Ken Watanabe: Russel Wong/Corbis Outline
January 11, 2007 at 05:00 AM EST

He stole Tom Cruise’s thunder in The Last Samurai and charmed a bevy of beauties in Memoirs of a Geisha. Now, with Letters From Iwo Jima, Clint Eastwood’s Japanese counterpart to Flags of Our Fathers, the 47-year-old actor proves he’s a force in any language.

1. Meeting Clint was a thrill.
”The first time was before the Golden Globes three years ago; I introduced myself and basically stopped breathing.”

2. Yet he had reservations about Letters.
”When Clint called me, I could not imagine an American making a Japanese historical drama,” says the Japan-born 2004 Academy Award nominee. ”Then he told me he wanted to grasp the true sentiment of the Japanese soldier and he really listened to the comments I gave him. After that, I put my complete trust in him.”

3. He did more than just show up and act.
”As soon as I heard about the role,” as a Japanese general charged with leading his men against the Allies for the island of Iwo Jima in 1945, ”I started doing research. Many Japanese don’t know what the soldiers went through. I read the script in English, and after discussing the part, Clint allowed me to make my own [lines].”

4. He’s not as serious as he looks.
”The characters I play are tough, but I love laughing and humor,” says the 6’2” actor with the sober gaze and a history of playing samurais. He attributes his positive, Zen outlook to beating leukemia. (He was diagnosed in 1989, just as his career was taking off.)

5. If he weren’t an actor, he’d be a journalist.
He’d report on ”baseball, or basketball — or golf, which I also enjoy.” Not that Watanabe isn’t already a published writer: Last year, he put out Who Am I?, a Japanese-language book about ”my experiences making [the Japanese film] Memories of Tomorrow, in which I play an Alzheimer’s patient.”

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