The Fast and Furious film franchise is unwavering in its ability to delight audiences. Across nine films, which have collectively brought in $6 billion at the box office, it has overdelivered on high-throttle action and heart-thumping storylines, welcoming an array of exciting new characters (and A-listers!) into the now infamous “family” along the way. For newcomer Anna Sawai, who joins the crew in F9: The Fast Saga, the franchise has always represented what could be in terms of diversity and inclusion in Hollywood. Growing up in New Zealand and Japan, seeing Asian actors on-screen in a major U.S. action film was a game changer for the 29-year-old, who left her J-pop group FAKY in 2018 to pursue acting full-time.
Since pivoting, Sawai has been steadily building her résumé, landing a role in the 2019 BBC crime drama Giri/Haji and, soon after, the part of Elle, a martial arts warrior, in F9. She seamlessly fits into the beloved Fast family, kicking ass and holding her own alongside franchise veterans. Later this year, Sawai will star in the Apple TV+ big-budget drama Pachinko, which is based on the Min Jin Lee novel of the same name. It’s a massive series with a story that unfolds over four generations and spans multiple continents. Needless to say, Sawai is one to watch. I caught up with the actress ahead of the F9 premiere—where, I should note, she stunned in a look by Brandon Maxwell, Tiffany & Co. jewels, and Sophia Webster heels—to talk about her badass summer role, not conforming to Hollywood stereotypes, and more.
You are new to the Fast and Furious franchise. What do you love about this film series?
It was a film that I grew up watching. It’s really big in Japan as well. They had Tokyo Drift, which was huge. In recent years, the industry has become a lot more diverse, and we are heading in the right direction, but back when the first film came out, I don’t think a lot of other films had as much diversity. It’s been very inclusive since the beginning. Seeing people who look like me is what I really love about the films.
The Fast and Furious cast is a pretty tight-knit crew. Did you feel you integrated into the “family” pretty quickly?
I definitely felt like the new girl, and I was really nervous because stepping into something that is really tight-knit, like you said, is nerve-racking. There are huge stars [in this film], too, so that was another reason I was preparing myself for the film. But they really welcomed me with open arms and were so warm. They made me feel like I was part of the family even though I was a new kid. I would say now I feel a lot more confident saying I’m part of their family.
Let’s talk about your character Elle, who is an expert martial arts warrior. Outside of all of the intense training, how did this role challenge you as an actor?
She does a lot of action, like you said, but the training itself wasn’t really tough on me. I’ve done action training for maybe two years in total, and it was a lot of fun, but what was more challenging was feeling confident with the cast—not feeling like I shouldn’t be here. We had a scene [that] was pretty emotional, and we did so many takes, and after we shot for about two or three days, I found out that they were going to make changes to the script, and we had to reshoot everything on my last day. So emotionally preparing for that was quite challenging.
What are you most excited for audiences to see with this character?
I’m excited for people to see an Asian female who is not afraid of kicking ass. She is really badass, but it’s not like she’s just a fighter because she’s Asian. She’s had a traumatic past, and there is a reason why she’s had to learn how to protect herself. I’m excited for people to learn her backstory.
You have a fight scene with two badass Fast and Furious veterans, Michelle Rodriguez and Jordana Brewster. What did you learn from them while working behind the scenes and watching them perform?
I would say there are actually a lot more badass characters, including Charlize Theron and Nathalie Emmanuel. Everyone is really badass, but I had a fighting scene with Jordana and Michelle, and they are so unapologetic. They are so confident in who they are, and me being the younger and newer person, I was like, “Oh, am I doing this okay?” and questioning myself at times. They taught me that you don’t have anything to worry about, just be yourself, just be confident in what you do, trust yourself, and you are here for a reason.
Do you have a favorite fight scene from the film?
I was able to go to Tbilisi in Georgia, and no one else was there. It was literally just the second unit. I got to ride this huge armory truck and shoot a machine gun. It was blanks, but you could still really shoot it on the streets of Tbilisi, and that was such a sensational feeling to really be there, not just on a set. To actually feel the atmosphere and feel the gun and basically just be a badass was amazing. The first time I shot it, my hands were shaking. I had never shot a gun before, and it was scary at first, but then you just feel like you can conquer the world.
Later this year, you are starring in the Apple TV+ series Pachinko, an adaptation of Min Jin Lee’s acclaimed novel. It’s an epic drama and a huge production filmed across multiple continents with dialogue in Korean, Japanese, and English. Can you tell me about your experience working on the series?
