Ansel Elgort’s star has been on a steady rise since his one-two punch of Divergent and The Fault in Our Stars in 2014. That star has recently become white hot with his lead role in Steven Spielberg’s best picture nominated remake of West Side Story from last year. As a follow up to that success, Ansel stepped into the world of Tokyo Vice, a story based on the real life experience of Jake Adelstein, an American reporting on crime for a Tokyo newspaper in the late ’90s.
To make this remarkable new series, Elgort teamed up with the show’s creator J.T. Rogers—the playwright of the Tony Award winning stage drama Oslo. The two combined with a slew of wonderful directors (including Michaels Mann, who filmed the pilot) and an incredible ensemble of American and (mostly) Japanese actors to create a unique vision, one that goes beyond the typical crusading reporter or the cop vs. Yakuza show to transcend both of those genres.
Tokyo Vice is a kaleidoscopic series that shows the best and the worst of Tokyo and those that inhabit this one of a kind city. In our conversation, we discuss the genesis of the show, the show’s reception, and the possibility of a season two.
Awards Daily: J.T., before Tokyo Vice you were known more for your theater work until you wrote the screenplay for Oslo, your own theater piece. What brought you to something that didn’t come from you?
J.T. Rogers: Well I had written a couple of screenplays, as one does, that hadn’t gotten made and Oslo was the first one as a TV show for HBO that went to pilot and then it didn’t happen which is fine. But very quickly, sometimes the stories come looking for you. In this case, the real Jake Adelstein, who wrote the memoir, which is the inspiration for our fictional series that I’ve created, and Ansel stars in, I’ve known him since we were in high school doing musical theater together in central Missouri. So I’ve known him off and on my whole life. Years ago he called me late at night when I was walking the dogs, and he said “Hey we haven’t talked in a year or so. Is there anyone calling and leaving threatening messages on your phone in Japanese?” I was a little embarrassed to admit that I had gotten a few messages in Japanese, but I thought they were wrong numbers. He was quite bereft and said I’m so sorry, the worst gangster in Tokyo now knows that I know his dark secrets, and he stole all my phone numbers and is calling and threatening people I love. So, I first made sure he was okay and then I was sort of off to the races, saying can we start from the beginning, and can I get my writing pen and paper, and can I fly to Tokyo and just start trailing you. It sounds like an extraordinary story.
Awards Daily: That is crazy. Ansel, you’ve been working mostly on films. What was the allure for you for taking on this part and committing to a series?
Ansel Elgort: The first allure was just Japan and Tokyo in general. I had been there before and I had always thought what a great place to have as a character. In our show, Tokyo is a major character in the show. It plays such a large role. It wouldn’t be Tokyo Vice without Tokyo. I always knew that I wanted to do something there and I think it definitely really paid off.
Awards Daily: About Tokyo being a character: one of the things I love about the show is that a lot of productions that you see that take place in Tokyo kind of fetishize the nightlife, the more exciting parts. Not that that isn’t included here but also the dark side of Tokyo is in here as well. I spoke to Ken Watanabe recently, by the way he’s really good if you didn’t know (Laughs).. He said that was part of the allure for him as well, was that it wasn’t just another cop show – that it was going to explore that dark side.
Ansel Elgort: I want to say, I was honored to work with Ken. I loved working with him. He’s great because as an actor he always feels so real and rooted and grounded in what he’s doing. He’s not just any actor either.
J.T. Rogers: You said it beautifully. I’m so glad you felt that way David because we spent so much time in scripts, pre-production, productions, location, casting, trying to be authentic. We wanted a policeman or a reporter from the late 90’s to watch this and believe we got the details right. So there was a real obsession all the way down. From the get go, I said at least half of the show has to be in Japanese. It has to be authentic. And then let me pass the baton from talking about Ken to talking about Ansel. Ansel’s gotten to the point where – cover your ears while I praise you, Ansel – his Japanese was so good that we could do takes in English, and he’d say hey what if I did this speech in Japanese? I’d say, oh great, let’s do it both ways and then we’ll try it and edit and create the actual bilinguality where people who can speak two languages flow back and forth. And the audience just stops thinking about oh they’re speaking Japanese, of course. Realistically the character of Jake would only exist in the show we created if he could speak fluently. So that really gave us a lot of tools in our tool box because Ansel was just so badass about that.
