By
Annette Lin
Photography by
Daniel Jackson

Styling by George Cortina at Exposure NY. Hair by Ward at The Wall Group. Makeup by Francelle at Art + Commerce. Manicurist: Maki Sakamoto. Photographer’s assistant: Jeff Pearson. Stylist’s assistant: Steven La Fuente. Hair assistant: Brian Casey. Makeup artist’s assistant: Ryo Yamazaki.

SONOYA MIZUNO QUIT BALLET FOR 'EX MACHINA'


When Sonoya Mizuno was a child growing up in Somerset, England, her uncle, an actor on the West End, would teach her songs; they would then perform them together for her mother. These amateur concerts piqued Mizuno’s taste for the stage, and her uncle, noticing talent in the young girl, suggested she enroll in dance classes as a circuitous way of breaking into acting, so she did. Eventually, she graduated from London’s Royal Ballet School and worked her way up to dancing with companies including the Dresden Semperoper Ballet and the Scottish Ballet.

While dancing with the latter in Glasgow, Mizuno’s original love of acting returned. In London on vacation, she visited the modeling agency to which she was signed and asked whether they had any advice for her if she were to pursue a change of career. While she was in the office, an email arrived from the casting director of Alex Garland’s Ex Machina looking for extras, and she decided to give it a try. “I went and met Alex and I did this audition and he was like, ‘You’re fantastic, I want to give you one of the parts straightaway,’” she says, “and I was like, ‘What? What just happened?’”

Top by Vex Clothing. All jewelry throughout, talent's own.

She returned to Scotland, but the ballet company refused to let her take time off for the part. Mizuno was already on the cusp of quitting her job when the casting director of Ex Machina reached out again, this time to invite her to audition for a larger part. “I spoke to the ballet’s equity division and I was like, ‘What can you advise me to do in this situation?’ They said, ‘Well you’ve got two choices: You either quit your job and you go and do it and decide what happens from there or you just do it. If you decide to quit your job, you get on a plane tomorrow and, as the plane is about to take off, send an email from your phone and say you’ve resigned,’” she recalls. “I was like, ‘Holy fuck, I’m going to do that.’ So I did.”

The part turned out to be the role of Kyoko, an android created by a tech CEO played by Oscar Isaac in Garland’s prescient sci–world. The rest of the cast was comprised of Alicia Vikander and Domhnall Gleeson; Mizuno especially stands out in a smooth impromptu disco dance with Isaac, where her android synchronizes to his movements with eerie perfection, a mastery of symbiosis she echoes later opposite Natalie Portman in another Garland-directed film, Annihilation. Ex Machina went on to be nominated for several Oscars and BAFTAs—it was not a bad first role. “It was honestly one of those things that happen and you’re like, ‘How the fuck did that happen?’” she says.

Mizuno, whose father is Japanese and whose mother is half-British and half-Argentinean, grew up one of six children. Like many trained in ballet, she maintains that paradoxical balance of being delicate and strong at the same time, like peanut brittle taken to the cusp of breaking but that won’t actually snap. Her career to date has included a high fashion short on Nowness in which she engages in a pas de deux with an albino snake; modeling for Chanel, Saint Laurent, and Louis Vuitton; and a role in La La Land, singing and dancing alongside Emma Stone as one of her roommates. She buys designer but is also happy to dig into a suspicious looking nacho salad when necessary—the girl from Somerset. Starting a new career before the age of thirty has made her more cognizant of how she wants to approach her second one and of the roles she takes.

Mask by Vex Clothing.

“I just want it to be meaningful in some way, otherwise what’s the point?” she insists. Because she is half-Japanese, she says, there’s also “a race element which comes into it.” She is particularly alert to Asian representation in Western media—recently, she was offered the part of a “sexy, sword-fighting” woman with a Chinese name, “but they wanted a Japanese accent,” she says. “I thought, ‘Oh fuck this.’” She rolls her eyes. She sighs when I mention the fact that writer’s rooms are overwhelmingly male and white. “So you also can’t blame them,” she says with an inflection in her voice, “but I think that…well, I’m not a writer, but I can look for roles and be conscious of roles. If I’m not putting myself out there as that Chinese/Japanese/Korean non-speaking, sexy, sword-fighting [character], then maybe that helps the situation.”

