Altered Carbon

Wingman Wednesday

Byron Mann

Photo By: Diana Ragland

Byron Mann is on one heck of a project run, but he’s the first to admit that it wasn’t planned. In fact, he couldn’t have planned it this way if he tried.

Not only can the Hong Kong native be seen starring in the new Netflix series “Altered Carbon,” but you’ll soon be able to catch him opposite Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in the upcoming action film “Skyscraper.” Both projects’ trailers were part of the highly-anticipated Super Bowl roster of commercials, proving once again that you just can’t plan for this kind of thing.

We recently sat down with Mann to discuss the reason “Altered Carbon” feels more like a film than a television series, why it won’t be easy for other networks to duplicate, and the place he often finds himself engaged in character work.

TrunkSpace: “Altered Carbon” seems like such an ambitious show, especially by television/streaming standards. Just the visuals… the sets… they’ve really built an atmosphere and then dropped the characters in to inhabit it.
Mann: I didn’t realize how ambitious they were until I started training for the show, both individually and they had me work with a trainer every morning. It was pretty hard, rigorous training. Then, in the afternoon, we would train for the fight sequence in the pilot episode. We did that for like two months. Training for one fight sequence for two months – it’s pretty steep, yeah.

TrunkSpace: That’s amazing. It definitely had the feel of watching a feature film.
Mann: There’s no question that they were making a feature film. The director, Miguel Sapochnik, who won an Emmy for “Game of Thrones” last year… there was no question that his ambition was to make it that. I mean, listen, the camera that they used was the ALEXA 65. That’s the same camera used for “The Revenant,” the movie with Leonardo DiCaprio. That camera is only used for widescreen display of the image, like in a movie theater. It’s never ever been used for a TV show. He chose to use this camera for this television show, this streaming show, I should call it. The ambition was clearly there from the get-go to make it feature film quality. When you see the first episode, you’ll see very clearly that it is a feature film presentation.

TrunkSpace: Maybe that’s why the sets and world stood out so much to us, because of the widescreen display.
Mann: Yeah. Of course, when we’re filming, you don’t really feel it. I can tell, not only from filming, but actually from the preparation, the training and rehearsals going into it, that obviously the sets were… they built a new world basically. They built a studio for the series. They converted a printing mill into a studio in Vancouver. It’s called the Skydance Studios, and Skydance owns it. I don’t know how to describe it. They weren’t making another “CSI.” They were making a groundbreaking show, from the ground up.

TrunkSpace: Which sort of calls out other networks. Executives at all of these other networks are going to be saying, “We need our own ‘Altered Carbon’.”
Mann: Oh man, that’s easier said than done. You can’t just duplicate that overnight. You can’t. It’s so hard making anything these days. It’s hard making a television show. It’s hard making a feature film. Not only do you have to make a show like that, then you have to make it a super duper outside-the-box, groundbreaking show. Forget about it. You can’t even plan it. A lot of things that came into being. There’s Laeta Kalogridis. She wrote “Terminator Genisys,” “Shutter Island.” She’s the leading science fiction writer in Hollywood. “Alita: Battle Angel,” the movie that is coming out from Robert Rodriguez… I mean, she’s it. She’s the Steven Spielberg of writers. Then Miguel Sapochnik, who was the executive producer and also directed the first big episode, which took 30 days to shoot. So you have a lot of these things coming together to make this kind of a show.

It’s like the Patriots – it’s a lot of things coming into one. Bill Belichick, Tom Brady, and Gronk. The reality is, in football terms, you can’t even duplicate that. Where are you going to get another dynasty? If one of them leaves? If Brady leaves?

I’m very honored, very humbled to happen to be a part of this. It’s awesome.

