Charlotte Kate Fox
“I made––and still make––many mistakes in my work and in daily life, but the saying, nana korobi yaoki, reminds me to keep standing up, keep trying.”
Although American audiences are just getting to know her, Charlotte Kate Fox is a huge star in Japan. Playing the heroine, Ellie, in the TV series Massan, which ran for 150 episodes, she stole the heart of every viewer of this popular drama. Now she is back in her home country and headed for Broadway. Right before her Broadway debut in “Chicago” this month, Charlotte talked with Chopsticks NY about her dramatic life turn, love of Japan, and passion for acting.
Photo by Shinobu Ikazaki
How did you get the role in NHK (Japan’s national public broadcasting organization)’s asadora (“morning drama”), Massan?
I read an audition notice in Backstage magazine calling for submissions for the role of Ellie. I thought the story [based on the true story of a woman from Scotland who moved to Japan in the 1920s as the wife of Masataka Taketsuru, who would go on to found Japan’s whiskey industry] sounded very interesting, the time period very rich, and the opportunity to work in Japan very exciting––so I submitted.
I never thought that I would hear anything back––you learn to live with such things as an actor. I heard back from Yoko Narahashi about a month later that they wanted to see people who spoke Japanese, so I let it go and kept auditioning for things in the US. However, a few days before Christmas, I received an email from Yoko telling me that after everything, they wanted to see me, even though I didn’t speak a word of Japanese, and [asking] if I was available to fly to Japan in a few weeks for a screen test. I couldn’t believe it. Even though I was very frightened, I thought it would be silly to pass up such a wonderful opportunity, so I got on a plane to Japan.
The audition was all in Japanese, which I memorized phonetically, and the whole experience was so foreign and strange and wonderful. During the audition, I forgot some of the Japanese lines but remembered the lines in English, so I kept acting, in English. I was sure that there was no way I would get cast. After all, I didn’t speak any Japanese, and the whole show was in Japanese. I returned home to the US and chalked the whole experience up to another experience. I received a phone call a few days later asking if I could work on the Japanese lines a little more and send another video audition. I worked hard with a coach for a week and resubmitted my audition. Three days later, I had the part, and ten days after that, I moved to Japan.
In the 150-episode series, you portrayed Ellie, a Scottish woman who emigrated to Japan and assimilated into the country about a century ago. As a non-Japanese actress working in the country today, were there aspects of the role with which you identified?
Oh, absolutely. Like my character, I was learning everything about Japan for the first time. We learned together. New Japanese words that Ellie learned, I learned as well. We both experienced moving to a new country, far from our families and friends, and went through great hardships and periods of intense loneliness. I was very lucky to play such a character because our experiences went so hand in hand together.
The role requires a lot of spoken Japanese. How did you prepare for that?
Honestly, I just spoke the lines aloud, over and over and over again. I repeated them in my head all day long––while cooking dinner, in the shower, on the way to the studio, with my manager. The only way to learn a new language is to use it constantly, and not to be afraid of making mistakes. I understand that fear. But you have to look at how children learn language when they are very young. They start with important people, and then feelings, and then basic needs. Start there, and then the rest will follow with constant practice.
How does the Japanese TV drama acting style differ from the American style?
This is a hard question for me to answer. I think that there is a difference. Being an actor is, I think, an embraced vocation in the US. We can go to college and grad school and even post-graduate school for it. In Japan, people are unable to do that. So the people that want to become actors there really have to fight for it. They have to fight for truth and meaning and creating good work. That kind of atmosphere creates very strong individuals who are able to operate within a very tight timeframe. I’m so grateful that I was able to receive technique training in the US and then put it to the test with some of the strongest, bravest individuals I know.
In Massan, you learned many Japanese sayings. Could you share some of your favorites?
I did learn many, but I think my very favorite, which I still repeat to myself, is “nana korobi ya-oki.” [This Japanese proverb means “Life is full of hardships, and even when you get knocked down, don’t give up but stand up again and keep trying.” The literal translation of the phrase is “Fall seven times and stand up eight.”] I made––and still make––many mistakes in my work and in daily life, but this saying reminds me to keep standing up, keep trying.
You will play Roxie Hart in Chicago on Broadway starting in November. How do you feel about getting back to theater, especially on Broadway?
I’m very excited and so grateful for this opportunity to grow as an actor. Being on Broadway, of course, is every actor’s dream, and I am surrounded by very creative, dynamic people that are helping me to grow. I do love theater, as it is what I started with when I was fifteen. I love the smell of the lights and the energy backstage. But what I love most about theater is that together, with the cast, I am able to create a brand-new life, a brand-new world, every night. It’s like magic. It’s storytelling magic.
The role of Roxie is completely different from Ellie in Massan. How do you transform from a supportive wife to a manipulative woman?
You know, this is tough. I have never played someone as long as I played Ellie. So some of her mannerisms, some of her personality that I created, is still with me. I’m working on finding a bigger hemisphere, a bigger personality, a bigger voice. Ellie was very sweet and soft––and, for lack of a better word, very Japanese. So my goal right now is to find the “American” in me.
You toured in Japan as a singer, so is the singing aspect of the role easy for you?
Being a recording artist and a musical theater performer are so entirely different. Touring, I had a microphone and a whole sound-design team and band that supported the sound. For Chicago, I have to fill the room with my voice, with my personality. Being on tour did give me some confidence singing in front of people, of course, but it is also something that I am working on––but it’s all part of the process.
While you were in Japan, you must have tried a lot of Japanese food. Please share some of your favorites.
My favorite is shabu-shabu.
Could you also please share your favorite places in Japan and offer some travel recommendations to Chopsticks NY readers?
If you can, I would travel outside of the big cities for the majority of the time. Tokyo and Osaka are wonderful, but they are so busy that I think you don’t really get to experience the people of Japan. If you want to relax, I would definitely go to Okinawa. They have great food and great skies. The people are very laid back and kind. Also, Hokkaido is one of my favorite places. I love Furano, in Hokkaido. I’m from the mountains in New Mexico, so I feel very at home there. The seafood is amazing, and the air is clean and fresh. Parts of Kyoto are wonderful as well. I would recommend going there in the fall––I think it is most beautiful then.
—— Interview by Noriko Komura
Charlotte Kate Fox
Born in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Charlotte Kate Fox is an American theater and film/television actress. She began acting in local theater at the age of fifteen. After graduating with a BFA from the College of Santa Fe and an MFA from Northern Illinois University, she appeared in small roles in film, television, and theater productions. In 2014, she was cast in NHK’s morning drama series, the first foreign lead in the programming’s 50-plus years of existence. Fox will perform the role of Roxie Hart in Chicago for sixteen performances, from November 2 to 15, at Broadway’s Ambassador Theatre.
Charlotte as Roxie in Chicago
16 performances only at the Ambassador Theatre
Photo by Junji Ishiguro
For tickets: www.telecharge.com
Box office at the Ambassador Theatre
219 W. 49th St., New York, NY 10019