Karen Fukuhara, on the cusp of stardom as DC’s “Suicide Squad” – in which she stars as Katana, the deadly assassin who carries tragedy and loss in her heart – enters theaters, is a J-drama fan girl.
The 24-year-old is a Los Angeles native, former reporter/host and a certified karate champion who, though reluctant and more than a little guilty, admits that “Hana Yori Dango” – the epitome of Asian teenage dramas – was an obsession of hers when it came out in 2005.
“I used to watch random dramas that my mom brought home from the video store, which doesn’t exist anymore because of the internet,” Fukuhara said. “I actually liked that better, that you could watch it with the family. Now I have to watch on my computer screen.”
She may soon find herself on that screen as well – Fukuhara, after all, dreams of acting in Japanese projects as well as American ones, a rare goal for an actress born and raised stateside. But then again, so is her absolute fluency in the language and its customs.
Fukuhara described her childhood as growing up in Japan while at home, and in America while at school: “I grew up in a kind of Japanese American bubble. In the outside world I went to regular American school five days a week, but anything inside the household, everything we ate, all the cultural values, the traditions, the holidays, the language we spoke, it was all Japanese.”
That’s not to mention the 11 years she spent attending Japanese school every Saturday, from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., alongside kids from Japan. It was less of a language school and more of an education curriculum mirroring that of Japan’s, for the benefit of those who had come to live temporarily in the U.S. because of their parents’ jobs. “I started [Japanese school] in the first grade, and I stuck with it. I never thought of quitting because it was just kind of my everyday life,” Fukuhara laughed. “Now that I look back on it, that was crazy. I devoted 11 years of my Saturdays to this school. I thought this was normal, you know?”
Then there was the cultural disparity she felt – still feels, to an extent – as a child growing up in two worlds. Some American children’s shows that everyone else has watched, she hasn’t. And ditto for certain Japanese etiquettes. “I think I’m equally Japanese and American,” she said. “I grew up with Japanese traditions and cultural values, and I learned everything else through school and American friends.”
And that’s exactly why, she said, she thinks she clinched the role of Katana despite it being her first film role ever. It didn’t hurt that she spent a few years competing for karate forms titles, from Southern Californian championships to Japan, in her teenage years.
“Suicide Squad” Director David Ayer, impressed by her sword fighting and martial arts demonstration, set her to begin working with a fitness trainer in preparation for the role. Fukuhara hadn’t practiced martial arts in years. “It felt really, really good,” she said. “It was easier for me to transition back into martial arts because I had the physical capabilities of doing it. I was training the right parts of my body to carry the sword, to swing it.”
She ended up performing all but one stunt on her own, with the help of her body double and choreographers. Katana’s scenes mostly involve traditional sword work and martial arts on the ground, which meant Fukuhara was good to go after a lot of practice. Then there was working with some of the biggest actors on the planet, from Jared Leto to Will Smith.
“I was nervous and I wasn’t sure who they were going to be, but we went through one-and-a-half months of pre-production where we trained together,” Fukuhara said. “Jared, being the Joker, wasn’t a part of it because he thought it would hinder the experience, the character not being a part of the squad. But everyone else, we shared our backgrounds and histories and stories that had to do with our own characters.”
Katana, who made her first comic appearance in 1983, is one of the Earth’s deadliest martial artists. The sword she carries is said to trap the souls of all it has slain, including her husband’s.
According to Fukuhara, Ayer wanted the portrayal of Katana in the film to be not of a cold-blooded killer but that of a real human with strict moral codes. “I also feel like a lot of the character came from my physical training. I really felt like if I didn’t get fit enough, if I wasn’t able to perform my own stunts, I would never be able to create the essence of Katana,” Fukuhara said.
So, what comes after “Suicide Squad”? Fukuhara looks to continue taking on roles with range – “I look up to actors like Johnny Depp and Charlize Theron that can go from one spectrum to the other and play roles that are so far-fetched from who they are,” she said – but there’s also that end goal of hers: being a film and TV star in both Japan and the U.S.
“When I go to Japan, nobody realizes that I’m Japanese American,” she said. “I want to challenge myself. I think there are so few actors that are doing that right now, and I would like to expand that realm.”
Stateside, she’s looking toward joining a group of Asian American actresses who act as role models to a younger generation. Back when Fukuhara was young, she had no idea what to dress as for Halloween – there were not many choices in the way of characters who looked like her. Now, she’s realizing more and more that kids will look to characters like Katana for their own Halloween costume inspirations.
“When I first got the audition and booked the role, I was being selfish. I thought, ‘This is a huge career advancement,’” she said. “But when my Korean American stylist thanked me for being an idol for her two daughters, and said that now they have a strong female superhero they can look up to that is Asian, that’s when I thought, ‘This is bigger than me.’ It was a very surreal feeling to realize that.”
For the foreseeable future, Fukuhara is in for a wild ride – “Suicide Squad,” which releases Friday, is the much-anticipated third film in the DC Extended Universe and the first starring the colorful, anti-hero squad, comprising not just Katana but also Deadshot (Smith), Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Col. Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), Enchantress (Cara Delevingne) and Slipknot (Adam Beach).
“It’s so weird seeing myself on billboards and on those cardboard cutouts at movie theaters,” Fukuhara said. “It’s not just any other movie. It’s what everyone is excited for this summer. It’s surreal to be part of something so big.”