World War II is often called "the last good war" by Westerners. That's not true in Japan. And in treading into the murky depths of the Pacific Theater with the story of Olympic runner Louis Zamperini, who was imprisoned by the Japanese and targeted by a sadistic prison guard in "Unbroken," director Angelina Jolie stirs the waters afresh. The good news? Stars Jack O'Connell (Louis) and Miyavi (the Bird) became friends during production, emerging with a modern, tempered take on both war and peace. Together they spoke with The Envelope.
It's interesting that you both became friends, because on camera the Bird is so cruel to Louis. How did you manage to turn that attitude on and off?
Miyavi: We kept a distance all the time. I didn't have any skill or technique to be on or off, so I was the Bird the whole time, even in my hotel room. I imagined if [Louis] killed my whole family, I would do anything.
O'Connell: This being Miyavi's first acting role, I didn't want to make that more difficult than it needed to be. So we'd be in scenes and support each other subtly, like I'd tap his leg and say, "Well done" or vice-versa. Just minimum bits so we'd know we were ...
Miyavi: Connected. Mentally.
Your usual gig is as a Japanese rock star, Miyavi. Did you use any of that expertise in playing the Bird?
Miyavi: The moment of silence. When I'm not talking, I just used that atmosphere. Space. The pause. That was important to me, because I'm not familiar with English, I don't speak like Jack — but facial expressions, using the moment was meaningful. I got that from my experiences as a musician on stage.
Jack, you had to go from being a buff Olympic athlete to an emaciated prisoner of war. What were those physical changes like?
O'Connell: I didn't really start with that much body fat, so I got rid of that quite quickly, and then it was a case of a lot of exercise. Louis had an abnormally wide stride — his hip joints separated with every step — so I had to stretch my legs. Then I got weak for the prison camp section. They never set numeric requirements for my loss or gain, but I only had nine days from emaciation to get physically fit again. I got down to [121 pounds].
Was that particularly difficult?
O'Connell: A 24-hour requirement. Even on your own time, when you think you'd have time off, there was always a mini-bar screaming at you. I just had to remember Louis as much as possible and the promise I made to him. Just before leaving Australia for the second time, I shook his hand and said, "You're in good hands."
Miyavi, you met Louis as well?
Miyavi: After the filming. I took my daughters to his house, and he was playing with them, cracking jokes, telling his funny stories. To me it was this precious moment, and I felt strength from his attitude. He's the guy who gave everyone his forgiveness, and I was so touched by that. For the Japanese, it's too controversial to talk about these kinds of things. You don't want to watch anything that's a hard story in your country. But I was able to feel his forgiveness, in how he treated us.
What did you know about the war before signing up for "Unbroken"?
O'Connell: We're taught a very British-tainted version through our schooling. We're encouraged to find an allegiance with America and an American culture. There does seem to be some strategy in having schooling that unifies the two countries. But having lost faith in the educational system at home, I found it crucial to educate myself as unfiltered as possible. I read documentation from both sides.
Miyavi: This story is not told much in Japan. I didn't know what happened in the prison camp, what Louis went through. So I was surprised. I made a decision to tackle this role because Angie said she wanted to show the good side and the bad side.
Have you taken any heat at home for taking on this role?
Miyavi: I got some. But I'm confident. This is a creation. The main purpose is not to let this happen again. There is no justice in the war. That's why I was amazed by the facial expressions of Jack and the other actors when they're walking through the city after the bombing. That's not the face of winners. They're depressed. This is our learning experience.
Jack, what did you learn from the film?