In the independent crime film Off Jackson Avenue, directed by John-Luke Montias, actor Jun Suenaga (originally from Japan) shines as an interestingly portrayed and sensitive ‘hit man’. He plays a tough guy with a soft side, a criminal who is actually one of the good guys amidst a world of despicable crime. When I sat down with Jun at an East Village café, he was most certainly the opposite of his character. He arrived with his skateboard and laid back attitude, as friendly as ever- like an old friend. It was great to get to know this actor and I hope to see more of his work!
‘Off Jackson Avenue is an interwoven crime story set in New York City involving a Mexican woman who has been tricked into sex-slavery by an Albanian pimp and must find a way to break out; A Japanese hit man (Jun Suenaga) who is in town to do a job for the Chinese mob, must finish his assignment despite the fact that he is haunted by his recently-dead mother’s ghost. A smack-bang tale of ambition, survival and fate, Off Jackson Avenue reminds us that there are still some parts of New York City that you won’t find on any map.’
ASIANCE: How did you get into acting originally, having grown up in rural Japan and Tokyo?
Jun: Ok, yes I think my background has influenced me. My dad was a lyrics writer, not famous. One of my aunts was a professional singer who released a few singles on a major label. Both of them are not pursuing it anymore. My parents took me to the movies much more than my friends and I loved television and movies. Of course, when I was a teenager, I got into music and bands but I think when I got into college in Tokyo, I had some time to hang out and see movies. I started to see films like Jean Luc Godard’s and thought, ‘hmm, acting is actually really cool’. I applied to acting school in Japan and got involved then. The more I studied acting, the more I started thinking about coming over here to the US. I had heard of the acting techniques like method acting and other styles, which were very rare to learn in Japan at the time, so I decided to enroll here and study acting. I saved money and worked in a bar for two years or something. This was the early nineties. I think I look young but I am actually older than you may think. (Laughter)
ASIANCE: And you began to work in film soon after?
Jun: I was in a Mocumentary; an indie film called The Love Machine and then worked with John-Luke (Off Jackson Ave) on Nicky’s Game, which is about poker. Also, I have done a bunch of theatre. I directed two short plays and do a lot of voiceover.
ASIANCE: You mentioned that you became friends with the director of Off Jackson Avenue and that’s how you began working together?
Jun: I was in Los Angeles at the premiere of The Love Machine and met John-Luke at the festival. He gave me a postcard to the private screening of his own film. We were introduced and he said he had a role for me. After that, he wanted to make a movie under a certain budget. He actually wrote Off Jackson Avenue in only a few months. I read the script and found it interesting. So we’ve been friends for many years and I respect him as a person.
ASIANCE: What was it like to play this sensitive hit man? You were so good!
Jun: At first when I create a character, I use my imagination. But certain things are very complicated. I’ve been in this country for a while and there is always the fact that I am not too close to my family physically and maybe emotionally. So that’s why Tomo’s character is similar. I have to use my voice with my body. Certain mannerisms I have to change because my own are not the same. There is a scene in the movie, a lot of driving scenes but I still don’t have a driver’s license. Before the movie I had never driven before. So I had to take driving lessons. I actually looked ok in the movie but it is not my second nature. The DP was sitting next to me, the director in the back. It was quite an interesting experience.
Off Jackson Avenue trailer
ASIANCE: The subject matter of human trafficking around the world and apparently in New York is so serious. Was the script written with intent to inform?
Jun: Yes, with human trafficking, the subject, it’s kind of funny. I saw a Showtime special a few months before filming, and when I saw it I was so angry about how things like this were happening through mobs. When I saw the script, I thought it was interesting. It really does happen. One thing, I don’t know if this is true, but I think the script was written with some sort of personal anger over the subject.
ASIANCE: It is great you play the hit man but not a stereotypical role.
Jun: Yes, one thing, this is definitely not stereotypical of an Asian actor. It is just a symbol for a person they are looking for, a hit man. Personally, I don’t like stereotypes. Thanks very much for bringing this up. The role of Tomo is just a human being;, a tough guy in this case. Of course he is the ‘Japanese hit man’ but it is a role any actor can play.
He has a job to do. His mother is dying in his own country and actually what’s really great about working with John-Luke is my next project called Mother’s Day. The role is an ex-major league baseball player and the character does not have to be Asian. It can be any race. So I think that is very great on the part of the director.
ASIANCE: So what do you do in New York in real life? Do you have a girlfriend?
Jun: In my spare time I practice yoga, martial arts, energy healing which is based on Japanese martial arts. I recently had a break-up and it is sad to talk about but I would be interested in someone I can share same value with. In other words, someone can appreciate what I appreciate. I don’t expect her to agree on everything with me though. I am also attracted to someone can show or teach me different things and new things. Someone who is different from me mentally and physically. Someone who loves Japanese food- even though I have been living in this country for a long time; Japanese food is still my most favorite food. So someone who loves Japanese food is a big plus. I think I am contradicted because I like someone who is different from me and has something in common. That’s why dating and relationships are complex and so interesting.
ASIANCE: Are you excited for the premiere and people’s reactions?
Jun: As long as they like it, I am happy. My parents actually came to see one of my first plays in Tokyo and all they said was ‘your voice was loud enough’. But I don’t know how they will react to the film; it is actually very interesting. Since it has premiered before in Vail, Key West and somewhere in Cape Cod, it is exciting. I don’t really care about it for myself but hopefully the movie will get foreign sales now, hopefully in Japan and on DVD.
ASIANCE: Would you like to add anything about the film?
Jun: I was really happy to have scenes with my best friend, Ryo Okamura.
As a model, he has appeared in NY and Milan Collections. He is a very talented actor as well and one of the nicest guys I have ever known. I don’t want to mention which scene it was, but I really had a hard time with one particular scene. Not a driving scene (Laughter). He really supported me mentally and acting-wise. Eventually I was able to finish the scene.
ASIANCE: And you are excited about your next project?
Jun: Yes and the next project Mother’s Day is being shot in the next year. It’s a really great script and I am so excited about that movie. I had to take some time off from acting before but am excited about my career again!
ASIANCE: Thanks so much! [pleasant conversation continues a bit!]
Playing in New York City July 17-23 2009 Quad Cinema, New York www.quadcinema.com