Tao Okamoto is a perfect example of what happens when preparation meets opportunity. The 33-year-old’s career reads like a series of what some would call lucky breaks – whether setting off a huge hairstyle trend in the modelling world, booking her first acting role alongside Hugh Jackman or appearing in some of the hottest TV shows in Hollywood.
But life wasn’t always runaways and red carpets. Okamoto grew up in Chiba, on the outskirts of Tokyo, as one of three sisters. Her mother was at home while her father ran an after-school tutoring centre. And while the rest of the family was average height, Okamoto found herself standing head and shoulders above other girls her age.
“I just wanted to feel confident about what I had and how I looked,” Okamoto recalls when I reach her by phone in New York, where she lives with her husband and co-founder of The Last Magazine, Tenzin Wild. “If I were good at sports, I wouldn’t feel bad – but I wasn’t. I was going through puberty and started to look at fashion magazines and thought, ‘Maybe I can try this, modelling.’”
Okamoto called the publishers of one magazine, only to find out their annual modelling competition was still months away. “I was like, I can’t wait for this. So I decided to walk this famous street in Harajuku where people get scouted,” she says, referring to the popular shopping and street-style district in Tokyo.
“I went there by myself the first weekend and I was lucky enough to be asked to become an actress by this agent. He was strange, not like a good agent, but it gave me a bit of confidence that I might look attractive to some people.”
The experience led Okamoto to reveal her feelings to her parents. “I told my parents for the first time that I was having a difficult time understanding myself, that I wanted to love myself but it was hard and I thought modelling could be a way I might be able to shine.”
When they discovered the scout was not the real deal, Okamoto decided to go out on her own again, sending her picture to a well-known agency in Japan. “I got a call back, and that’s how I started working and signed with an agency,” she says. “I was 14.”
Okamoto readily admits that, despite her determination to become a model, she had no idea what she was doing. Her school didn’t allow her to work, so any auditions had to be done outside of school or in secret. And, at first, nothing really happened.
When she was 17, Okamoto spent a year in England as an exchange student and started to think beyond the borders of her home country. She returned to Japan, finished high school and decided to go to college. But it was too much trying to pursue modelling and attend classes at the same time, and she dropped out after a year.
“I started to get a lot of offers and requests from foreign designers, at a time when I was so not popular among Japanese clients and designers,” Okamoto says. “So I was like, I love Japanese creativity and design, but maybe I’m not needed here. I have my market abroad.”
Okamoto moved to Paris and soon found regular work as a so-called Asian beauty. “I think what they were seeing in me was something very exotic, which didn’t really stand out in Japan,” she says. “I was doing well but nobody knew my name. They were just treating me like the Asian girl. They didn’t care where I was from or anything else.”
Frustrated and questioning her place in an industry that treated women as so easily replaceable, Okamoto decided to ditch the typical long black hair then associated with Asian models and get a sleek, close-cropped bowl cut. “I don’t know,” she says, “I think I needed to challenge myself and see if I could get booked without having this signature Asian look.”
For the first season, it seems, she couldn’t. But a last-ditch effort to make it in New York would change all of that. Okamoto met a new agent, booked a number of shows and was quickly getting noticed for her unique hairstyle.
“That was kind of my breakout season. I have to think now there was a mix of reasons. The first was my hair became kind of trendy. It was a time when people were going back to that pixie or Vidal Sassoon kind of bowl cut, and I had it before other models cut their hair,” she says, wildly understating the fact that designer Phillip Lim was so inspired by Okamoto’s look that he sent every model in his autumn/winter 2009 show down the runway in wigs cut to match her hairstyle.
Besides the emerging androgynous trend, Okamoto also credits the strength of the Chinese economy at the time for her success. “I was able to fit in with this group of Chinese girls,” she says, “so I have to be thankful for that.”
Once the world – of fashion, at least – knew her name, it wasn’t long before Hollywood came calling. But Okamoto never had aspirations of becoming an actress. In fact, her parents had acted in university but weren’t able to make careers out of it.