TrunkSpace: When you signed on, did you dive into the source material, Richard K. Morgan’s 2002 book, to see what came before?
Mann: No. When I first started, I talked to Laeta Kalogridis, the showrunner. She said, “Don’t read the book.” So I didn’t. I just read the script, and I had many, many hours of sitting down with her alone, and just asking her questions like, “What’s going on? What happened?” It’s a new world with new terminology, a new technique of how things work. It’s like “Blade Runner.” It’s a brand new world. Believe it or not, I think 50 years from now, I think our lives will be very close to what we see in “Altered Carbon.” It’s predicated on this premise, that everyone has a “stack,” like a gift in their vertebrae. All humans have this gift. Even if your outer body dies, you can go resave yourself again. As I understand, they’re heavily invested in this technology right now, as we speak.

TrunkSpace: So when you’re playing in the sandbox of a whole new world with new terminology and techniques on how things work, does it allow you to take a different approach to performance than you would with something set in modern day New York, for example?
Mann: Not really. As an actor, when you’re doing a scene, you just want to find out the questions. “Who are you? What do you want? What’s happening in the scene?” It’s still human emotions. No matter how sci-fi everything gets, the baseline is still dealing with very basic human emotions – love, jealousy, desire, power – all that.

Mann in “Altered Carbon”

TrunkSpace: Between “Altered Carbon” and the projects you have due up, you’re getting to work in a lot of different genres. As an actor, is it a treat to get to play in so many different types of projects?
Mann: Yeah, I guess it’s fun. It doesn’t really faze me too much. After playing so many different characters, I think it’s all… the stuff I said earlier, it applies to every single project. Basically, you find out who you are, what you’re doing here, and what are you trying to do? That hasn’t changed from the ’70s and the ’60s, when you had movies like “The Graduate,” or “Serpico,” or “The French Connection.” And now with “Altered Carbon,” it’s still the same thing. Especially for an actor, it’s just you playing in an emotion.

TrunkSpace: Is that the personal draw for you as an actor, the discovery of finding out who a character is?
Mann: Yeah. Sometimes you find it on the tape, when you’re filming. That’s gold, if you actually discover that.

TrunkSpace: Are you someone who looks at someone sitting in a coffee shop or in line at the grocery store and breaks down who they are? Do you have those storyteller moments where you’re trying to discover “characters” even in real life?
Mann: Well, it can hit you anytime – character thoughts can hit you anytime. Once you’re thinking about it, it’s in your subconscious. For me, I’ll tell you when it hits me, it hits me when I’m taking a shower. Sometimes I’m in the shower a long time, and you think about these things.

TrunkSpace: We can totally see that. No distractions. No cell phones. Just you and your thoughts.
Mann: Yeah, and the water is warm, hopefully. When you’re under warm water, your body relaxes. When you’re relaxed, a lot of good things happen to you. I’ve thought about that. I said, “Why do I have these great thoughts when I think in the shower?” It’s usually because your body is really relaxed.

TrunkSpace: You had two trailers for projects you’re in run during the Super Bowl. One was for “Altered Carbon,” and the other was for “Skyscraper,” starring Dwayne Johnson. Not too shabby for the most watched television event of the year!
Mann: Yeah, no kidding. Like I said, you can’t plan for this stuff. You just can’t. You just have to go along life’s journey, do the best you can, and then life will kind of find your way towards these things.

Altered Carbon” is available now on Netflix.

Skyscraper” arrives in theaters July 13.

Mann can also be seen returning to SyFy’s “The Expanse” later this year and the upcoming Blumhouse thriller “Only You.”

Featured image by: Diana Ragland

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Wingman Wednesday

Hiro Kanagawa

Photo By: Kristine Cofsky

While we used to look forward to “tentpole” films rolling into our local cineplexes every summer, now we can see the same production quality, marque names, and multi-layered world building appearing on our televisions every night, holding up the pop culture tent with poles steeped in rich, complex storytelling. In fact, it’s starting to feel like a new, highly-anticipated series premieres every week, and for those of us addicted to the binge, it’s a great time to consume.

