Anna Sawai has spent the last few years traveling the world to film movies and television shows. Filming F9: The Fast Saga brought her to Georgia, shooting Apple TV+'s Pachinko landed her in Asia, and now she's temporarily residing in Canada for the FX series Shōgun.
While many of us have come to know Sawai through these projects, she's far from a newcomer to the business. She started developing her entertainment chops during her middle school years in Japan. "When I was 11 years old, I booked my first musical, Annie," Sawai says. "Being in that musical made me realize my dreams were possible."
Over the last 18 years, Sawai's childhood dreams have manifested into a fruitful acting and singing career (she was one of the lead vocalists in the J-Pop group FAKY). However, at 29-years-old, she's still just getting started.
When Sawai's face pops up in our Zoom call, she's bare-faced and clad in a black tank top. It's clear she's savoring a rare slow morning at home. Her relaxed demeanor makes it easy to jump right into a beyond-the-surface conversation. During our chat, we discuss the career lessons she's learned, her character Naomi in Pachinko, and her self-care routine. Keep scrolling to get to know Anna Sawai.
What was it like launching your career at such an early age?
It was so much fun in the beginning. When I auditioned for Annie, I didn't get the role the first year. My mom told me, "If you work hard, you'll be able to achieve things that other people can't." That stuck with me. I practiced every single day after school. My friends would come over to invite me to play, but they heard me singing from inside and wouldn't even knock on the door because they wanted to give me that space.
Thanks to my mom, I developed a hard-working mentality at a very young age. But while we were doing it, it was really fun. I didn't realize it was a job, and that helped me. I was also lucky that I was not constantly working because you hear so many stories of how things can go with kid actors. After Annie, I went back to school and didn't work for a while. I was able to live a normal life and experience special things.
Let's talk about your role as Naomi in Pachinko. How did you learn about the project, and what made you want to say "yes?"
I didn't know about the novel until my manager told me they were doing this project. I read it and fell in love. There weren't a lot of Japanese roles, so I was wondering what would be available for me. And then I found out about Naomi, a character the showrunner created. I talked to my mom about her because she's from the same generation as Naomi. It was eye-opening but also very shocking. I had never seen characters like Naomi portrayed in Western media. I thought that it was really important that I share her story. People need to know about women's experiences in Japan to appreciate what we have right now and grow from here.
Naomi helps illustrate what women were going through in the '80s, especially regarding gender inequality in the workplace. What was it like showcasing this?
To prepare, I read about the women who worked on getting the Equal Employment Opportunity law established in Japan. At the time, women weren't being protected by society so they could have a proper career. Learning about those women was powerful. I also talked a lot with the showrunner Soo Hugh about everything she's experienced and my experience in Japan.
I worked in Japan for about six years before finally deciding to quit. When I look back, I think I was trying to enjoy it to the best I could. But the things I was told and how they made me feel were unhealthy. So for me, Pachinko feels so personal. I didn't have to find something that would help me get into character because I was drawing upon the experiences of the many women I know and myself.
Do you have any favorite memories from the set?
In Korea, we had this rooftop scene where Naomi and Solomon had a heart-to-heart conversation. The conversation itself was very powerful, but it was also freezing. We were wearing one piece of clothing, so we were shaking. That was very memorable.
When you reflect on your career, what are you most grateful for?
I'm most grateful for what I get to learn through these characters. With Naomi, I learned more about my mom's experience. The character I'm playing in Shōgun is based on a historical figure. Learning about actual human beings speaks to me a lot because it reminds you that these just aren't movies and shows. These are real experiences. The fact I get to share that with everyone is such a special thing.
What are some of the biggest career lessons you've learned?
Through learning about other people, I learn more about myself and see change within myself. Until four years ago, I was still working in Japan and in a J-pop group. I've realized so much has changed within me since then. Being able to grow in that way and recognize what is more important has been the most valuable part of this experience.
Do you have any other dream roles or types of projects that you're excited to work on in the future?
I want to do something completely different from what I'm doing right now. I love all the characters I've played, and I'm so thankful. But my characters always had to use accents when speaking English, except in F9: The Fast Saga. Because of that, I want to take on roles that don't require me to play the typical Asian or Japanese American role. Playing a character that maybe grew up somewhere other than Japan would be pretty interesting.
I was scrolling through your Instagram and noticed you like to play around with makeup and hair. What was your relationship with beauty like growing up?
I have always had an interest in makeup. My grandma put a lot of makeup on, so I would always try to wear a little bit of her lipstick. For skincare, I always just used the products on the counter. But around my mid-20s, I started to break out a lot. I would visit a few professionals, and they'd tell me it was caused by stress or hormones. Then, one dermatologist suggested taking Chinese herbs. I started taking them, and my skin started to clear up. I still take them to this day. I also like to use clean and vegan products since I have sensitive skin.
You've gotten to work with beauty pros like Rebecca Lee and Nina Park. Have they put you on to any cool beauty tips or products?
Thanks to Nina and the Chanel team, I now have a bunch of Chanel skincare. I try to replicate the makeup looks they do on me, but it's hard. It's like they know your face better than you do.
Outside of work, what brings you joy? Are there any hobbies you're passionate about?
While I was in Japan, I would do hot yoga. It's a great form of meditation and exercise. Other than that, I also use incense, aroma oils, and candles. Scent helps me settle down and relax. I also started knitting, and it's so calming. I like to run my lines while knitting because moving around can help me process everything. Overall, I think having a routine helps me feel at home more. I'm always traveling, so doing something that I know will calm me down helps me take care of myself.
What are you looking forward to for the rest of the year?
I am excited to finish this show. This project has been going on for eight months. By the time I finish it, it'll be 10 months. It's been a long journey. I'm ready to give it my all at the end and hopefully go back to Japan to reset. I don't want to think about lines. I just want to sit on my couch. And then, hopefully, I'll move on to the next project.
Also, this is a little personal, but I want to get a dog. It's been two years since losing my dog, and I think I'm ready to give another one a happy home. It all depends on if I take on a job soon. So, we'll see.
Photographer: Daniel Regan
Hair: Bryce Scarlett
Makeup: Nina Park