''Rising Sun'''s Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa -- A talk with the Japanese star

By James Earl Hardy
September 10, 1993 at 04:00 AM EDT

Talk about competition: You’re in a movie with Sean Connery and Wesley Snipes, and you’re supposed to be a sex symbol. Yet as a ultracool charmer who, among other things, eats sushi off the body of a nude woman, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa has emerged as the most provocative surprise of Rising Sun.

Where did the sexy Tagawa, 42, come from? Born in Japan and raised in North Carolina, Louisiana, and Texas, he played King Arthur in a school production of Camelot — then quit acting on the advice of his elders. ”My high school drama coach told me to live first, while my mother didn’t think there were enough $ good roles out there for Asians,” he explains. ”So I paid my bills as a limo driver, farmer, photojournalist, and food-service worker, and waited.” His first film role was as a lowly extra, in 1986’s Big Trouble in Little China, which led to a spot as an eunuch in Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1987 epic, The Last Emperor, a film Tagawa calls ”a turning point for Asians in Hollywood. It showed that our stories were not only interesting but bankable.”

A veteran of two dozen films (including American Me) and TV shows (he was in the pilot of Star Trek: The Next Generation), Tagawa drew critical praise as Sun’s Eddie, the pumped-up playboy with a lust for business and blonds. ”Asian men are not seen as humorous, strong, or sexual,” he says. ”I’m often asked to play a villain or a silent, subservient type. It was so good to be just an ordinary man.” Now living on Kauai with wife Sally, son Calen, 5, and daughter Brynn, 2, he’ll stay ordinary in Natural Causes, a love story with Linda Purl due this month, and in his next project, U.S. on Trial, about Japanese internment during World War II. And, he hopes, lots longer: ”Being human — that’s all I’ve been fighting to play, and be viewed as, all my life.”