From her unforgettable strut down the water-filled aisle as Araminta Lee in Crazy Rich Asians, to her turn as a chain-smoking scientist in Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Netflix series Maniac, Sonoya Mizuno has in the past few years proven that she can disappear into characters, even without a costume as extreme as the faceless humanoid she portrayed in Alex Garland’s Annihilation. But taking on the role of software engineer Lily Chan, in Garland’s first foray into television, forced the British-Japanese dancer-turned-actress to access all of her professional skills, showing once and for all that she is capable of taking center stage.
DEADLINE: You had worked with Alex twice before, on Ex Machina and Annihilation. At what point did you two start talking about Devs and the possibility of you playing Lily?
SONOYA MIZUNO: He’d told me that he was writing a TV show and he was going to have an Asian female lead. But even though we had this relationship of working together in the past, there were definitely a lot of hoops I had to go through, because at that point, none of my work had come out, apart from the stuff I’d done with him. There were a lot of people I had to prove a lot to.
DEADLINE: What was the biggest challenge in portraying Lily?
MIZUNO: That’s a really good question. It’s difficult to answer because there were so many things about it which were just so challenging.
Just on pure acting terms, it was so, so varied and so rich. There was a huge amount of work involved from scene to scene and in what I was required to do. But I think one of the things about Lily was that she’s kind of an unusual protagonist, because she keeps so much to herself. She carries so much pain and she carries so much feeling and thought and responsibility, but she doesn’t share it and she doesn’t wear it as a medal. She contains a lot of it and, as far as the way she looked and the way she dressed and the way she spoke, in some ways she was less accessible than a lot of archetypal protagonists. It always felt like we were taking a risk and it was a cool risk. And I was really happy to take it, but it was challenging sometimes. And it was scary sometimes. And sometimes it went against my instincts of the way I wanted to play her.
DEADLINE: In what sense?
MIZUNO: Sometimes I’d feel like I’d want to fight back, but Alex would say, “Lily has courage and she holds it inside. We want to feel it, but not show it.” It would be too much inflection in my voice and subtle things like that. But it was really about creating a character who was very singular and not like anyone else, because she really had to be in and of herself for her to do the act of free will in the last episode. If she didn’t feel completely singular then there’s less reward for her doing the act at the end, if that makes sense.
DEADLINE: She’s a stoic character, but you can feel the pain and the stress throughout. Are you the kind of actor who can go in and out of those emotions, or were you affected by her state of mind throughout the shoot?
MIZUNO: I think on some level I was affected because I’m not highly experienced. I was affected in ways that I didn’t realize. If you spend a day getting strangled by a man with blood all over his face, how would you not get affected? But at the same time, I’ve worked with Alex and his crew twice before, so I knew them very well. It was a very easygoing set and, in that sense, it was easy for me to very much be myself.
DEADLINE: Devs has such a complex framework. On the surface of it, it’s a murder mystery, but then it tackles determinism and free will, all within the realm of quantum physics. What was the show about to you?
MIZUNO: I think the show literally explores what it means to be alive. It’s about the nature of existence from the huge macroscopic things to tiny quantum particles, and it’s got so much in it, so much philosophy, religious themes, technology, all these scientific themes. But really, for me personally, the thing that I felt was most profound and touching about it was the way it examined grief and the way that we really do experience grief in life, and the way we carry it with us and the way it shapes us. It’s a show that explores all these huge ideas, but at the end of the day, I think it’s a show about love. Lily goes on this really intense journey of understanding who she loves and why she loves him and, in the end, in some world, gets to be with him. In that sense, it’s a love story.
DEADLINE: How hard was it to wrap your head around the science of it? Or was it more important to just understand the emotions of what Lily’s going through?
MIZUNO: We had Alex there and he understands this stuff in a very deep way and he’s very good at explaining it as well. I kind of understood because I was curious and I felt like it was important to understand what the show was about, but at the same time, that’s not how I was able to get into the character, and it’s actually not that much a part of Lily’s journey in the way it’s a part of Lyndon (Cailee Spaeny)’s journey or Katie (Alison Pill)’s because they live in that world. At some point my concern is just being true and doing justice to the character’s journey.
DEADLINE: It’s got to have been pretty interesting on that set, having conversations about fate, free will, determinism. Were you all engaged in these debates?
