Rila Fukushima remembers the day she crossed over from full-time model into the acting world. It was her final audition with Hugh Jackman, after years of pursuing the part of Yukio in The Wolverine, but something big was in her way: “The Gay Pride Parade was happening on Fifth Avenue, and I needed to cross to get to the audition place. There were so many people!” Fukushima recalled when VH1 asked her how she got her start.
After the audition, she faced another awkward challenge. “I wasn’t sure how I should call him. I’m Japanese, and we never use first names. So I said, ’Thank you so much, it was such a pleasure to meet you Mr. Hugh Jackman.’ He said, don’t call me Mr., you can just call me Hugh.’ And I said, ’Yes, sir!’ ”
Nope, the cheerful, enthusiastic young woman we spoke to on the phone hardly matches the fierce warrior chick she portrays on screen. She’s more interested in inviting us for her personalized tour of Tokyo than in showing off her sword. Come to think of it, she doesn’t sound much like a stereotypical fashion model, either, though she’s been in the business for 10 years.
After starting in Japan and doing some editorial shoots for British magazines, Fukushima says a New York agency came calling and asked her to move here. But things didn’t work out as well as she’d hoped, and in 2011, she moved back to Tokyo. “I tried to do some work, but I was too short. Asian models can’t do catwalk a lot. In one fashion show, there’s only one or two Asian girls on the catwalk every season.” To be clear, she wasn’t exactly NOT working — Rila’s face is all over the place in ads and editorial. And you can see her in this Lenny Kravitz video.
She began taking acting classes while in New York, though, and there was one project she kept pursuing.
“My first audition [for Wolverine] was in New York two years ago,” she said. “James [Mangold] wasn’t the director. Darren Aronofsky was. I went to different casting calls. Then I moved back to Japan. Ten days after I moved back, the big earthquake hit. Then the whole casting process was canceled, and I thought this movie wasn’t going to happen for a while. Then half a year later James Mangold decided to take over the project and when I found out about it, I was like, ’Oh my god. James Mangold, I love his work!’ … I already watched Girl Interrupted, Walk the Line, 3:10 to Yuma — not because of James.”
Fukushima admires how The Wolverine delves into character as much as action. And Yukio isn’t “the typical sexy Asian assassin chick.” Instead, she and Jackman’s Logan are more “you know like Batman and Robin? Logan’s buddy. My character and Logan, they’re both outsiders. They start to build a strange relationship.”
A major Hollywood blockbuster sounds like a difficult first movie, but Fukushima credits Jackman with making her feel comfortable.
“He was very patient and gave me so much advice,” she said. “He said something like, ’Don’t thank me. … But in the future, when you get used to filming, if there’s anyone who needs help, you’re just going to help them.’ ”
The connections she made with Jackman and the rest of the cast and crew are what make Fukushima want to continue acting. “I don’t want you to misunderstand: I really love modeling,” she explained. “But I was filming five months, and I never spend that long time with people on photo shoots. I really feel like everyone became like family, even though it was a big production. I miss them so much. … Unfortunately for modeling that’s not really happening.”
Now that she’s got the acting bug, what’s next? “In the future I want to try comedy,” she told us. “In Wolverine, I always look badass, but in real life, I’m not. It was a lot of work to make that kind of face. I don’t really get mad at people, but it was so different. For comedy, I want to work on my English more. I’m not cute. Because my English is not perfect you guys think that.”
[Photos: Twentieth Century Fox, Sephora]