Bringing a stern, authoritative demeanor to his 200+ roles across three decades, Hiro Kanagawa is deeply familiar with Vancouver’s television and film industries. Hailing originally from Tokyo, Kanagawa was drawn to the arts at an early age, coming home from school to watch “Star Trek: The Original Series” reruns and acting in Steven Sondheim musicals in high school and college.
Today, he stars in the latest iteration of Gene Rodenberry’s science fiction series, “Star Trek: Discovery,” as Doctor Hirai in the newest season of the Paramount+ show. He is also developing his own stage plays, namely one based on Japanese Canadian writer Mark Sakamoto’s memoir “Forgiveness: A Gift from My Grandparents.”
In a virtual sit down, Kanagawa also shared his experience as a Japanese Canadian, a writer and an actor who has played 38 doctors and 31 detectives.
Domenic: I’d like to just get started with just asking you a few questions about, like, why did you choose acting? What made you really kind of pursue a career acting for a living?
Hiro: Well, I’d always been involved in the arts, you know, right from I think high school was the first time I was in a student film, I was in production of “West Side Story” in high school, all in Tokyo, by the way. And then, you know, I’d always been writing, but I think what happened was, in college, I got involved in the visual arts; I was actually a sculpture major, but this is in the 80s. And at the time, there was a lot of performance art happening in the visual arts. So I kind of got into theater, through the back door, you know, via I’d always been in bands and in rock bands and things like that in high school. So I always performed, I didn’t major in acting in college, but via performance art, and my other interests, you know, as a musician, I want to, you know, perform. And when I moved to Vancouver, the film industry was just getting going at the time. And I found a niche in it.
Is there any singular moment of inspiration that you had that was like, “Okay, this is what I want to do, 100%?”
I was always interested in the arts and expressing myself. I think what happened with me was I grew up in North America; I was born in Japan, but I grew up in Guelph, Ontario, which is a suburb of Toronto, and I also grew up in Sterling Heights, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. And then when I was 14, my family moved back to Japan. And I was shipped off to an international boarding school in Tokyo because my parents lived in Sapporo. And that, you know, as you can imagine, that was kind of a traumatic culture shock for me to move back to Tokyo after having grown up in Michigan and Ontario. So, I think the basically kind of the isolation and the trauma of that made me introspective and made me kind of an angsty teen, which is why I really got heavily into rock music and writing my own music and so on. So I think in terms of life experience, that was the thing.
Now into your current day after you became an actor; your filmography spans over 200 roles, with 38 doctors, 31 detectives. How did you kind of fall into this bizarre typecast of being the guy that they say, “Oh, we need a doctor, we need a detective, we should go to Hiro?”
Obviously, there is typecasting in the industry. And for whatever reason, from the beginning, I’ve always had somewhat of an authoritarian air. People buy me as a voice of authority; I have that gravitas about me. And obviously, of course, over the decades, it’s kind of a thing where, with Asian men especially, there are cultural inscriptions. There used to be cultural inscriptions of what society would accept an Asian man as being in society. And so for many decades, I think Asian men were delegated to white collar roles, such as doctors and detectives, and so on. And in my case, I was actually a lot more fortunate than a lot of Asian actors and insofar as I was also able to play bad guys. With all of the science fiction shows shooting in Vancouver, I was able to branch out and have other kinds of roles as well. But yes, 38 doctors, 31 detectives; that’s a huge percentage of my 200-plus roles, right? They’re the bread and butter for much of my career, in fact.
What do you do to prepare? Do you have any sort of reference to the things you’re saying about medicine and law enforcement? What’s your research process for something like that?
I’m a writer as well, so I feel like I have a command of the language. I can handle medical jargon, I can handle scientific jargon, I can handle law enforcement jargon; I don’t have a problem with the language. Nowadays, often there are medical advisors or law enforcement advisors on set who can advise you in the process of training for a surgery scene, or training for any kind of law enforcement procedure like a raid, an arrest and the training of anything involving weapons. The training for that can happen well in advance; you have access to these advisors, and you can get in touch with them and train with them or train with them on the day on set. I coached my son’s football team for many years; and as you can imagine, there’s a lot of cops coaching youth football. So I have quite a few police officers as friends who I can ask for advice. And my dad was a veterinary researcher, but he’s quite familiar with what goes on in operating rooms and so on with animals. But how to hold a scalpel and things like that, you know, that’s all the same. So, yeah, I have people in my life as well as the people who were provided to me by the productions in terms of all our research.