Awards Daily: That’s a great segue. Ansel, in creating the character, obviously I know Jake Adelstein was very accessible to the production, but the way that I felt when I was watching your character is that he has absorbed as much of the Japanese culture as he possibly can. Between the nightlife, martial arts and learning the language so fluently. But he retains that American quality of impatience. So it’s like he knows all the steps but he doesn’t always hear the tune. I love that about your performance. It’s not this guy who just comes over and has it all figured out. He’s done his homework but he hasn’t done all his internal work.
Ansel Elgort: Of course, yeah. Again, I wanted the show to feel really authentic and here’s a story about a guy who’s kind of figuring it out and he makes mistakes and the mistakes he makes are often due to his Americanness. At the same time some of his successes are due to that too. He digs a little deeper, he pushes up against authority, he’s willing to break rules. In Japanese culture you don’t break rules. It’s unacceptable. In Japan, people follow the rules. So I thought that would be a really interesting contrast. Not just me, the whole team and the way the character is written, it’s a great contrast for Jake to have that American side where he clearly doesn’t fit in. And then it was obviously really funny that I happen to be six foot four and tower over everyone and clearly look like a fish out of water, and a total outsider in the way I handle myself.
But then in certain ways that’s endearing, and as a result the relationship with his editor, Eimi (played by Rinko Kikuchi), ends up working out even though in the beginning it seems like it won’t. At the same time though, I remember even in Japan the last time we were there, I was doing an interview with one Japanese journalist and he was saying wow I’m so touched by this because when I was starting out as a journalist they told me the same thing. I was working crime and they said just write the police report and I was trying to add extra stuff to it and investigate and maybe actually make some assumptions, which is not what you’re supposed to do as a journalist. You’re supposed to just have real hard facts. It was interesting to see someone really connect to that and have it make sense for them. Jake wants to uncover things. He wants to make history. He’s a young man trying to come into his own. He’s trying to do something important. So just being another spoke in the wheel doesn’t feel like enough for him and then as a result he oversteps and where we leave him off, he’s finally willing to admit that I’m willing to listen, maybe I wasn’t listening enough. Which as a reporter you should be doing anyway. It was a great character, thanks to J.T. and the real Jake.
J.T. Rogers: Ansel, I totally agree. One of the things that’s interesting in the show, and you may have picked it up watching three times, (yes, your intrepid interviewer has watched every episode at least three times) is viewers not understanding everything immediately and having to pay attention – there is more than what it is on the surface. It’s the Byzantine nature of the subcultures of Japan that we’re showing. On the surface it’s the story of this one American, this gaijin, who as a young man, as a foreigner who learns the hard way that he doesn’t know as much as he thinks he does. This happens to all the characters. We speak about Ken, I won’t give things away for your readers who haven’t seen it, but he makes some disastrous mistakes by the last episode that anyone would initially think are smart choices. He’s probably our cleverest character in the show, but even he too doesn’t see the whole picture. That’s what’s been fun in building this world is trying to create the sense of let’s peel another onion layer.
Awards Daily: You spoke of the show’s Byzantine nature, the way Tokyo Vice is crafted, you really trust the audience to make the connections to follow along and not to be spoon fed. The other night I just happened to come by a show on another network and I just sat there and thought this is everything Tokyo Vice isn’t. Speechifying, explaining to the audience the whole time what’s going on. You clearly avoided that in wonderful ways but it is more challenging right? Because you are really asking the viewer to hone in?
