‘Little Boy’ and Me: What My Next Movie Teaches About Race, Stereotypes (Guest Blog)

Actor Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa plays Japanese immigrant Hashimoto, who has lived most of his life in the U.S., but is still seen as an enemy and a threat to the country in the upcoming film from director Alejandro Monteverde

I’ve been blessed to have a great career as an actor in Hollywood. You may have seen me in “Star Trek: The Next Generation,”  “The Last Emperor” and even the James Bond film “License To Kill.” So why would I bother to write an article like this for my latest film, “Little Boy?”

Because it’s a film that is special to me because it represents a turning point in my career, my arriving at what I consider the halfway mark in my work in Hollywood and a chance to see where I’ve come from and where my work is going, especially in the area of revealing more of who I am and the issues I’ve faced in my life and career.

In “Little Boy,” my character Hashimoto has lived most of his life in America, but is still seen as an enemy and a threat to the country. In many ways, the story centers around how a small town in California deals with Hashimoto, who many see as an enemy in their midst.

Like Hashimoto, I grew up in an interesting time. I was born about seven years after the time this film is set in. I came to America in 1955 at age 5, and 10 years later I was enrolled in a military dependent school because my father was a lifer in the U.S. army. We were stationed in North Carolina, Louisiana and Texas and in each of these locations, we were often the only Asian family in the area. There was very little reason for Asian families to be in such places, unless they were military or stayed on after the period of internment. While I wasn’t in America during the internment, my life was still very much influenced by it, with strong racism present almost everywhere, especially in the South.

I liken my experience to being a stranger in a strange land; going from a 5-year-old living in Tokyo to suddenly finding myself in North Carolina. These travels have always been about dichotomy: being raised in two cultures — Japanese and American — that are considered to be polar opposites and the question for me was often: How was I to take both of these experiences and create some sort of framework to understand them?

Remembering my childhood has served as a reminder to me to take this emotional and psychological makeup from my own experiences and help me to better understand Hashimoto.

What is fascinating about this film is that it’s about America through the eyes of two Mexican-American immigrants — director Alejandro Monteverde and producer Eduardo Verastegui, who have done an excellent job of putting together the romanticized, Norman Rockwell-like town of O’Hare, with both Hashimoto and Jakob (Little Boy), coming of age together in the midst of difficulty.

Not only do I feel a personal connection to Hashimoto’s character, but being a father I can see how he helps the little boy cope with his father’s capture during the war.

How does this relate to me, the son of a Japanese woman and a Japanese-American military man? I began my career as an actor with the goal of changing America’s perception of the Japanese. I wanted to fight against the various stereotypes of Japanese that I grew up seeing and hearing, and I didn’t want my son to have to grow up burdened by them.

It was quite difficult to get away from these stereotypes as I began working in Hollywood back in 1986 and I had to take on many of these stereotypical roles to begin my career. I am a healer, but I played torturers and villains. But if I hadn’t taken these roles, many others could have jumped into my place without the mindset of improving Japanese-American relations, and in each of these roles, I can absolutely say I have done my best to do this. Sometimes it just means being different and distinct. The worst case scenario is when people hear of a movie you were in and don’t remember you. You always have to create an impression, to stand out, even in the minor roles to keep your career going.

Twenty-eight years later, I’m still at it, and “Little Boy” is a turning point in my career; the beginning of a second half of my work. Director Monteverde and I worked hard together to make the character of Hashimoto authentic and touching. Because of our experiences, we each bring very different perspectives to the film. I did everything I could to make Hashimoto human and not a typical stereotype of good, bad or ugly, and Monteverde was always open to hearing my ideas. At one point he even said I knew Hashimoto better than he did.

As with “Little Boy,” I have never been afraid to speak out for my creativity, which has allowed my roles to be much more fulfilling than those of actors who don’t speak up and are just there to do a job. I do this to further my movement. I never saw this as a paying job. It has always been an opportunity to further my people, and that means all Asians, or minorities, or even anyone that is different. I’m determined to help bring about change.

Most of all, I hope that my work allows Americans and people around the world to look beyond the stereotypes that we’ve all learned along the way, and to instead understand our shared humanity. If “Little Boy” accomplishes that, then I will look on with great satisfaction at the work I’ve accomplished and the work that lies ahead.

“Little Boy” co-stars Emily Watson, Michael Rapaport, David Henrie and Eduardo Verástegui. The film opens nationwide on April 24