For most actresses, “making it” or “breaking out” in Hollywood usually takes years of drama classes, endless auditions and a bit part in an episode of “Law and Order: SVU.” After that, perhaps a low-budget indie before the one project that puts an aspiring thespian on the map.
But Karen Fukuhara’s first crack at acting involves one of the summer’s most-anticipated comic book tent poles: the massive-budget, star-studded “Suicide Squad” starring Will Smith, Jared Leto and Margot Robbie, which hits theaters Aug. 5. And there will be no cameos here: as Tatsu Yamashiro (otherwise known by her Squad name Katana), Fukuhara plays the sword-wielding watchdog for the band of supervillains sent out on dangerous missions to rid society of greater evils.
Upon meeting her, there’s little to differentiate the petite 24-year-old actress from any other L.A. native. She shows up for her shoot and interview, car keys in hand, wearing pristine white sneakers, slouchy jeans and an off-the-shoulder top, a white backpack thrown over her arm. She arrives sans makeup, but her time spent in the glam chair is minimal, most of it allotted to styling her thick, naturally straight tresses.
Like many kids, Fukuhara fell in love with acting after performing in plays in grade school. “I absolutely loved it but we couldn’t afford it,” she says. “Coming from first-generation Japanese parents — my dad works for a Japanese company and my mom is teaching piano — we just didn’t know how to get into the business.”
By chance, she met a Disney casting director through a friend in middle school and booked a gig as an on-air host of “Disney’s Movie Surfers,” where kids from different countries did behind-the-scenes interviews with the cast and crews of Disney features. Her first outing involved interviewing Johnny Depp and Keira Knightley for “Pirates of the Caribbean.” “If I could do it over, I’d actually listen to their answers, but I was so nervous,” she recalls. That role led to a sports reporting job for Japanese TV in high school, but she was hesitant about acting.
“My mom suggested studying acting in college, but I was a bit scared to choose that path because I couldn’t wrap my head around the drama school audition process,” she says. Instead Fukuhara spent four years majoring in sociology at UCLA, moved to Japan for a few months, then hit the proverbial wall. “I remember seeing a quote that said something like, ‘If you are going to strive to be the best, it’s hard in any industry so you might as well do it in the one you are passionate about.’”
She decided to “go for it full-on” and got a manager, enrolled in acting classes and began auditioning. A few months in, she answered a call for “a supersecret comic book film with a character who had a Japanese sword.” “They didn’t say what the movie was and the scene we read wasn’t even in the film. I just Googled ‘comic book’ and ‘Japanese sword’ and guessed.”
Luckily she had spent her teenage years competing in the forms division of karate, a full-contact version of the sport. “Karate focuses on precision and the attention between every move, so I know who I am fighting, who’s behind me, who’s next to me, and what I need to do to avoid a situation and go in for the kill,” she says.
Needless to say, she aced the martial arts demo part of the audition (she also had the sense to take a couple of private sword-fighting lessons beforehand).
Of the movie — which has been largely kept under wraps save for a few trailers — she says, “I know David [Ayer, the director] wanted something more traditional for Katana. I can kill with one slash and be done with it instead of more flashy things that might look good on film.”
If the movie is a success, there could be more comic book roles in Fukuhara’s future. “Katana has her own series, so once I knew who I was playing, I got to read into who she is. She’s a cold-blooded killer. I think her backstory is emotional and complex.”
Her teenage reporter roots keep her grounded now that her star is on the rise. “I’ve been on the other side of the camera, and it’s really humbling to know that people are interested in what you have to say. But I’m so comfortable interviewing people, it’s a little weird not knowing what I can and can’t say [as the interviewee].”
As for her next project, she’s also keeping mum. “But having ‘Suicide Squad’ on my résumé has improved the quality of auditions. Now I get the script beforehand.”