The new Netflix sci-fi thrillfest “Altered Carbon” is the kind of show that not only has us excited, but it could very well usher in a new dawn of big-budgeted event series. Adapting a project like this, based on the 2002 novel by Richard Morgan, for anywhere other than a movie theater would have been completely unheard of even a decade ago. The cost alone to bring the futuristic, effects-filled story to life would have scared off every executive from network to cable, but now it seems, much like the technology that makes a show like this possible, the sky is the limit.

We recently sat down with “Altered Carbon” star and one of our favorite character actors Hiro Kanagawa to discuss how he brings his memorable characters to life, why the series could be a game changer for the industry, and the rock ‘n’ roll dream that still pecks away at him.

TrunkSpace: First thing’s first…we love us some you! Your work is always so rich in character and the choices you make with those characters are extremely memorable. What is your approach to tapping into a new character and making him your own?
Kanagawa: Thanks for the kind words. Acting is an ephemeral activity, even when captured on film, so it’s great to know that some of what I do is memorable. Creating these characters really depends on the circumstance, the style and content of the script, the people around you, the specifics of the character. When I was starting out I was coming from a bit of an arty physical theater background, so I tended to work outside-in: find the voice, find the walk, find the way this guy carries himself. But in film and TV, less is more – you really have to internalize things and work inside-out because something as small as a sideways glance or an arched eyebrow can be a big, big move. Also, everybody you’re working with is coming at things from different methods and training techniques and traditions, so I’ve found the most reliable thing to do as an actor is BE IN RELATIONSHIP with your other actors and your environment. I hope audiences appreciate my work as Captain Tanaka on “Altered Carbon.” I’m proud of it, and a lot of it comes out of being in relationship with Martha Higareda’s character, Ortega.

TrunkSpace: As you mentioned, you’re set to star as Captain Tanaka in the new Netflix series “Altered Carbon.” By any standards it seems like an extremely ambitious project, but by television/streaming standards, it feels like it could be the kind of project that forces others to rethink the way that they’re doing things. As you were working on the series, did it have the feel of something that could be groundbreaking within the industry itself?
Kanagawa: Absolutely. And it’s more than blind ambition, there’s a desire, an aspiration to make something really good. I could tell everybody on this project from the top down were dedicated to getting things right. I go into my first wardrobe fitting and a few days later I have another one because they’ve re-thought things. And then another one. I walk on set on my first day and my first reaction is, “Wow.” Same thing the next day when I see another set. And so on. I get called in to rehearse on a Saturday and with input from all of us actors, the scene gets rewritten. There’s creative energy. Everybody’s involved and engaged. Nobody was mailing it in on this one.

TrunkSpace: At this point, millions of people have already viewed the trailer online and the buzz continues to build around the series. As an actor performing within a show that is generating that kind of pop culture interest, does it place you in a position to put expectations on how it will be received and accepted, and in a way, alter your life/career in the process?
Kanagawa: I do have expectations that it will be well-received. I’ve seen bits and pieces and everything I’ve seen excites me. I’ve read the scripts, of course, and being a writer myself, I have nothing but admiration for the writing. I am aware that my work here as Captain Tanaka will probably get a lot of eyeballs and I’m happy about that because I feel good about it. If this creates more opportunities for me in the future, I’m ready. Bring it on.

TrunkSpace: For those who have never read the Richard Morgan novel, can you tell us a bit about Captain Tanaka and what his journey is throughout the course of the series? What did he offer you from a performance standpoint that you have yet to tackle in a project before?
Kanagawa: The series is in the same universe and follows the same general trajectory as the first book, but it’s a major expansion of that universe. Captain Tanaka, in fact, does not appear in the novel. What I can tell you is that Tanaka is a deeply-conflicted and compromised police captain tasked with keeping law and order in a world run by an ultra-powerful elite. He’s a good man in a bad world and he can either keep his head down and do as he’s told, or he can do the right thing. As an actor, you live for characters who are conflicted in this way.