But choosing the right part can be harder when starting out: “You want a job,” she laughs. Fortunately, Hollywood—along with all the other momentous changes it’s gone through in the past few years—is finally looking for Asian roles that exist outside of stereotypes. Mizuno has managed to score a few of those, as in this past summer’s Crazy Rich Asians, in which she played Araminta Lee, the wealthy bride behind the movie’s destination wedding in Singapore, and also in Cary Fukunaga’s new Netflix series Maniac, a remake of a Norwegian drama-comedy with Mizuno joining a cast including Emma Stone and Jonah Hill. In Maniac, Mizuno portrays a Japanese scientist overseeing a pharmaceutical trial and uses her own British accent for the part. “I really revelled in the fact that she was Japanese, but she was so unlike any other Japanese characters you usually see in Western cinema,” she says. “She’s funny, she’s smart, and she’s very complicated.” She credits Fukunaga and writer Patrick Somerville for creating characters “that feel unique and, therefore, feel like real people.”

She was also excited to be a part of Crazy Rich Asians, which featured Hollywood’s first all-Asian cast in twenty-five years. She says the quietly momentous nature of what they were doing gave everyone a particular energy. “A huge part of that was that there was going to be a lot of young people who watched that film and they were going to see a lot of young Asian-American people or British-Asian people or Asian people,” she says. “We didn’t see that when we were young. Who was there? Lucy Liu was literally the only one! The way you are represented in media and society is so important and it has such an influence.”

Swimsuit by L'Space. Tights by Wolford. Shoes by RoSa Shoes.

Being an actor is difficult, perhaps even more so when entering the profession later in life. The reality of the actor’s journey is that it doesn’t glide seamlessly like a monorail but instead jolts between polar opposites like a rollercoaster, with plenty of ups— “when you’re working,” Mizuno says—and plenty of downs—“when you’re not.”

Mizuno faced considerable backlash when first starting out as an actor, both for her age and also because she was, in many agents’ eyes, already categorized in the ballet world. Yet she sees a lot of parallels between the two realms. “There’s a vocabulary to dancing, a language, and the way you express the language is through different dynamics and strength and softness,” she says. “It’s a similar thing when you are acting. You’re also using language to express yourself.”

A few years on, the gamble appears to be paying off. She was recently tapped by Garland for a role in his upcoming TV series Devs, set in the same dystopian sci-fi-esque realms of his previous films. It will be her first lead role, which she is grateful about, but at the same time, she isn’t afraid to admit that she’s terrified. She’s already thrown herself into getting ready, even though filming hasn’t started yet—“I want to be as prepared as I can possibly be,” she says—and she hints only that her research has led her to read up on physics, of all topics, while also thanking Garland, as before, for helping to push her out of her comfort zone.

All clothing by Tom Ford. Belt by Artemas Quibble. Tights by Vex Clothing. Shoes by RoSa Shoes.

Mizuno’s constant passion and dedication can in some ways be traced back to the risks of that impetuous decision to quit and strike out on a path entirely unexplored. “Because I’d had this career as a ballet dancer and felt like I’d worked so hard at something, it’s hard for me to just do things for the sake of it,” she explains. When she takes a role, she says, “I want to understand the script and the world where the characters live.” She is always looking for ways to push her parts just a little further, even if that means injecting a role with another layer of personality. In the script for Crazy Rich Asians, for example, Araminta was just “nice,” but, Mizuno says, “I thought, ‘Well she could be kind of zany and outlandish and more dramatic’”—and in the final film, she is memorably all of those things.

It may have taken a little longer than usual, but Mizuno has clearly arrived exactly where she needs to be. “I really love acting,” she insists, “and the more I do, the more I love it. Those ups and downs are manageable, because it feels worth it, you know what I mean?”

Maniac is now streaming on Netflix.

wTLM_Sonoya_6





By
Annette Lin
Photography by
Daniel Jackson

Styling by George Cortina at Exposure NY. Hair by Ward at The Wall Group. Makeup by Francelle at Art + Commerce. Manicurist: Maki Sakamoto. Photographer’s assistant: Jeff Pearson. Stylist’s assistant: Steven La Fuente. Hair assistant: Brian Casey. Makeup artist’s assistant: Ryo Yamazaki.

  • Share

Related