Moving into one of your most recent roles as Doctor Hirai in “Star Trek: Discovery.” Do you have a special place for “Star Trek” as a franchise and have a history with it? Are you someone who watched “Star Trek” growing up?
At my age, as you can imagine, when I was a kid, it was a three channel universe. You’d come home from school and there were three channels. It was “Gilligan’s Island,” “The Mike Douglas Show,” “The Andy Griffith Show” or something like that. And then “Star Trek.” So I think anyone my age has probably seen every episode of the original series about 12 times each. So certainly growing up I was familiar with it. And then this is an interesting thing more recently, about 25 years ago; I actually had a one-on-one meeting with Leonard Nimoy. If you recall, he was quite a prominent director in the 90s. And not just with the Star Trek franchise; he directed “Three Men and a Baby,” which was a huge comedy hit. So he was developing a movie about Chang and Eng, the original conjoined twins of P.T. Barnum fame. And so I had like a 30 or 40-minute meeting with him in a hotel here in Vancouver when he was scouting and looking for talent for that project. It never happened unfortunately. But that was obviously a huge thrill in my life to meet him and have a conversation with him.
A big thing about big franchises like this is a lot of history. What does that feel like to step into such a long running series where so many other people have been in and out and made their stamp on it?
It’s a thrill. I mean, there’s no other way to describe it. I remember the first wardrobe fitting for the Starfleet uniform and, and in the production studio there’s just so much artwork, posters and memorabilia from the entire history of the franchise like old TV Guide images from back in the late 60s. And so it’s really like joining a community, an organization that you’ve always wanted to be a part of. And then there you are, and you’re getting fitted for your uniform and it’s a trip and a total thrill.
You also have this long list of parts in a bunch of different sci-fi shows like you have “Altered Carbon,” “The X-Files” and “The Man in the High Castle.” Are you a big sci-fi fan? Do you have a connection to like stories like this?
I am a big sci-fi fan. But the reason that I’m in a lot of these shows is because, for whatever reason, they come to Vancouver to shoot and I’m based in Vancouver. I think it probably started with some of the shows in the 90s like “The X-Files” “Outer Limits”. I remember the “Fantastic Four” with Jessica Alba, when it was shot here too. Those shows, I think, played a large part in developing the infrastructure here in Vancouver to be able to handle a science fiction production. We’re talking special effects, makeup, green screens and now it’s a virtual engine, but all of that infrastructure was because of those shows, and the popularity of those shows that infrastructure was built here. And once that infrastructure was built, obviously, it attracted people wanting to do similar things. So they started coming here. And so we’ve always since had a very robust amount of shows coming here which are science fiction based.
You bring a really good perspective. Usually the kind of people who have such a long catalog of IMDb, are the ones in Hollywood or New York. But you come from basically the northern Hollywood, Vancouver. How’s it been seeing that industry grow up there over the past 30 years?
It’s amazing, really. You know, I think when I started out, there was kind of a sense that Vancouver was a small colony of the American film industry. And certainly still to this day, a huge percentage of the productions here are American. But there’s so much local stuff happening, there’s so much local energy. It’s a multibillion dollar industry in British Columbia. It’s something like the second largest industry after tourism. And certainly with COVID, tourism is way down. So in the last couple of years, it’s possible that the film industry may have been the number one industry here in BC. It’s vitally important to the economy of this region. It’s just incredible how much production is happening here. And the variety now is also tremendous. And all of that’s really very exciting to be a part of.
One other thing that I wanted to focus on here is your being a playwright. You mentioned that you write a lot in college and high school. But now it seems like you’re finally putting a lot more on stage. What drew you to something like “Forgiveness,” the World War Two memoir?