TrunkSpace: From one talked about project to the next, you’re also working on “Snowpiercer” for TNT, a series based on Bong Joon Ho’s popular 2013 film. Both “Altered Carbon” and “Snowpiercer” come with a bit of their own built-in audiences seeing that they had established fan bases in other mediums already. Is that a gift for an actor, working on something that you know people will already be lining up to see, or does it also come with its own set of pitfalls knowing that some viewers might go in with expectations already in place?
Kanagawa: I think there are instances where the fans of a known, iconic story do not want what they know and love to be messed with. I don’t think “Altered Carbon” or “Snowpiercer” will suffer from that given both projects are re-interpreting the original for a different medium. If anything, I feel an audience expectation and excitement to see what new directions both series will go in.

TrunkSpace: You’ve performed in dozens of series and films over the course of your career. Looking back, are there any characters that you wished you had more time to spend with and explore further, and if so, why?
Kanagawa: Lt. Suzuki on “iZombie”, and the Yakuza boss Okamura on “The Man in the High Castle” both met untimely ends. There was a lot more to explore with those characters.

TrunkSpace: You’ve had some great runs on fan favorite shows adored by the Comic Con crowds like those two you just mentioned, and most recently, “Legends of Tomorrow.” But one thing a lot of people might not know about you is that you also played father of the first family of comics, Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four. What was that experience like, giving voice to such an iconic character?
Kanagawa: I don’t do a lot of animation, so it was a tremendous pleasure being in the room with artists who are the creme de la creme of that industry. And as an Asian actor, I thought it was fantastic that I had the opportunity to voice such an iconic non-Asian character. Reed, of course, is kind of the “straight man” in the family, so I didn’t have to move far from my natural speaking voice, but I had a great time with a couple of episodes where Reed switched bodies with Ben/The Thing as well as with Dr. Doom.

Kanagawa with Joel de la Fuente “The Man in the High Castle”

TrunkSpace: You also did an episode of “Supernatural,” which many in the fandom consider to be one of the most memorable in the series’ 13 year run. (“Changing Channels”) That got us to thinking… can you imagine yourself working on one character for such an extended period of time, in this case, 13 seasons, and is that something you would welcome?
Kanagawa: It really depends on the character I guess. I’ve been lucky to have a sustained career without being attached to a single character or show for longer than two seasons. But this is the golden age of the serial narrative and there is so much good writing out there in this medium that I would welcome the opportunity to explore a character over multiple seasons.

TrunkSpace: We read that you started your creative journey as a musician, composer, and writer. Are those areas that are still a big part of your life even as your acting career has continued to propel you forward in ways that you probably never thought possible?
Kanagawa: I am a playwright as well as an actor and I am very proud of the fact that I recently received the Governor-General’s Literary Award for Drama, one of Canada’s most prestigious literary awards. As for music, as anyone who ever played in a high school rock band will attest, I still dream of getting the band back together, taking my shirt off, and kicking some ass!

TrunkSpace: A lot of times our loves and creative outlets can end up feeling like “work” when those outlets become careers. Do you still love acting as much today as you did the first time you stepped foot on a set and began your career?
Kanagawa: I actually love it more now than ever. I feel I’m just starting to get really interesting opportunities, and that’s coming at a time when I’m starting to do my best work. All of that is extremely exciting. I’m chomping at the bit here.

TrunkSpace: Do you view the craft differently now than you did when you first began your pursuit of it?
Kanagawa: Completely. I’m always learning about myself as I journey through life. And acting is a craft you can learn so much about from watching people you’ve never met. You can watch actors who died decades ago and learn from them. You can learn from watching people at the food court at the mall. It’s endlessly, endlessly fascinating.

TrunkSpace: If someone came to you tomorrow with a blank check and said, “Hiro, go make the kind of projects that you want to make,” what would that look like? What kind of project would you develop for yourself knowing that money was not an option?
Kanagawa: Being a writer and having a couple of screenplays and series concepts, I’d use the money to get those things made. I don’t really write roles for myself, but if I had a blank check maybe I’d be tempted to write myself something. Might be tempted to write myself a part where I cross the desert, climb the mountain, and make it to the promised land.

Altered Carbon” premieres Friday on Netflix.

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