It’s definitely the holiday time of year. The weather’s a bit colder, the days are a lot shorter, and people are preparing to travel to visit with loved ones or bracing to have loved ones stay with them. It’s a good time for compelling entertainment so it’s a perfect time for Amazon’s binge-worthy web series, The Man In the High Castle, to make its return for season two.
The Man in the High Castle, an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel of the same name, follows an alternative history where the Axis powers won World War II. With the United States divided, Americans find themselves living in an oppressive, dystopian world controlled by either the Japanese or the Nazis. We caught up with one of the show’s stars, Lee Shorten, to talk about the show, diverse backgrounds, and rooting for the villain.
The Hudsucker: Your character in The Man in the High Castle Sgt. Hiroyuki Yoshida, was meant to appear in only one episode, but after your audition the character was expanded. What about Sergeant Yoshida do you feel made him important enough to go from a one-off to a full-fledged character?
Lee Shorten: One of the things I like about The Man In the High Castle is that few things or people are black and white. Characters tend towards the gray, they are very human and very flawed, even the villains. I think that Dan and Frank appreciated the amount of humanity I brought to the role and thought I would fit well with their vision. In the first season we got to see John Smith interact with his family whereas Kido’s family is back in Japan and almost all of Kido’s scenes revolve around work. Expanding Yoshida’s role allowed us to humanize Kido by developing a relationship over the course of a season while still progressing the plot. I like to think of it as a villainous Holmes and Watson.
The Hudsucker: One of the things that throws people when watching The Man in the High Castle is that with the characters being so well-realized, viewers sometimes find themselves almost sympathizing with the “evil” characters of the show. Do you ever encounter that same experience from the perspective of being an actor in the role?
Shorten: Definitely. In life I don’t think anyone thinks of themselves as evil. In some ways evil is a matter of perspective. Many men and women we consider evil believed they were right and that their actions were in service of some greater good. Objectively as rational and empathetic human beings we can recognize that, yes, some actions are evil. Slavery and genocide spring to mind, but as an actor it’s my job to bring a fully realized human being to life, to act as if I were the hero to the story and not to judge my character. That’s part of why I enjoy playing villains because finding a way to get inside their heads and see the world through their eyes is always a wonderful challenge.
The Hudsucker: Yoshida is an American, unlike the other Japanese characters on the show. How does that influence Yoshida, and moreover, how does that influence your approach to playing Yoshida?
Shorten: Yoshida has a unique perspective in the world of the show. He grew up in America and was immensely proud of being American but he felt deeply betrayed by the Japanese internment during the war. Consequently, when he was liberated by the Imperial Japanese he chose to embrace that ideology or what he thinks are the best parts of that ideology, the notion of honor, order, collective good. But in many ways that’s not who he is. He’s still very American, which we see in season one. He doesn’t respect the Yakuza, he questions Kido, he speaks out of turn, he feels sympathy for the American women forced into prostitution by the Japanese. He’s seen the best and worst of both cultures and is trying to find a happy medium, to do what he feels is right. It’s kind of sad really, despite his best efforts Yoshida will always be viewed as an outsider by both sides.
The Hudsucker: You spent a month in Japan in your twenties and was impacted by the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. How did your experience in Japan influence your work on the show?
Shorten: I was adopted at a very young age and grew up in a small country town in Australia so I had little to no exposure to, or experience with Asian culture until my twenties. As an actor, research is an important part of your job but nothing beats first hand experience. It definitely helped give me a better feel for the culture. In a way, my experience is not unlike Yoshida’s. Growing up in the West and then trying to understand the East. I had studied World War II in school but actually being in Hiroshima, seeing actual pieces of history, seeing the devastation of war, a brick wall with a person’s shadow burned onto it by the blast, mangled bicycles warped by the heat, children’s clothing shredded by shrapnel. It’s a reminder of both the horrors of war and the cost of peace.
The Hudsucker: You have a diverse background outside of acting, including being a lawyer in Australia. How do you draw on your non-acting experiences to your acting career? Is there anything you specific you draw upon?
Shorten: As a general rule, I’m always looking to draw upon my personal experience to help me understand and connect with my characters. But in terms of my previous careers. Being a lawyer helped hone my research skills which are important. Being a musician really helps you understand how to work in an ensemble, how to collaborate with other creatives in service to something greater than yourself. As a drummer, your main job is to keep the rhythm, you can flourish here and there but you learn to get a feel for when the best time for that is, like not during the guitar solo. Same thing in acting, you need to understand what your role in the story is, this scene isn’t about me, it’s about the other actor, I need to just keep the rhythm so to speak. But then this scene is about me, it’s my solo.
The Hudsucker: Outside of The Man in the High Castle you have also appeared on The Flash, iZombie and Supernatural among other shows. Both Flash and iZombie are comic-book based shows. Are you a fan of comics or was that just awesome coincidence?
Shorten: I don’t read a lot of comics, although Alan Moore’s Watchmen is one of my all time favorite books. I did grow up on 90’s cartoons though. X-Men and Spiderman, so I’m a huge fan of the characters and I must confess, I watch all the movies and shows, DC and Marvel. These days there are many though I still think Nolan’s The Dark Knight is the best.
The Hudsucker: How has playing a character like Yoshida been different or similar to some of the other roles you’ve played?
Shorten: I think Yoshida is the first real villain I’ve played. I was actually a good guy on The Flash and iZombie. True, I play a Demon on Supernatural but on that show I’m usually cleaning up after Crowley. The one thing I always try and do is bring humanity and depth to my characters.
The Hudsucker: Last season saw some tension mounting between Germany and Japan. How will that impact Yoshida in the coming season?
Shorten: The mounting tensions between Germany and Japan put Kido and Yoshida under a lot of pressure. They need to tie up a number of loose ends on the domestic front, the ‘Man in the High Castle’ and Juliana Crane, the Yakuza, an increasingly brazen and desperate Resistance so they can give the war their full attention. So in order to get things done Yoshida is given a lot more freedom to operate this season, Kido lets him off the leash so to speak.
The Hudsucker: You rooted for the villains as a kid. Are you rooting for the villains on The Man in the High Castle?
Shorten: I’m rooting for all of the characters to do what is right. One of my favorite quotes is ‘be the change you want to see in the world’. Ultimately, everyone in The Man in the High Castle sees themselves as the hero of their story. This season they’re placed in difficult situations. We really challenge their views and their morals which we started to see in season one with John and Thomas and Kido’s sense of honor. This season we push them even further. How it plays out, I guess you’ll have to tune in.
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