Actor Jimmy Taenaka On The Art Of Playing A Samurai In The Nasi Goreng Western ‘Grisse’

It’s also the Japanese-American’s first time playing one.

Jimmy Taenaka — who also goes by Jimmy T here — is known for different things to different people. Some people know the 54-year-old Japanese-American as the one-time VP and coach of the Wrestling Federation of Singapore, tasked with readying our homegrown wrestlers for the Youth Olympics in 2010. 

Others know him as an actor whose credits include movies and TV shows from the US as well as Singapore. His latest role is on Grisse, HBO’s eight-part English-language drama set in 1890s East Java, where a motley group of people band together to defend the eponymous town from the Dutch army. 

Here, Taenaka tells 8 DAYS more about his part in this ambitious production — that “has a lot of action, a lot of grit, interwoven with betrayal, suspense and drama” — and some stuff you may not know about him.

1. It’s tough to be a samurai…

On Grisse, Taenaka plays Tanaka, a ronin — a masterless samurai — on the Dutch’s payroll, which makes him kinda the bad guy, right? Not really.

“He’s a man of strength; he’s noble, and he lives by the Bushido code,” says Taenaka. “I always approach my character as the hero, no matter what the circumstances are. You’re taking your character to the highest point and you got to believe it. That adds more dimension to the character.”

Stare hard with a vengeance: Taenaka gets ready for slice-and-dice action as Tanaka. 

In a career spanning nearly three decades, it’s the first time Taenaka is playing a samurai, and for a Japanese, it’s a big deal. “It’s like an American playing the cowboy,” says Taenaka. But instead of a six-shooter, he wields a katana sword. The samurai training was no walk in the park, even for someone as athletic as Taenaka.

“It involves constant repetition, stamina and agility,” he says. “[I have to abandon some wrestling movements] like wrestlers tend to bend forward [in a square stance], but for a samurai, he has to adhere to a certain rigidness – back straight, kinda military-esque.”

Physical conditioning aside, Taenaka also took cues from watching the Lord of the Rings movies and samurai flicks starring Toshiro Mifune. “He’s like the greatest, right?”

Blades of gory: Taenaka, who did “90 per cent of his own stunts”, likens his intense sword-fighting scenes with co-star Toshiji Takeshima (which will not end well for one of them) to a tennis match. “Taking him on is kinda intimidating. You want to be able to match up [your opponent]. You want both players to be on world-class level. If one isn’t, it will really show in the match.”

2. He once worked with the son of a cinema legend…

Taenaka — who counts Robert De Niro, Gary Oldman (“the new generation have to watch his early works, Sid & Nancy and State of Grace”) and Bruce Lee as his heroes — made his acting debut as a yakuza thug in 1991’s Showdown in Little Tokyo, a buddy-cop flick starring Dolph Lundgren and Brandon Lee, Bruce’s son. “That movie was a big learning curve for me as a young actor,” says Taenaka.

jimmy t showdown in little tokyo
Enter the dragon: Taenaka fires a warning shot in ‘Showdown in Little Tokyo’. “My first scene was also my first day at work,” recalls Taenaka. “I went up to Brandon. ‘Hey, Brandon, this is my first day, and I’m a bit nervous. He goes, ‘Sweeet!’ You’ll be fine.’ After my scene, he peeped from behind the curtain and gave me a thumbs-up. It’s really interesting to talk to him because we all grew up watching Bruce Lee and when I looked at Brandon, I can see Bruce’s jawline, his cockiness. Because Bruce was very confident, many perceived him as cocky, but Brandon was a gentleman and a prankster.”

Another movie that broadened his horizons was 2008’s Kung Fu Killer, which he was sidekick to David Carradine’s opium warlords-fighting Caucasian monk in 1920s Shanghai. “I hung out with David for countless hours, just picking his brain about his approach to acting, listening to his war stories in the business and theatre days.”

“It’s a constant strive and struggle for greatness with every project I worked on,” says Taenaka. “All in all, I must admit that on every project, there was always something to take away. Take Grisse for example, I never know much about the history of Indonesia being colonised by the Dutch in the 1890s.”

But he knew something about its food history. Sorta.  “I was telling everybody on set [how] the Japanese inherited yakitori from the Dutch. The Dutch got the satay from the Indonesians and [when they] went to Japan, satay was translated to yakitori.”

3. If he were to recommend three Jimmy T movies/TV shows to a stranger, he would pick…

“This is a shameless plug, but one of them is Grisse!”, says Taenaka. “This is a special project with a collective group of cast and crew working on an ambitious project. We had to wake up in the wee hours and shoot over-nighters… in hot weather. Grinding mentally, emotionally and physically. I can’t wait till the rest of the Western world to see this. Some say it’s an Asian Game of Thrones”.

Another pick, the 2017 Ch 5 cancer drama BRA. “It’s a very touching story and I play a different role from what I’m used to. I had to work with a dialect coach to get rid of my American accent and transform into this local uncle.”

And last but not least, the 2011 German TV movie The Man from Beijing. “I play Ya Ru, a capitalist [who’s seeking revenge against] the Anglo who ill-treated his ancestors during the railroad building era. This is based on an international best-seller of the same name [by Henning Mankell]. Shot in Austria, Sweden and Taipei, it [was produced by the folks] who did original The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.”

Grisse airs Sun, HBO (StarHub Ch 601), 9pm. It’s also on HBO on Demand On and HBO Go. BRA is available onToggle.

Photos: HBO, Warner Bros Pictures 

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