In 1996, Ken Watanabe was traveling across Peru for work and left the country just a week before hundreds of powerful figures were taken hostage during a party at the country’s Japanese embassy. The standoff lasted four months and resulted in the deaths of dozens of people. Had Watanabe stayed in Lima a few days longer, he says he’d likely have attended that very party.
So for the 58-year-old actor, it feels like fate that he’s now starring in Bel Canto, an adaptation of Ann Patchett’s best-selling novel based loosely on the siege. In the film, Watanabe plays electronics executive Katsumi Hosokawa, who’s being courted by an unspecified South American country’s government to open manufacturing facilities there. Throughout the crisis, friendship and romance blossom — most notably between Katsumi and his longtime fixation, Roxane (Julianne Moore), an opera singer commissioned to perform for him.
It’s not often that a fiftysomething Japanese actor gets to play a Hollywood romantic lead, though the actor — best known for his Oscar-nominated turn in 2003’s The Last Samurai — is also set to appear in 2019’s Detective Pikachu and Godzilla: King of the Monsters. “Ken is so playful,” Bel Canto director Paul Weitz gushes. “He’s sexy. Partly it’s him being easy on the eyes, but it’s rooted in intelligence.”
Watanabe’s character grows over the course of Bel Canto: Upon his arrival, he coldly observes the country’s poverty and considers it only in terms of its investment potential; by film’s end, he’s willing to sacrifice himself for people he’s barely known. “He’s coming from a more developed country,” Watanabe explains. “But instead of looking down on them, he understands them.”
Indeed, understanding is key to the story — several languages are spoken in the film, but the hostages gradually realize their shared humanity. It’s just one of many reasons Watanabe feels so close to Bel Canto. Reflecting on the movie’s themes — and his proximity to the movie’s real-life basis — he sums it up succinctly: “This movie is my destiny.”
Bel Canto opens in select theaters Sept. 14.