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Jenny Cooney Carrillo and fellow members of the Hollywood foreign press step back in time as they walk onto the set of The Last Samurai at the Warner Bros lot, and Jenny discovers that Tom Cruise has been working on his bushido, kendo and karate – as well as wearing his kimono.

“I hate to say it guys, but we’re going to do another rehearsal,” shouts director Ed Zwick on a set for The Last Samurai, which is located on the back-lot of Warner Bros studio in Burbank, Los Angeles. The film, shot in Los Angeles, Japan and New Zealand for five months, is set in Tokyo in the 1870s. 

In the scene unfolding during our visit, Tom Cruise, playing Captain Nathan Algren, is in the middle of a busy 19th century Tokyo street engaged in a conflict with a group of Japanese soldiers who’ve encountered a Samurai warrior breaking the law by continuing to wear his topknot. The carefully choreographed scene - in which Cruise’s character tries to prevent them cutting off the ponytail but instead gets knocked to his knees by a rifle in his back - is undone by a few nervous Japanese extras who keep missing their marks. 

"These were fascinating times"

“Don’t block yourself,” Zwick shouts at one during the next take. “I want you to be in the movie!” A surprisingly relaxed Cruise, wearing a long brown jacket (“Custer wore one just like it but in beige,” he says of the historical accuracy of his outfit), sporting long hair and a beard, is keen to talk about the historical backdrop of the movie - in which he plays an American military officer hired by the Emperor of Japan to train the country’s first army in the art of modern warfare so that the ancient Imperial Samurai warriors can be phased out for more Westernized and trade-friendly government policies. 

“These were fascinating times and I’ve always been particularly fascinated by Samurai and their spirit and the code of bushido that they lived by,” says Cruise, who stars in the epic with Billy Connolly, Tony Goldwyn and Japanese actors Ken Watanabe and Hiroyuki Sanada. 

We are standing around by the camera watching Ed Zwick at work; Tom walks over to the camera area and chats between set-ups. He is surprisingly accessible, but then there are several Hollywood Foreign Press Association members here, and they’re the ones that vote in the Golden Globes. 

Can you describe the historical backdrop to this story?
It was a real transition time in Japan with the Industrial Revolution going on in the United States and it literally happens overnight in Japan, with the Emperor starting to wear western clothes and the Samurai now ordered not to wear their topknots and not to carry their weapons. This isn’t a historical drama but we’re keeping in the historical aspects of the picture when the Samurai started to revolt against the Emperor and the modern government. 

What can you tell us about your character Captain Nathan Algren?
I play a simple war veteran who goes out to fight the American Indian wars and as a veteran is then hired by a friend (Billy Connolly) to advise the Imperial Army - to educate and train them in modern warfare. His life is in a mess at the beginning of the film and when he goes to Japan he’s got nothing left in America after a loss of honor and a loss of dignity.

What training did you undergo?
I worked for eight months on bushido, kendo, karate and all that stuff. Kendo swordmanship is very challenging and I’ve been working on it for eight months. How good am I? We’re getting into that stuff now so I’ll soon find out. 

How did the Japanese react to his film?
They’re very excited about it. These very famous Japanese actors were at first reticent because they didn’t read the script and then we started letting them read the script and they really embraced it because they know we’re going to honor their culture and attempt to explore what it is, not just from a western point of view but what it was like and what they believe in and what they hold true.

What were some of the biggest challenges?
Finding the right cast is always a challenge because you look at someone and I think when you see Ken Watanabe, who plays the Samurai, you see how difficult it was to find someone so perfect. The sets are exciting and beautiful to walk on but we needed a talented group of people to put those together. The wardrobe in this film is also an incredible challenge but I’d have to say the biggest challenge was just getting the right people. Ed Zwick spent many months in Japan meeting hundreds upon thousands of different actors for all the Japanese roles.

Is there a romantic interest in the film?
Yes, she’s a Japanese girl and a wonderful actress who you will be hearing about afterwards, because she is very talented.

How was it working with Ed Zwick, who has experience with epics after Legends of the Fall?
I think he’s really talented and he loves the characters that he brings to the screen. He just got me so excited about this film when he first told me about it. He was like a kid with his enthusiasm and excitement and made me want to go on that ride with him and see what it was going to be like. When he said ‘I want to make a Samurai movie’ and you start reading it, you think, ‘God, can we do this, are they going to let us do this?’ And that’s what is fun about it – having the chance to finally do this.

Do you think you’d make a good samurai?
You’ll have to tell me after you see this film! I was nervous when I first got into the kimono, I must say, but even the Japanese actors told me they were surprised as to how I held myself in it with so much confidence! And I can hold a pretty mean sword too.

How heavy are those swords?
They weigh about three pounds. I started waving them around for a few weeks and put on a good inch-and-a-half of muscle on my forearms and shoulders. I don’t fit in my suits anymore! I showed up early every day and trained for a couple of hours with them because they are so difficult that if my foot is in the wrong place it can actually be quite dangerous to balance and the sword will cut your finger off if you get hit by it. I’m definitely working hard to insure that that doesn’t happen!

What is the overall message of this film, if there is one?
I think the film is about honor and there are spiritual elements to it, especially when you read about the bushido code that the Samurai lived by and embracing that part of the poetry in their lives. Also, we live in a world that’s very fast-moving and often times we want to forget the past and kind of put it away but there are some valuable things to be learned that should be carried forth and remembered and I think that is something – while not hitting people over the head with it – that we’re trying to do. It’s about who we are as human beings that we mustn’t forget.

Published April 17, 2003

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On the set of The Last Samurai

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