Shinya Tsukamoto interview: We spoke to the real star of Martin Scorsese’s Silence

The cult actor-director had to lose weight, toil in mud and be blasted by waves for his role

Christopher Hooton
Friday 13 January 2017 15:06
Tsukamoto had to lose a lot of weight to play Mokichi
Tsukamoto had to lose a lot of weight to play Mokichi

Martin Scorsese’s Silence is a film about the purity of faith, its – for better or worse – unshakeability and its resilience to attack.

And no character in it possesses a devotion quite as ironclad as Mokichi, a villager whose strength sustains protagonist Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) for much of the film. Garfield and Adam Driver’s performances in their lead roles are very fine indeed, but it was that of Shinya Tsukamoto, who plays Mokichi, that had me transfixed during what is an incredibly intense viewing experience.

Mokichi, an impoverished villager in 17th century Japan, is an already broken man who is further broken as he is asked to renounce his faith. Creating him was a challenge and required a good deal of focus from Tsukamoto.

“While I was on set in Taiwan I never went sightseeing,” he tells me, “I was very stoic.

“A villager at that time would not have been eating well so I had to lose a lot of weight, plus speaking English [Shinya’s second language] while wearing a mouthpiece that made my teeth look worn was extremely difficult. But preparing my body in such a way really helped me shape my spirit and my mind into the character.”

Silence - Trailer

Mokichi and Rodrigues form a strong bond in the film, and Tsukamoto knew it was important that he and Garfield do the same on set.

“I did my best to develop an intimate relationship with Andrew,” he recalls. “On set we were truly in character and even when the camera was on Andrew and only on the back of my head [for a close-up shot of Garfield] I really gave everything I had so that I might be able to really reach Andrew emotionally, because I understood that the connection between Mokichi and Rodrigues was very critical to the story.”

Tsukamoto is himself a prolific director and developed a strong cult following through his Tetsuo films, but he had no problem taking off his directing hat and firmly donning his acting one, as it were – especially for a director he admires as much as Scorsese, for whom Silence was a passion project.

“Marty was very tenacious on set,” he says, “he would do many takes until he was completely satisfied that all the cast members had given everything. It truly was a passion project, he was very passionate indeed.”

One of the film’s most brutal scenes (medium-sized spoilers ahead) sees Mokichi tied to a cross and subjected to the waves of the ocean until he is dead. While he was never in peril, Tsukamoto really was drilled by successive waves in what was a scary and demanding scene to shoot.

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“For the low tide we shot at an actual ocean on a beach but for the high tide it would have been too dangerous so we filmed in a tank that can generate actual waves and control their height,” he explains.

“It was quite physically challenging because the waves were big as you see in the film and between the waves I had to figure out how to say the next line. It was a pretty terrifying scene to film.”

Faith might be absolutely central to Silence, but the actor-director believes it is very much an experience non-believers can learn and benefit from too.

Silence really says something much bigger about humanity,” he muses. “Throughout the centuries there have always been people who bleed in certain religions or movements of thought and then there have always been people who have tried to persecute them through violence.

“It happened back then in Japan but it’s still happening today, so it feels like a warning. It brings a question to a modern audience by telling a story of a group of people who believed in something, who had strong faith, and people who tried to suppress them through force. So, I think it really does go beyond religion.”

Silence is in cinemas now

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