J.T. Rogers: It’s all sort of taste right? For me at least, making any work, writing any work, you know how producing a TV show is. I have a rule that I don’t want any scenes where the audience can say “I can go take a leak during this scene.” (Laughs). The point is if you leave, if you go refresh your beverage, you’re gonna miss something, because I like that. I want the audience to feel like I’m not sure where we’re going but I feel like I’m in good hands and I’m being surprised. Otherwise how do we break the rhythm, I’m sure we all know we can taste it when we get it, that sort of TV or film rhythm, where this happens and this happens and instinctively you know where everything is going. How do we break away from that? Give me something. Eight hours of your time is a lot of your life, so we have to give them something where that was worth eight hours of their life.
Ansel Elgort: And it needs to be entertaining in the moment. I totally feel you. When you’re just being explained things, it’s not entertaining. You want to feel immersed in it. Our show isn’t too confusing, but I remember loving Westworld and I had no idea what was happening but I still loved it. You don’t always need to be totally informed to be entertained.
Awards Daily: That’s a really great point.
J.T. Rogers: It’s okay to take a while to figure it out. It’s more satisfying.
Ansel Elgort: And it’s mysterious. And the show is a thriller so there should be mystery.
Awards Daily: That brings me to the person who directed the pilot, who seemed to be built for it, which is Michael Mann. Also my favorite filmmaker so if this had been called Tokyo Street Sweepers I probably would have watched it to be honest. (Laughs). Working with Michael, he’s such a specific sort of director, the over the shoulder shots, the visual style that he has. You have to maintain that throughout the show, but that template is definitely set in episode one by him of course. So what was it like working with Michael Mann?
Ansel Elgort: It’s perfect, because we wanted the show to be authentic. We wanted to feel, like we said, immersive. Michael is an immersive filmmaker. He wants everything to be authentic. If something doesn’t feel right or real he just doesn’t do it. I think it’s great that we had him do the pilot because he made such a great first piece that the other directors were inspired to also want to emulate, to make it feel real. I think that’s what a great director is able to do, keep it feeling real. And keep that pacing going.
Awards Daily: So J.T., in this show, there’s a lot of heavy scenes. There are also scenes that are lighter that kind of balance that heaviness out. The meth scene is fabulous. All the way from the dingy apartment to Ansel, your character trying to convince Eimi that you’re not high. That whole passage is wonderful and It doesn’t misstep and make you feel like you’re watching a different show. Talk about writing that scene J.T.
J.T. Rogers: Making a TV show is like an army, everything has to line up. I will say to have Rachel and Ansel commit so intensely to those moments is a gift as the author. There’s so little of it left, but Ansel remember the scene with all the takes we did of you talking about his tie? Wow I love your tie, I love your tie, is that your father’s tie? We just did endless takes because we needed a moment of levity so that was one of my favorite moments – we did about forty-five takes to get it right. Ultimately, you build out the show, and the scary/exciting thing about writing, especially an eight hour long film is, you go into the space with a very clear idea where you’re going but you have to be open to letting the story lead you where it needs to go. I’m just not interested in seeing a drama that doesn’t have humanity, and also doesn’t have humor, because real life toggles between strangely funny and dramatic.
Awards Daily: Ansel, your height is utilized a great deal. Thinking of the meth scene there’s a part where you get out on the street and start jumping up and down and it’s like you’re gonna fly out of frame. It’s really funny watching you let loose after having taken meth, and then fighting to rein yourself in when talking to Eimi.
Ansel Elgort: I was just trying to hit my head on the sign. (Laughs). To be honest, I might have been holding back a little bit, I think I could have really hit my head. It was fun. I never did any meth or any speed or anything like that, and I wasn’t going to take it for the role, because I know meth is really bad. I just figured I was on top of the world, could do anything, just going for it. It’s really funny when you see me especially at the beginning of the show where I’m first showing up at the office and Baku is like “Who is this guy? Who let this gaijin in here?” and I’m clearly offended and trying to find my place. Like you said, that part always cracks me up because it’s funny, even though it’s not slapstick silly and we’re not making jokes.
