Don’t let her big eyes and girlish face fool you—Rinko Kikuchi has killer instincts. Since American audiences were first introduced to the Japanese actress in Babel, she’s gained acclaim for nearly every role she’s played—even when she doesn’t speak. Following up on The Brothers Bloom, where she played a mute explosives expert, Kikuchi plays Naoko, the emotionally fragile love interest in Norwegian Wood. It’s no easy feat taking on the critically lauded novel by Haruki Murakami, but Kikuchi makes Naoko her own, filling up the screen even when she’s at her quietest. ELLE.com spoke with the actress to find out just how hard she fought for the role—and why she had no problem going nude in this year’s Pirelli calendar.
ELLE: You’re a bit older than the character you play in Norwegian Wood, and you were in your twenties when you played a teenager in Babel. Does age, and going through experiences, help you play younger characters?
RK: Yeah! When I was Naoko’s age, 18 or 19, I couldn’t do it. That’s insane. Because when I was 17, 18, I read this book but I didn’t know why I fell in love with her. No reason; I couldn’t say why. But after 10 years I can say she’s unpredictable, she’s just kept beautiful memories. So I think it’s a really good age to play that part.
ELLE: What attracted you to this role?
RK: When I read the book, I just thought it was so beautiful, that’s it. But Naoko stayed in my head. She’s been in my head, she’s so vivid. I loved this novel and I loved Naoko’s character, so I really wanted to know about her [as a character]. I just love her.
ELLE: Is there more pressure playing someone who people are familiar with?
RK: Yeah, I felt a lot of pressure. Usually [people] are all, “She’s like this,” or, “She’s like that.” But also I have her image, it’s completely different from other guys, you know? But Tran [Anh Hung, the director] picked me, so I [decided I] would do my best—but if it’s wrong, it’s not my fault. It’s Tran’s fault!
ELLE: Did you have to fight for the part?
RK: Yes, because Tran thought I wasn’t right for the part, and I couldn’t audition for the role. And I thought it wasn’t fair. So I called him and asked him over and over again, and finally I did [get an audition]. The day after, he wanted to meet me. Finally I just asked him, “So, do I have the part?” And he was so surprised, because no one had asked him directly!
ELLE: Are you always this aggressive?
RK: It depends on the project, it depends on the script or director. But basically, I never give up if I want to get something.
ELLE: You were featured alongside models like Kate Moss in the 2012 Pirelli calendar. What was that experience like?
RK: It was… awkward. But I trusted Mario [Sorrenti, the photographer]. And also, being naked is part of my job as an actress. It was fun, and I’m so lucky to have gotten the project.
ELLE: Are you interested in doing more fashion-oriented projects?
RK: Fashion is really interesting to me, but I’m not a professional model so I’m focusing my career on acting. And then if some amazing designer or someone that I really want to work with [approaches me] it’s good for me. It’s good experience for my acting career, because that experience is really a brand new experience.
ELLE: Are there any projects you’d love to work on?
RK: Here, it’s really rare to get an Asian role. So if I get [offered] some role, I should take it. I’m shooting with Guillermo del Toro right now, it’s a sci-fi film called Pacific Rim. I think it’s going to be great. I got the lead actress role and I’m so happy to work with Guillermo. I’m a robot and my character wants to be a pilot.
ELLE: A robot pilot—that’s a new role for you.
RK: Yes, it really is!