Since its premiere in 2015, Amazon’s original series The Man in the High Castle has garnered lots of well-deserved praise. Like the novel that preceded it, the show weaves a complicated web of historical fact and science fiction, one in which the Nazis and Imperial Japanese have risen to power and where journeying to alternate realities is a possibility. All in all, the story and its motifs keep viewers on the edge of their seats.
But history and sci-fi aside, the show’s broad appeal rests largely in the hands of its exceptional cast, including Lee Shorten who plays Sergeant Hiroyuki Yoshida, a Japanese-American member of the Kempeitai. As Yoshida, Shorten not only puts forth an impressive performance, but he also uses his intelligence and skill to tell Yoshida’s story from a sensitive and balanced perspective.
I recently spoke with Shorten about Yoshida and The Man in the High Castle:
TARA MARTINEZ: How did the role of Sergeant Yoshida come to you? What can you tell us about your audition process?
LEE SHORTEN: It was originally supposed be just a one day, one episode kind of deal. When I first heard that they were, that Ridley Scott, in particular was adapting The Man in the High Castle, I’d been a huge fan of Philip K. Dick’s work and I sort of called my agent and just said, “This is something I really want to be a part of and I don’t care how big or how small it is.” I just—to say that—it would really be amazing. So, I ended up going in for this very small role and he was just called The Suited Man back then, and he was supposed to be one and done. But luckily for me, the producers kind of liked what I was doing with the material and liked what I was bringing to the table, and they decided to expand him and Sergeant Yoshida was born.
I think it was, in a sense, because Kido basically needed someone to talk to, I guess. And as opposed to having this, you know, rotating cast of kind of faceless sergeants, I think they thought they could really flesh him out as a character as well and bring a lot more humanity to the Japanese if we could have an ongoing relationship.
TM: So, how would you describe Sergeant Yoshida’s relationship with Inspector Kido as the seasons progress? How do you think they developed as a pair?
LS: We sort of talked a bit about his backstory and him being Japanese-American; and being one of the few Japanese-Americans on the show, you know, he would have been interned in Manzanar and all that kind of stuff. So, we talked a lot about how he was probably a little lost and probably looking for a father figure. So, I’d always approached the relationship with Kido less as kind of a professional one—although that’s obviously there—and more as kind of this lost young man trying to find something to hold onto and then Kido is this mentor, this teacher, this father figure. And I think we see as the seasons progress, he’s desperately trying to prove his loyalty and earn Kido’s respect and trust and I think that is the journey they go on over the couple of seasons. And by the end of season one, Kido takes him on a very risky, clandestine mission and I think he proves himself and then season two, he’s allowed to—he’s given freedom by Kido to go out and kind of do his own thing and serve the empire and that’s the sort of the relationship we see grow over the seasons..
TM: At the end of season two, we see your character’s arc come to a close. How do you think that will impact Inspector Kido moving forward?
LS: I think for Kido, obviously he’s a man who had lived through World War II and he has seen a lot of bad stuff and he’s probably committed a lot of acts, too. But I think, again, the relationship he has with Yoshida is something he’d never had before where he’s kind of seen this young man from an alien culture really grow. So, I think this might hit him a little bit harder. Whether or not it makes him more ruthless because it’s like he’s put himself out there and he’s trusted an American and this is what happens, or whether or not it softens him in that it kind of opens his eyes to perhaps the struggles of the resistance on a bit more personal level remains to be seen. But I think it could go either way and either way it would be very interesting, I think.
TM: So, we mentioned before that Yoshida is American. Do you think that affected his motives or views at all in terms of working with the Japanese?
LS: We had a scene which unfortunately got cut where they kind of talk about Yoshida’s father and his uncle, and in that scene he talks about how his father had been a staunch Japanese loyalist but his uncle had ended up going to fight for the 442, the Japanese unit in World War II. And the show, with its alternate realities and everything and circumstances, and I think in this reality he’d chosen to follow his father. And perhaps in our reality, he’d chosen to be inspired by his uncle instead which would be interesting.
So, for me approaching Yoshida, it was always—he was accepting of the way that things were in this Japanese occupation, but he was still very much driven by the American ideal. So he, in a sense, still thinks that he’s fighting for peace and justice and freedom. He just thinks that the best way to do that is by collaborating with the Japanese. And I think we get to see some nice moments where he can be so American, particularly in season one when he’s sitting down with the Yakuza and Kido and he kind of speaks out of turn. He’s a little bit more reckless and I think he, more so than Kido, has this personal vendetta against the Yakuza, whereas Kido just sees them as part of the system. Being an American, he’s very much like, I don’t really accept that we’re going to be collaborating with criminals. But he is always struggling with how to reconcile both halves of his upbringing and his personality and his surroundings.
TM: The Man in the High Castle is kind of a re-imagining of what the world might have looked like had World War II gone a different way. What was it like as an actor to step into that world?