Awards Daily: There’s a scene that I really love too between Jake and Katagiri. It’s shot from the back which maintains the Michael Mann aesthetic. You and Ken are leaning against the car. You put your arm around him and he shrugs you off. Ken told me that was improved, the shrug off. He loved it and I loved it too. I read a description of the show that said Katagiri is like a father figure to you, and I thought no he’s more like the grumpy uncle. That’s how I took him.
Ansel Elgort: I think a part of Jake wants to have that kind of father figure, but then again, it would be very American to put your arm around someone. It’s so not Japanese. I was always trying to toe that line of doing things that you wouldn’t normally see in a Japanese show and that would just make it awkward and kind of funny. I think that Hikari (the director of that scene) might have whispered to me “Put your arm around him at the end of this take.” I don’t say no when the director asks me to make a crazy choice. I have no problem with it, but that was kind of a crazy choice. Put my arm around him? Ok yeah I get it.
Awards Daily: This is an amazing story. The fact that it is based on Jake’s actual experience is amazing enough. But it’s a tricky thing I would imagine, especially on your side J.T., in keeping a cultural balance in telling this story. You have Ansel’s character Jake and you have Rachel’s character Samantha and they’re obviously white people. Still, the show is excellent at showcasing the Japanese characters as well: Rinko Kikuchi’s character has more going on than just showing up to work, Katagiri in the finale when you see him at home. Those things are important to make it feel like it’s not just about the white dude.
J.T. Rogers: Yeah, the whole point was pay attention, things aren’t what they seem. The very structure, as organized by me, of the stories: we start with episode one where we’re following this foreign character and then all of a sudden as episode two opens up those seemingly unimportant people like the guy he happened to meet in the restroom with the tattoo is actually a major character. That girl singing on stage who gives him the brushoff over a cocktail, also a major character. So that we realize quickly about the show is Jake is first among equals of the ensemble. The deeper you get into it, like you mentioned, if you look at the page count we get less Ansel and more of the Japanese characters because we’re starting to tell the whole world and see how they all connect. This is hopefully the opposite of the white savior show.
Awards Daily: It’s obviously been very well received which has to feel nice. The critics were very kind to it. I talked to Alan Poul (director of the finale) and he had said that he feels very positive about the numbers the show did with HBO. How are you guys feeling about it now that the, hopefully, first season is done.
Ansel Elgort: I feel great. People approach me about it a lot. I have people come up to me in coffee shops or on the street or in restaurants really excited about Tokyo Vice. I know everybody is excited for what happens next. What a great experience it was too. We just had so much fun doing it which is important. I just feel amazing about it.
J.T. Rogers: Overall obviously we’re all ready. I’m getting calls and texts from Katagiri/Ken like “J.T., when are we starting? I’m ready.” We’re waiting for the magic box, from the powers that be at the new Warner Bros. company. I’m ready to go, I’ve got the story. We’re all excited. Hopefully we’ll be back in Japan soon. And if not, we’re gonna have a lot of angry people wanting to know about the cliffhangers.(Laughs).. It was all built from the beginning for us to end on a cliffhanger.
Awards Daily: I just want to ask, who do we have to kill to get a season two? (Laughs).
J.T. Rogers: I can’t say that without a lawyer present. (Laughs). It looks good. That’s what I will say. It looks very good. Never count your goose before it hatches. But I’m with Ansel. We’d love to go back. We’d love to do it. Engines are roaring.
Awards Daily: And Ansel, you’re up for more?
Ansel Elgort: Of course! I didn’t learn Japanese just to do one season. (Laughs). At the end of the day though no matter what, it was a great experience. I know that we ended in a cliffhanger, but I think we’re all very proud of what we did and we loved the experience and hopefully we can wrap things up. To me no matter what it feels like something to be proud of.
J.T. Rogers: Totally agree.
Note: At the time of this interview, Tokyo Vice had not been officially renewed for a second season. That changed as of June 7th, 2022. As it turns out, Ansel didn’t learn Japanese for just one season after all.