MIZUNO: Yeah, totally. It was amazing, really. We shot in San Francisco, Santa Cruz, London and Manchester, and we had a couple of weeks between filming in each place and we’d have rehearsal period. But often the rehearsal period would be discussions about fate and free will and philosophy and quantum physics. You don’t get to do that with every job, so we were very lucky.
DEADLINE: Everyone talks about how collaborative Alex’s sets are. What does that mean in practice?
MIZUNO: He’s always open to people giving their ideas, he takes them on and it feels like a very equal place. I’d say for me, a lot of the collaboration would be between me, Alex and Rob [Hardy], the DP, because this was the third thing we were doing together, the three of us. By this point, we’d developed this working relationship, which had always felt collaborative and also unique to the three of us. At the end of Devs, when Lily and Forest (Nick Offerman) are in the elevator and it crashes and she falls and then is crawling across [the floor] but suffocating, and dies, that effectively was a collaboration between me and Rob. [We were], not in a cute way, doing a dance. We would figure out how we would get to the right place at the same time and turn on the right beat to get the perfect frame and then fall to her death. Those are all things that we’d hash out together: What could we do that’s interesting? What could we do that’s beautiful and surreal as well?
DEADLINE: Is it true you shot the elevator crash 80 times?
MIZUNO: Yes, we did. I think we lost our minds, which was quite perfect for the actual scene. We did it 80-something times. Me and Nick would count. It was different angles and, also, there are the two versions. There’s the version where she throws the gun. There’s a version where she doesn’t. It’s just one of those things which took a long time, but we loved it. We actually laughed a lot.
DEADLINE: Were there scenes or sequences that you’re particularly proud of, that were really difficult?
MIZUNO: They were all difficult (laughs). I really loved the scenes of Lily and Katie in Episode 6 where they’re sitting across the table and just talking. That was just a real pleasure to film. The bit in Episode 3 where Lily does the bait-and-switch and pretends she’s crazy was challenging, but also really good fun. Her pretending that she has this psychiatric illness, the extremity of emotion while she’s still being calculating was difficult to reach when you’re on a film set and you have three takes and then you have to turn around [and do another angle].
DEADLINE: Lily has a very specific look. How did you decide that this was her appearance?
MIZUNO: It was quite gradual that we got to that point. I think we always knew that she wasn’t going to have long flowing hair and be wearing summer dresses. We’d often talk about Lily in that way, and say what a different show it would be if that was how she presented herself. But we got to the short hair because we wanted to do something which made her feel bold and made her feel like she wasn’t like everyone else, but at the same time, she wasn’t trying to make a point and stand out. She was just in charge of her own mind and in charge of her own sense of self and identity. It’s the same with the clothes and no makeup. It was giving her a strong sense of identity, that she knew who she was. There was definitely a sense of style to her, but in and of itself, it was completely unique.
DEADLINE: Were you affected personally by what you saw in the mirror?
MIZUNO: I loved having short hair. It was a revelation for me. It was shocking at first, but then it was very freeing. We do fall back on [having long hair], I know I do, and it can be so wrapped up in female identity and it was so freeing to get rid of it—and I was still there. It didn’t change anything, in a way. It’s a deeply liberating experience.
DEADLINE: Between Crazy Rich Asians where you play this exuberant woman, and your other roles for Alex, which are very silent and physical, and then this, you’ve been able to show great range. Is there one type of character that is more challenging than others? Is exuberance more difficult than anguish or the other way around?
MIZUNO: Oh, they’re all difficult. I know that my comfortable place is the more surreal, weird place. I don’t even know if I can articulate it, but I just know that I’m probably going to be better if I’m not playing the girl next door. Maybe it’s to do with my training in dance, but I just find more surreal spaces easier to tap into.
DEADLINE: On paper, you’ve had three successful careers, as a model, a dancer and an actress. How would you describe your professional path?
MIZUNO: It’s funny because it always seems different on paper, doesn’t it? I guess I’ve just always felt like I was hustling and I still feel like that. I think it’s part of being an artist. It’s the same when I was dancing. The sense that one is always trying to prove themselves is not something that goes away, the more you do. It’s just the way it is. You kind of learn to have tools to deal with it and then you just keep going. You keep trying to chip away.