LS: I think, again, you get the benefits of knowing that it’s an alternate reality. There’s a lot of freedom there and I think, inevitably as an actor, we always say you can’t judge your character. Your role is to understand and empathize with them one hundred percent and to just really do your best to put yourself in their shoes and treat them as if they’re the hero of the story. So, when I was—even when I just first auditioned for tiny thing, I’d read the book back in college and i’d studied World War II a lot in history in school, but mainly on Europe and the Russian front. So, I went out and did a lot of research about the Japanese and the Kempeitai were a pretty horrible organization. They committed some serious atrocities in the war and it was very confronting to read all of that and think that if I’m going to play this guy, he has to be capable of doing those things, and he has to have done those things in order to reach the levels that he has reached. And then obviously in the first episode I appear, we gas an innocent family which is really heavy, confronting stuff.
But yeah, I just think that as an actor, you have to do your best to understand that and it can take you to some very dark places and it’s certainly not easy, but at the same time this is the kind of challenging, juicy stuff that we dream of, right? To really step outside ourselves and try and find some truth because to me, the show is provocative and asks questions because characters like Kido and Smith are so human. It’s that whole banality of evil. It’s so much easier if you just, if evil is—and I do love characters like the Joker—but if evil is comic book and it wears a mask and it’s this grotesque, black hat wearing thing, it’s a very easy thing. Whereas I think our show, by making them so human, so gray, it reminds us that in life, a lot of the atrocities we commit, you know, have been done by people who think they’re doing the right thing, by people who are good family men. And I think, especially, America seems quite divided right now, I think it’s a timely kind of show to hold up that mirror, even if it’s a fun house mirror and say, Hey take a look around and maybe think and ask some questions..
TM: I read that you spent time in Japan in your twenties and that it affected you in some profound ways. Did what you learned there influence your view of the show, or of the story, or of your character?
LS: Yeah, absolutely. Again, I think you—they say history is written by the victors and I grew up in Australia and I went to an Australian school. Again, we didn’t really cover Japan a lot but, you know, it was definitely this sense of—they were this like villainous caricature. You know, the Yellow Peril and all that. To go to Japan, especially to go to the memorial at Hiroshima was—you saw the other side of that, right? Like it’s so easy to just read in a book we dropped the atomic bomb because we had to or whatever, but to go and see these—to read the letters, to see this clothing that children had worn that they’d salvaged from the wreckage, and to see these shadows of people burned onto brick walls, and to walk kind of firsthand as much you can amongst this devastation, it really—kind of back to my earlier point—reinforced that there is a human cost to everything. And there are very few people in this world, I think—I’d like to think—who are just like evil personified, and most people are, you know, they’re doing what they think is right. I think, in a sense, that helped me to sympathize and empathize more with the Imperial Japanese in our show and to see them as these people who thought they were justified and who think they are bringing culture and order to America, perhaps in much the same way that the British felt hundreds of years ago when they were colonizing the developing nations and just thought, you know, we’re uplifting these cultures. Perhaps that’s what the Japanese feel in The Man in the High Castle.
TM: Before you started acting, you were a lawyer. Now, on the surface, those two professions seem vastly different. Is there anything, in your experience, that’s similar between the two?
LS: Yes, they are vastly different and it was very difficult for me, actually, to switch gears. You know, a lawyer—you hear and see a lot of things that can be quite troubling and emotional, but your job is to just stay above it all and not let anything affect you, whereas the actor is quite the opposite. You need to feel all that and to live it, so that was very different. But I think what law really taught me that translates to acting—one, research and preparation are key which I think is true for a role. You can’t go up to a set with ideas ready to play unless you’ve researched and prepared. And the second was a very strong respect for language and how language can be specific and how, you know, especially—I had some experience writing legislation—how you can agonize over the placement of a comma or whether there should be ‘and’ or not, or whether it should be ‘should’ or ‘would’ or ‘could’ and how all these things can be different. And I think that, for me, applied to acting in that when you get a script, when you go into an audition, or when you’re going to play a role, all you have is the dialogue and you have to build a character from the dialogue so you kind of mine as much as you can. So, respecting language more, I do tend to look at it and be like, Oh, so why has the writer put the comma there? Why does he speak with contractions? Or why does he not speak with contractions? Why is he swearing here when he hasn’t ever sworn before? I think it helps me to really build a character from just the page. I think it gives me, perhaps, a different perspective and insight and more of, perhaps—I don’t want to be too presumptuous—perhaps a little bit more of a writer’s mind.
TM: Any upcoming projects you can tell us about?
LS: I shot a pilot last year which we are waiting to hear if we get picked up which is a total change of pace. It’s a comedy, kind of in the line of Curb Your Enthusiasm. But otherwise, we’re—High Castle was such a wonderful project, a kind of one-hour prestige, thought-provoking drama that every actor—well certainly I dream of being involved in. So, finding the next thing to follow, you know, it can be a bit of a challenge. So, we’re reading a lot of scripts and just trying to work out what the next play is.
To learn more about Lee Shorten, check him out on Twitter at @lcshorten.