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'Crazy Rich Asians': Sonoya Mizuno left the ballerina life for a shot at Hollywood stardom

'Crazy Rich Asians': Sonoya Mizuno left the ballerina life for a shot at Hollywood stardom
Sonoya Mizuno plays the character Araminta Lee in "Crazy Rich Asians." (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Before embarking on her first-ever acting audition, English actress Sonoya Mizuno had to make a life-changing decision: Should she leave behind a successful career in ballet in order to take a shot at her own Hollywood dream? She leapt, quit her old job and made her acting debut as Kyoko in 2015’s “Ex Machina” opposite Oscar Isaac.

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The former fashion model and professional ballerina’s resume now includes “La La Land,” “Annihilation” (in which she played two roles, as one of Natalie Portman’s students and as her mirror-movement double) and Netflix’s upcoming sci-fi series “Maniac.”

In “Crazy Rich Asians,” she’s effervescent heiress Araminta Lee, the bride at the center of a massive event wedding. Born in Tokyo to a Japanese father and Argentinian English mother, Mizuno remembers growing up not seeing herself reflected on screen.

In your own words: What’s your Hollywood story?

I was born in Japan and I grew up in England, and I wanted to be an actor when I was a child because I had an uncle who was an actor. I wanted to do everything he did, and he told me to learn how to dance first. So then I learned how to dance. I happened to be good at it and was sent to the Royal Ballet School, and then I became a ballet dancer.

15 years later, I still had this desire to act — and I thought if I didn’t act upon it now, then I’d never do it. So I quit my job and I tried to act. Eventually I got parts which got bigger and bigger and I ended up in L.A. on my own accord. I thought there was more opportunity there to do what I wanted to do, especially looking the way I do, which is not like a typical English rose.

Funnily enough, in the first few weeks that I was there I met [director] Jon Chu at a K-pop concert. He had just seen “Ex Machina” and we connected about telling Asian stories. When [“Crazy Rich Asians”] came around, I said I really want to audition for this film. The rest is history.

"Ex Machina" and "Maniac" actress Sonoya Mizuno on feeling the effect of "Crazy Rich Asians."

“Crazy Rich Asians” is the first movie of its kind in 25 years. What does it mean to you to be part of this moment?

Seeing and hearing the reactions of people — particularly, of course, Asian people, Asian American, British Asian, Asian Asians, or wherever they’re from — it’s so touching and it raises the stakes of the film. It makes me realize how important this film is. I feel privileged to be in this position to help push this moment forward, but also I feel like this film is just the beginning of something greater.

When you were young, did you see yourself reflected on screen or onstage? Who were your role models?

In the Royal Ballet Company there was a Japanese principal dancer, and onstage and in ballet they have colorblind castings — so I did see Asian dancers, and they were always my favorite. When you have someone who looks like you, it’s something you can kind of grab onto and it makes you feel better about your place in the world.

You had a successful career in dance, but had to take a leap of faith to try your hand at acting. How did you land in Alex Garland’s “Ex Machina”?

“Ex Machina” [was] the first audition I’d ever done for acting in my life and the way it came about was just so unusual, because I was in a ballet company at the time. I really wanted to leave and do acting but I didn’t know how to get into it. I had an old modeling agency in London and I went back to them and I said, “Look, I really want to do acting. Do you know how I can get into it?”

While I was in the meeting they got an email about extras for “Ex Machina,” for the women in the closets. So I said, “I’ll just go and see what happens.” And I went and somehow it went really well. Alex was like, “I think you’re fantastic. You can have the job.” [The role] was one of the extras, but I was like, “That’s fine, I don’t mind at all. This is great.”

But I had to leave my ballet job in order to do it and the director wouldn’t let me leave. At the same time, I had a call from the film production and they said that Alex was interested in me for a bigger part — but I had to go to London to audition for it. I had to resign from my job not knowing if I was going to get the part. I didn’t have anywhere to live in London, I had nothing and I was just like, “OK — I’m going to go.” I went to London. I auditioned. Thank God I got the job.

I feel privileged to be in this position to help push this moment forward, but also I feel like this film is just the beginning of something greater.


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