For people who aren’t familiar, it’s a true story of a guy named Mark Sakamoto. He’s a pretty prominent guy here in Canada. It’s the true story of his grandparents. His grandfather, Ralph MacLean, fought for Canada in Hong Kong in World War Two and was immediately captured by the Japanese and so he spent the entire war in Japanese prisoner of war camps. And then Mark’s grandmother, Mitsue Sakamoto, a Japanese Canadian, born and raised here in British Columbia. As with Japanese Americans, Japanese Canadians were rounded up, had their property confiscated and were sent off to internment camps during the war. So, it’s the story of how his family suffered on both sides of the war. And how they, many years after the war, had to find the grace and courage and forgiveness to come together so that Ralph’s daughter and Mitsue’s son could marry. And their child is Mark. So obviously, being Japanese Canadian myself, that story resonates very deeply with me. With all of the things going on in the world right now, the divisiveness, the anti-Asian hate, it just made the story just so vitally important and topical. It was a huge privilege for me to be asked to adapt it.
Were approached by Mark himself?
His agent, actually. The book won a fairly prominent award here in Canada. And soon after it won that award, his agent approached my agent about a stage adaptation. So that’s how that came about. But since then, I’ve gotten to be really, really good friends with Mark, as with his family, because obviously I had to go and interview them. And the premiere is about a year away now. So very exciting times.
What’s the process of taking a book that covers decades and condensing that all into a stage play?
You have to find the emotional core. What is the emotional engine that drives the story forward? And once you find that, it’s kind of like a crossword puzzle; you start filling in the blanks here and there. And then, hopefully, after six months or so, you have a draft with all the pieces. Then you refine it and then refine it again and so on. The process has been three years and we’re on draft four, which is basically the production draft that will start rehearsing later this year.
Are you going to be starring in it?
Ideally other actors; I don’t actually write for myself consciously. I have performed in a play of mine previously, and it may come to pass that I might have to be in this. There aren’t a lot of Japanese Canadian actors my age or older. So we’ll have to see. The audition process actually is gonna start in a couple of months, and we’ll see who’s out there and who’s available. And there may be a scenario where I might have to take the role of one of the older guys. But that’s not my intention.
How does all of your prior experience as an actor benefit you in having an above ground view of a production like this?
I think all of those experiences give you a perspective. My experience as a writer informs my acting, and vice versa. Because I’m an actor, my writing can be informed by my firsthand experience of what it means to be an actor and perform someone else’s words. And obviously as an actor I can understand the writing process and the subtext. There’s certainly no detriment to wearing a lot of hats. I think, in Canada especially, and probably in the U.S. too, unless you’re a huge international star, you have to wear a lot of hats to make a good living. Certainly I couldn’t support my entire family on what I make as a playwright. So the film and television certainly goes a long way towards keeping the kids fed.
A big part of your body of work is your Japanese heritage. You have “Forgiveness”. But you also have your upcoming role in “Shogun” at FX, and you narrate the English dub of “Age of Samurai: History of Japan” with Netflix. And one of the things I found really interesting is lending your voice to the English dub of “Future Boy Conan,” which, from my understanding, is just now releasing here in the West. What do these mean to you? You kind of seem like almost an ambassador of Japan to Canada and the U.S.
I would love it if that were true. I certainly take great pride in my Japanese heritage. And that’s something that hasn’t always been possible. Certainly when I was a kid, being Japanese wasn’t necessarily something that anyone of Japanese heritage could be proud of. It was something that you were teased about. But it’s very different now. With my kids, who are half Japanese, they feel nothing but pride. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, whereas I can remember when I was a kid, there were a lot of microaggressions, racist comments and so on. I guess as a kid, you take a lot of that in stride. But it’s very different. And so I really enjoy being able to be proud of Japanese heritage and culture and I’m just so thrilled that people in the West appreciate all of those things. Now they appreciate Japanese films, they appreciate anime, even Japanese food. They appreciate Japanese fashion; they appreciate Japanese baseball players; that’s all fantastic. And I’m so glad to be able to be a part of that. But in terms of being an ambassador, I haven’t lived in Japan since high school. There were a couple of years after college when I was kicking around in Tokyo, but the Japanese people certainly would not accept me as a representative of them; they think of me purely as a North American.
Do you have a feeling of being from two worlds but being at home in neither of them? Do you feel like that’s something you’ve struggled with into adulthood?