“I knew that it’s not an easy choice,” she says. “Also, I was a very twisted kid so I didn’t want to go in the same direction as my parents.”
As it turns out, the producers of The Wolverine were looking for a Japanese actress for the role of love interest Mariko Yashida and asked her to audition. Okamoto, who wasn’t a big fan of superhero movies, gave it a try without any prior training or preparation.
“There was a lot of dialogue. I was memorising the lines and then on the day of the last audition with Hugh Jackman, the casting director said she wanted to do improvisation,” she recalls. “I’m like, ‘What?’ I didn’t even know what improvisation means!”
Nevertheless, Okamoto got the part – to the surprise and delight of her parents – and her education began. “I started to realise what a big deal this was. I asked the director [James Mangold] if I should take some classes and he said, ‘Don’t go to any acting classes. Show up as you are and I’ll direct you.’”
Okamoto soon learned how lucky she was to work with a director like Mangold, and why so many people aspire to become actors. “A lot of models go on to become actors. I didn’t understand that transformation and I didn’t like people thinking models were below actors,” she says. “I was very proud of what I do as a model. I wasn’t going to become an actor. But the part I loved most about modelling was being able to transform [into someone else] so I think it was natural for me to go into acting after I experienced it.”
In the five and a half years since The Wolverine was released, Okamoto has appeared in a few Japanese TV series as well as major US productions including Hannibal,The Man in the High Castle and, most recently, the HBO sci-fi Western series Westworld. She also appeared as Mercy Graves in 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
“The writing for Hannibal was very poetic, and hard to understand. English is my second language so it was very difficult for me to understand the real meaning,” she says. “It took a lot of preparation to learn the lines and then express them as an actor. Westworld was totally the opposite. I didn’t have a lot of lines, but I had a lot of action sequences which I had never really done before. As long as it’s challenging, I enjoy it.”
Okamoto has recently been filming an independent movie, tentatively titled Japantown, that deals with the discrimination faced by immigrants and their descendants in the United States, particularly Japanese- Americans around World War II.
“I decided to do it because there’s a line that says, ‘I’m American. I was born here; I was raised here. I do look different from you,’ when talking to a white restaurateur, when Japanese were banned from restaurants. ‘But I’m the same as you. We’re Americans.’
“That’s very relevant today. People don’t really know what ‘immigrant’ means. I’m an immigrant myself because I’m the first generation here but there are a lot Asian- Americans who are not immigrants,” she says. “I think it’s a good time to remind people we may look different but we’re not different.”
Culture and ethnicity have been on Okamoto’s mind, not only given her experiences as a model but also with the hubbub surrounding Crazy Rich Asians, Sandra Oh and her other fellow Asian actors.
“I’m kind of wondering and seeing how this movement goes. When I was modelling, people treated me as an Asian. That kind of made me frustrated because I wanted to be acknowledged [as Japanese]. Crazy Rich Asians was about Singaporean Chinese but the whole Asian community was cheering and supporting them because we waited for so long,” she says.
“Now I don’t care if people think I’m Japanese or whatever. I just want us to become a big power. I’m really feeling good that I don’t have this ego any more about my nationality and I just want to support and be a part of this Asian movement.”
The important thing, Okamoto says, is that everyone is given a fair shot. So if a Japanese role goes to a Chinese actor, she doesn’t mind as long as she and other Japanese actors had the opportunity to audition. And if she has her way, one day Okamoto will be able to audition for a role in a musical and hopefully fulfil her dream of singing professionally.
“It’s all about timing. Like when I was modelling, I didn’t really do anything for 10 years but then the economy supported me, this whole movement supported me,” she says. “When I think about that, I think I should also have ‘my time’. Maybe it’s now, maybe it’s later, but I want to believe it will happen.”
Photography Oriana Layendecker
Styling and Production Jolene Lin
Hair Akihisa Yamaguchi
Makeup Chiaoli Hsu
Styling Assistant Melinette Rodriguez
Special Thanks Ralph Lauren