfly.” What made you want to take on this role?
I found this play by David Henry Hwang when I was in America. Theater is about realism. When I was in America, I realized that there weren’t a lot of roles for Asian people. “M. Butterfly” is the first Broadway show to be opened by a Chinese American person. I asked one of my teachers if there were any good plays for Asian people, and she told me about this play and said it would be a good role for me because I’m Asian, but I also know the Western culture. I read it, and I was shocked. It is amazingly written. I had a thing about being Asian in the Western culture, the stereotypes, what the West thinks of the East, etc. I think Hwang wrote this play to change stereotypes. I did some scenes from this play while in America, and also in France when I went to acting school there.
Last year, my manager came to me and told me about the role I’m rehearsing for now. I was like “OMG, are you serious?!” There was no way I was not going to do this play. I’m very excited right now, working with great actors, great staff.
When did you study in France?
After I graduated from school in New York. I still wanted to learn acting so I went to France. They weren’t in lockdown when I got there, but they later went into lockdown.
This play deals with many themes of identity and sexuality, which is especially timely given that many countries around the world celebrate LGBT Pride this month. Was this subject matter difficult for you?
It wasn’t easy or difficult. In my own life, I never treated people differently due to their sexuality. I treat people as individuals. When I read the role of Song Lilling, I didn’t judge. I just thought that this person is this person. I tried not to categorize them, because if I put a character or person in a box, they can’t expand. I think this is a story that needs to be told in Japan right now.
Why is that?
In America, I learned that each person has their own story. Everyone can be a storyteller. I love theater because I learn new things, it really changes my life, it changes my perspective. I believe by doing this play, people can look at things and question them. Humans need to question things. If we don’t, we learn nothing. This play raises so many questions for the audience. This is why this play needs to be seen in Japan right now. But not only from an LGBT point of view, but also the East / West relationship. I’m very excited to do this play in Japan right and I’m excited to hear the reactions.
This play, along with many other dramas and stage plays, has seen a number of Johnny’s tackling LGBT content or characters recently. What are your thoughts on this?
I don’t have a personal thought on this, but I agree it’s a very important thing that’s happening right now. When I was in America, I learned so much about sexuality. Japan doesn’t really talk about that. I’m glad there are so many dramas and stage plays here now that deal with this, so people can start knowing these things. If people don’t know these things, they can’t understand them. Theater and dramas are made for this, so people can know about things. It’s very important for drama and plays to be made with this theme. People have the right to be who they are. If I gave people the courage to speak out, that would be an honor.
What are your plans after the play?
Honestly, I can’t even think of anything after the play right now! I stopped making plans after lockdown, because nobody knows that going to happen next week or next month. The saddest thing I experienced during lockdown was making plans and not being able to fulfill them. So I don’t make plans now, I just live in the moment.
Given your English speaking ability, do you want to expand your acting activities outside of Japan?
If I had a chance, definitely. I would be very happy if I could act in English, and people at the school could understand me. I’m sure, this is my first English interview. But I do want to expand!
There is a big thing now with representation, of having Japanese characters played by people of Japanese descent instead of someone of Korean or Chinese descent, so there is an opportunity for you.
Yes, that is a dream of mine. Johnny Kitagawa’s dream was to do a play on Broadway. I really want to be the person from the company who can be on Broadway. That is my ultimate goal.
What is your favorite memory of Johnny?
There was a film of Otokogumi, “Rock yo, Shizuka ni Nagare yo”, that was made when my dad was 16 or 17. He would show it to me all the time and say, “This is your father! This was a great show!” That memory, at this house, made me feel good about Johnny and my father.
You got to see your father at the peak of his youth thanks to Johnny.
Yes. I also think of when me and Johnny and my father took a picture, the three of us together, at the Imperial Theater. Johnny didn’t normally take pictures, but he said he would with the two of us. He stood in the middle, with each of us on his sides, and he laughed. I hadn’t seen that before. It’s a beautiful memory with him.
Thank you so much for taking time to speak with me!
Thank you for giving me a chance to speak English! I haven’t done it in like two or three months! It gives me a chance to catch up!
And now you have your first English language interview!
I’m happy it’s with Arama! Japan!
Since this interview was conducted, it has been announced that Keito has a new play on the horizon!