Oh, absolutely. And I think that that manifests, especially in film and TV, where if you’ve grown up in North America, people don’t see you as authentically whatever your ethnicity is. In my case, sometimes I’m viewed as authentically Japanese, but often not. In some cases, I’m not Japanese enough for certain productions. I also happen to come from Hokkaido, which is kind of like the Alaska of Japan. It wasn’t part of Japan until the late 19th century, and it’s still considered kind of a frontier northern region. And the way I speak Japanese is very much with a dialect and accent. So there’s a lot of things about me that are perhaps nonstandard from a native Japanese point of view, which makes me not authentically Japanese, even though my entire family lives there still aside from me and my sister. So yeah, it is a struggle, and it’s something that I think a lot of Asian American and Asian Canadian actors do struggle with. And that is part of the burden of not being white. That issue is considerably less for white actors. But that’s an issue that hopefully we can move forward and solve as a society and try and make it equal for everyone and have a kinder and less divisive society.
One thing I noticed that really stuck out to me in your filmography, as a fan of the Fantastic Four myself, was your role as the voice of Reed Richards in the 2000s cartoon “Fantastic Four World’s Greatest Heroes.” Do you have any connection, outside of being a voice on the show, to the Fantastic Four or Marvel Comics?
I do not. I mean, aside from obviously as a kid. Back in the day, we didn’t have the internet, we didn’t have Netflix. So comic books were a big deal for kids. And if there was any animated series on TV like “Spider-Man” or “Super Friends,” they were a big deal to me as a kid. But no, I didn’t have any personal connection to the Fantastic Four, aside from being obviously a fan from comic books when I was a kid. I just auditioned for it. And it happened. So that was definitely a highlight for me.
That’s a segue into animation; you lend your voice to quite a few things. Has that been a different process than live action acting? Do you feel it’s a much different mindset?
Oh yeah, it’s very different. There’s pre-lay, which is when you lay down a voice first and then they do the animation, which was the case of “Fantastic Four”. And then there’s dubbing, when you’re taking something that was made in Japan and then you’re dubbing English voices onto it. With pre-lay, typically you have the whole cast in the studio at the same time reading the scenes. So that is very much a more organic situation similar to live action because you’re working off of other actors. But dubbing is often you alone. And you’re just dubbing all your own stuff. And then some other actor comes in and does all of theirs. So it’s very different. But the other huge difference, I would say, is that the energy expenditure is much greater because film and TV acting is fairly understated; it’s fairly minimalistic, that’s the style now. Whereas voice acting, there’s nothing expressing anything besides your voice. So even when it’s naturalistic, there’s just so much energy that goes into the voice. And for me, that is a huge difference. There may be other people who are naturally more expressive with their voice so they don’t notice it as much. But maybe it’s because I’m just naturally a more understated speaker, that I can really feel the energy expenditure when I do voice work.
Kind of wrapping things up, what was the most memorable role you’ve played?
You know, “Altered Carbon” was just huge, the size of that production and the relationships that I had with people on that set. That’s one that I have in recent memory that really stands out. “Star Trek: Discovery” also really stands out, because again, I think it’s probably the first time I’ve been involved in a really big franchise in a role this prominent. And again, just the people on the show get a real kick out of the universe that they’ve created with the diversity and the fact that it’s a matriarchal universe. All of those things are there. It’s not just a run of the mill universe, I mean, it’s “Star Trek”, it’s set in the future, it’s fantastical. But there are so many other human elements, I think, which I really appreciate and which resonate with me given the contemporary state of our world.
One last thing I’ll ask: do you have any advice for any actors or writers just starting out?
You look at me, and no one thought that I would have a viable career in film and television when I started out. And probably when I started out, it was just that I had the attitude of taking it one day at a time. And as long as you know if I get a role here, if I get a role there, that’ll be fine. But you know, 30 years later, I wake up and that’s been my life. And I’ve managed to not only have a viable career, but it keeps moving forward. The kids are fed, the mortgage is paid and so on. So, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, especially if you’re a person of color from a more traditional culture as I am where your parents maybe want you to be a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer or whatever and they frown upon you going into a career in acting or the arts. I would say you have to ultimately do what you love. And if you love it, you will find a way. And no one can tell you otherwise. Because, well, I’m a prime example.
Hiro Kanagawa currently stars in Paramount+’s “Star Trek: Discovery”, with upcoming roles in the second season of Amazon Prime’s “Upload”, Paramount Pictures’ “Orphan: First Kill” and FX’s limited series “Shogun.”