For this week’s FRONTPAGE, we speak with British-Japanese actress Sonoya Mizuno on her new role in the Game of Thrones prequel, House of the Dragon, and more.
When Sonoya Mizuno was in her early 20s, curiosity drew her to Japan. There she became good friends with a group of people who, like her, were half-Japanese — but unlike her circle of native Japanese speakers, Mizuno had the vocabulary of a three-year-old. They may look the same, she thought, but there was this fundamental, irrefutable divide that divorced her from her peers. As the dancer-turned-actor describes it, “they were very Japanese, and I was not.” Up until that point, Mizuno’s only point of entry to her culture was the curry that her British-Argentine mother occasionally cooked. “It’s like you’re shut off from half of your body.”
Acting, then, has been a kind of fortuitous exercise in identity formation — a way of recreating that missing half. Every role is an opportunity for education on the self, and even when inhabiting characters like a silent android in her break-out, Ex Machina (2014), she’ll discover these incidental mirrors that reflect back on her. And in the case of Crazy Rich Asians (2018), the groundbreaking hit in which she walked down the aisle as the boisterous bride, it provided a community of trailblazers who were crossing that same soul-searching minefield.
Today, the actor calls on Zoom from her couch in her North London flat, dressed for the excruciating heatwave that’s roasting the city. Her cat, a black half-Siamese named Darcy, beckons from out of frame but refuses to join. “It’s because I want her to come, she knows it,” Mizuno coos lovingly, before opening her camera roll to show me photos of her beloved feline: Darcy atop her cat tree throne, Darcy curled up in Mizuno’s arms. After living in New York, which the actor laments was “hemorrhaging” her bank account, she moved back to the UK during the pandemic — a change she felt was inevitable but “helpful.” “I left home when I was 11, so this is the first time I’ve felt like I’ve put roots down since then,” she says. “It’s just nice to have somewhere I call home.”
She won’t be home for long, though. For the past two months, Mizuno has been in rehearsals and taking voice lessons in order to perfect her Southern accent for an off-Broadway production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Reciting the words of Tenessee Williams, one of the foremost chroniclers of the American South, was the last thing she expected she’d do.
“I’m shitting myself,” Mizuno jokes, deadpan, but her nervous gaze to the floor suggests her words are genuine. “It’s been an aim of mine for years to do a play, and it’s just been really hard to get one to be honest. But to be doing one in New York off-Broadway is really exciting.”
After a string of critically-acclaimed roles in independent films and TV series, this summer promises Mizuno’s biggest project yet: the Game of Thrones prequel series House of the Dragon. Set within the Targaryen court centuries before the events of the original show, the actor plays Mysaria, a trusted ally of Prince Daemon Targaryen. She, admittedly, was a complete newbie to Game of Thrones, but even when you let a show like that pass you by, it’s impossible to ignore how enormous of a phenomenon the HBO giant was. Mizuno first read for Olivia Cooke’s character, Lady Alicent Hightower, doubting that she would get the part. “I remember reading the character description,” she recalls. “It said something like, ‘the face of the establishment,’ and I just thought, ‘I’m not going to be that.’” After being asked to switch roles along with numerous auditions and meetings, it all paid off.
“I guess I can say…” she trails off. “I don’t know if I can… fuck it,” she laughs. As the follow-up to a show notorious for leaking spoilers, details around House of the Dragon are understandably being kept tightly under wraps — so much so that the actor doesn’t even know what she can reveal. What she can say is that she has “never worked on anything with that kind of scale.” She would gawk at pillars “the size of my living room” that towered over her on sets in the UK and Spain, far more ambitious than the modest productions she’s more familiar with.
Mysaria’s closest equivalents to the original series may be Littlefinger and Varys, master manipulators cloaked in secrecy, but Mizuno explains that she was “conscious of making her something else.” “I think she’s definitely different from the other women, because she’s a survivor and a fighter,” she says. “She isn’t someone who has grown up with privilege in a court or castle. She’s had a really hard life, and I really love that about her. I really respect her.”
