CANNES, France — “Babel,” Alejandro González Iñárritu’s latest film of intersecting narratives that span Morocco, Tokyo and the California-Mexico border, boasts an international cast known for their acting prowess: Cate Blanchett, Gael García Bernal, Brad Pitt and Kôji Yakusho. But the film’s revelation is Japanese actress Reiko Kikuchi.
The willowy 25-year-old plays the role of Chieko, a deaf schoolgirl frustrated with her inability to connect with her father and other men in her life. Speaking through a translator in the restaurant of the Hotel Martinez, it’s easy to see why Kikuchi won the role over several deaf actresses. Her hands and eyes communicate her thoughts before the translator can write down what she’s saying. “Being in a situation where you cannot use words to communicate and have to find a way to make it physical obviously appealed to me,” she says.
To prepare, Kikuchi worked for a year to “lose” her ability to hear. “Say you are on the subway, you feel the wind before you actually see the train coming,” she explains. “Or when a door opens you recognize the light first and that lets you know that someone is approaching.”
Her dedication to the role certainly made an impression on Iñárritu. “She has a very profound spirit, and her discipline was really impressive,” says the director. “I auditioned a lot of girls but none of them had what Reiko had — graciousness and beauty combined with a lot of rage.”
Kikuchi also has the distinction of playing the character saddled with the most overtly sexual role, including an emotional scene in which she has a breakdown stark naked. But contrary to traditional Japanese mores, she wasn’t inhibited by the risque role requirements. “It doesn’t matter if you have to be nude or do sex scenes, as long as it makes sense. As an actor, I feel every part of my body is a tool. So the notion of risk didn’t even come into consideration.”
When it comes to style, Kikuchi, who has made nine films in 10 years (“Babel” is her first non-Japanese project), is no stranger to risk. Clad in a plunging black Gucci dress and gold platforms, she counts Martin Margiela and Comme des Garçons among her favorite labels. As for her newly bleached strawberry-blonde hair she says simply, “I wanted to have fun in Cannes.”