Very few actresses make their debut as a lead in one of the world’s most popular film franchises. Even fewer are foreign to the series’ country of origin. And even fewer wind up stealing the show.
Rila Fukushima has done all three. The distinctive Japanese model made her feature film debut last weekend in the Marvel comics action movie “The Wolverine,” in which she plays the assassin sidekick to Hugh Jackman’s popular mutant hero.
Directed by James Mangold, the clawed character’s story picks up where the 2006 film “X-Men: The Last Stand” left it. Distraught over the death of his love interest Jean Grey, Logan (a.k.a. Wolverine) leads a solitary existence in the Yukon mountains. When a Japanese girl named Yukio (Fukushima) arrives with news that businessman Singen Yashida wishes to repay Logan a life debt, the duo flies to Japan to meet him. As it turns out, Wolverine gets more than he expected, and comes closer to mortality than he ever expected.
“I’m very honored to be involved in this project,” Fukushima, a Tokyo native, told me during a recent interview. “And I appreciate the fact that they did it in Japan.”
Keep scrolling to read the rest of my interview with Rila, during which she discussed her admiration of Jackman’s famously fit physique, her fear of eating food on the set and a fight scene moment filmmakers left on the cutting room floor.
David Onda: You are really fantastic in this movie. If I didn’t know better, I never would have guessed it was your first film.
Rila Fukishima: Aw, thank you. Hugh and James and other cast and crew helped me a lot while we were filming. It’s very nice to hear you and other people are really – everybody gave me a comment about my character, which is really nice, but it’s all about Hugh!
Onda: Wolverine is a notorious loner. What does Logan see in Yukio that leads to their unlikely relationship?
Fukushima: They both are a little bit outsiders in a way. Yukio worked for the Yashida family as a bodyguard, but she doesn’t really have family. And after she met Logan, they started to build a relationship. I think there’s a little bit of competition. Yukio wants to prove herself. There’s also a lot of humor because she doesn’t really take any crap from Logan.
Onda: Was it harder doing the comedy or the action?
Fukushima: There were a lot of challenges, because I’d never done action sequences before, but my stunt team trained me so well and my stunt double was an amazing person. She tried to push me, like , “Ok, you can do this. You should do it. And if you cannot make it, I’m gonna do it, but it would be great if you can do this much or all of it.” I wanted to try everything I could. I like challenges, so we trained together and my stunt double trained me very well, I think. [laughs]
Onda: How much of your stunts did you ultimately do?
Fukushima: I think I did, 60-70 percent, which is a lot. I’m actually really surprised they used my action parts.
Onda: And your fight scenes are really convincing. It’s really an impressive performance.
Fukushima: Oh, stop. I had three weeks training before I started filming. There’s a lot of things I needed to work on before I started filming – like, physically. Hugh was trying to help me out, like, “What do you think about this scene?” If I had any questions, he’d find time for me. It was a lot of learning. I learned so much from Hugh and he gave me a lot of advice. He was so nice to other people. Every time I look at him on set, he’s taking care of people. He’s really professional. He takes good care of his body. He’s eating or taking care of his body or taking care of people. He makes sure everybody’s good on set. I got so much inspiration from him.
Onda: Was there any specific piece of advice Hugh gave you that really stuck?
Fukushima: I was so hesitant to eat on set. Suddenly, I start to do a lot of action training, so my stomach was always making noises. But I would hesitate to eat something on set, because I’m a first-time actor, still new, and I don’t wanna request too many stuff to people. People are working. But my stomach was making noise, and I was so starving, but I wasn’t sure that it was OK to eat something on set or not. I was drinking energy drinks. The first week of shooting I was eating PowerBars and drinking energy drinks every day. And then Hugh said, “Rila, you should eat. It’s OK to eat on set. You are doing a lot of exercise; you are doing a lot of action sequences. It’s ok to eat. I don’t wanna see you eating a PowerBar secretly in the corner of the set.” I was in a corner trying to hide and eat. He said, “You don’t have do that, you can eat.” And then he asked the catering person to make a little plate for me. And that was very nice of him to do that.
Onda: Yukio has short spikey hair and wears black leather in the comics. Your version is much different. Did you have any input on her style?
Fukushima: I was really open about how she looked, and so I was really surprised James decided to go with a little bit difference physical appearance. I was so ready to cut my hair shorter. [laughs] I was very open. If you take away the physical differences, if you watch the film, I think it’s obvious she’s a badass and I hope everybody can see there’s a similarity. I think James decided to explore her character a little bit deeper than the comics. In the comics, it doesn’t really tell where she’s from or how she stopped working for the Yushida family.
Onda: While Wolverine fights his own battle, you have a great climactic fight scene with a female villain called Viper.
Fukushima: Hopefully they’re gonna put the whole action sequence on the DVD or something. It was much longer. There’s a funny line, before we get in the fight and Viper starts speaking Russian. It was improvisation. I think this wasn’t inside the script, and I guess that’s why they cut it out. She starts talking in Russia and Yukio was really mad, and I was like, “What the [expletive], I don’t speak Russian!” It was a really funny moment, and then we start to get in a fight.
Onda: Do you have a favorite scene?
Fukushima: At the bus stop scene with Hugh, it was the first time I saw Hugh’s amazing muscle in his t-shirt. And I would look at his body, and I was just impressed how it was like a Greek sculpture. I was like, “Oh, my god.” And I’m supposed to leave from the room, but I was standing there watching him like, “Oh my god.” And he’s like, “Are you gonna watch me undress?” [laughs] Even serious scenes turn into comedy.
“The Wolverine” is open in theaters everywhere now. Click here to order tickets through Fandango.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.