With a knowing smile, she adds, “I do know that in the book her other name is Lady Misery. I don’t mind being called Lady Misery.”
On the other end of the genre spectrum, Mizuno also stars in the Sundance hit Am I OK? from directors Tig Notaro and Stephanie Allynne, soon to be released on HBO Max. She plays Jane, the supportive but overeager bestie to Dakota Johnson’s Lucy, who is navigating coming out in her 30s. As a sweet, adult, coming-of-age drama about discovering oneself at your own pace, Am I OK? spoke to Mizuno. “We’re always trying to figure stuff out aren’t we?” she says. “But certainly, I felt like in my 20s I was all over the place. It’s important to show these women who are smart, interesting, funny, and ambitious, but don’t have it all figured out.”
It’s unsurprising that the idea of taking time to find one’s path resonated with Mizuno, an actor who’s experienced a more circuitous career than most. As one of six siblings in rural Somerset, she grew up in a rambunctious, artistic household which doubled as a stage for dance performances and stage routines. On occasion, the kids would escape to a nearby pig farm to play in the haystacks with animals, coming back home, as Mizuno puts it, “stinking of pig shit.”
Acting was always at the top of Mizuno’s aspirations, but when an uncle introduced her to ballet at age nine, she fell for it immediately. She was practically obsessed with it: every story she would write in school was about ballet and ballet only. “As I got older and I was at ballet school, like with anything you do, the more proficient you get, the more it gives back to you,” she says. But as the years went by, and her time at the Royal Ballet School evolved into a full-time career, she grew more disillusioned by it. “I wouldn’t send a child to that school to be honest,” she admits. “Especially as I can look back at what it was like, there’s lots of things about it that are just not good.”
What kinds of things?
“Just the way they talk to girls, particularly about weight and bodies,” she explains. “You’re 12 and your teacher is threatening to kill themselves because you can’t remember the exercise. It’s not healthy. But there are lots of things it did give me, like my friendships, because those people from that school are still my best friends. We went through so much together, we’d eat all our meals together, we’d sleep in the same rooms for seven years.”
Mizuno was in Glasgow, tired of “doing Swan Lake every day” when she realized some major adjustments needed to be made. Ex Machina, auspiciously, was her first audition, but taking the role meant cutting ties with Scottish Ballet for good. She could never turn back, and yet Mizuno remembers it as “one of the very few times in my life where I was like, ‘This is exactly what I have to do.’” Alex Garland’s cerebral sci-fi birthed a fruitful collaborative friendship with Mizuno, who has appeared in all of his directorial projects, including her first lead role in the FX series Devs and a sneaky cameo in his latest folk horror, Men (2022).
Garland remained a “great advisor and friend” while she moved to LA, picking up “shit jobs on the side to make ends meet.” Even with an Oscar-winning film in her credits, it was clear that the inability to categorize Mizuno was a bizarre hindrance to her securing roles. “I think there’s a thing now where people say you can only play the race that you are, but what happens when you fall in between?” she says. “What happens when you are Japanese, Irish, Argentinian, English, and you’ve never lived in these countries? You don’t have the accents of those countries, but you’re going to make me Japanese all the time. It’s not really as thoughtful as people think it is.”
In turn, Mizuno has repurposed her ambiguity as a strength, her multiplicity. Her best performances are characterized by a physicality that lends a hypnotic elusiveness. Unpredictable, dynamic movements belie her quietness, and piercing stares from wide, brown eyes are gateways to inner complexities. It lends credence to the notion that her ballet past, too, has purpose. “There was a time when I started acting where I thought I had to show that I’m not a dancer and I’m just an actor,’” she recalls. Nowadays, she embraces the power to make those clear-cut boundaries less defined. “It’s so deep in me, and that’s what makes me who I am.”
‘House of the Dragon’ premieres Sunday, August 21.