It was honestly such a special project to me because being able to tell the story of my character, who is working in a male-dominated industry and not being taken seriously. I know so many women who have faced similar things. And even now, I think gender equality in Japan is not where it needs to be. So to be able to tell her story really meant a lot. To shoot with this [cast and crew], they really took it seriously, and it was really something that spoke to them. No one was there just to have fun. It was so meaningful. Also, this was my first project that I knew I would be working on for multiple seasons, so we were able to really create it from the beginning, and it felt like everyone was included in it creatively.
What can we look forward to in terms of your character Naomi?
She has such a strong personality, but because we are talking about the ’80s, it wasn’t like she could just say whatever she wanted to say. You can really feel the struggle of knowing what you want to do and having an opinion but having to … conceal it and making adjustments where she could. I can’t really say too much because not a lot is revealed yet, but I am sure a lot of women will be able to relate to her.
So your part of the story is set in the ’80s. Does that mean we will get some good ’80s fashion moments as well?
You will definitely see ’80s fashion, but she is mostly in the office, so it’s not the crazy fashion you might think. It’s not like übercolorful or big hair, but it’s a lot of shoulder pads.
You are still early into your acting career. What would you like to achieve in the next five years?
I think it’s really important that I choose the roles that don’t fit into the stereotypical Asian roles that have been around for a long time. I think Naomi is definitely one of those. In terms of projects, I would love to do a role where the race [of the character] doesn’t matter. So it’s an open-ethnicity role. Most of the [auditions] I’ve done are looking for an Asian actress, so I would like to challenge myself to those kinds of [open] roles. I know the competition is that much more because everyone is auditioning for it, but that would be a good challenge for me. In terms of stories, I really love drama. Although, I like to escape in a crazy sci-fi world, too. I would love to tell a story based on an actual person’s life or true events. That would be a lot of fun and also a lot of pressure.
Who are some of the actors or creators you admire in terms of their career choices?
I grew up loving Angelina Jolie. What really drew me to her was that she was not only a beautiful and great actress, but behind the camera, you can tell she is so passionate about philanthropy. I love Carey Mulligan. I have always loved her films, but watching her in Promising Young Woman made me realize how much more I love her. I recently watched Cruella, and Emma Stone is just so good! She is always great, but this felt like a completely new type of Disney film. I think what I love about the actors I mentioned is that they can do very different types of roles. It’s not always the same. I love Natalie Portman. The list goes on and on. They are all super powerful, confident, and assertive.
Before pursuing a career in acting, you were a lead vocalist in a J-pop girl group called FAKY. Can you tell me about that experience, and do you think you will go back into music at some point?
Return to music? No. I am not confident in my singing. I would love to sound like Whitney Houston, but I don’t, so I don’t think I will. What I would love to do is musical films. Mamma Mia!, Les Misérables, those kinds of movies I do love. But I don’t know. Never say never. Maybe? It’s just not something I’m trying to do right now.
I was looking back at some of the old FAKY music videos and press images, and it’s clear fashion played a big role in your overall aesthetic as a group. What is your relationship to fashion these days?
Well, back then, I definitely did a lot more experimenting. I was wearing things that I probably wouldn’t wear right now. I always go for the same stuff, which I need to stop doing, but the most important thing is that I feel comfortable and confident. Even if you are following the trends, if you don’t feel like you look good in it or you don’t feel completely comfortable, it shows. Even if you are wearing something really different but you're owning it, that’s all that matters. So I try to find something that I, at least, feel good in. I’m quite short, so I need to make sure that I find something that won’t make me look tiny. I will wear wide-leg jeans with nice platform sandals so I don’t look as small as I am, and then I’ll wear something that is fitted on top because I don’t want to wear something that is wide, as that will accentuate my height.
So your approach to style is different as an actor?
Yeah. Back then when we would walk down the street, people would see us, and they would be like, “Oh that’s Anna from this group.” But now, I am an actor, and people know me for the roles that I do, but they don’t expect to see that when they see me on the street. So I have the liberation of just being whoever I want to be versus making sure I’m still the image they see on stage.
What are the pieces or trends you have your eye on for summer?
Thong shoes. Do they have those in high heels? If I can find those that are actually high heels, that would be great. When I recently went shopping, I got a lot of maxi skirts, and I never used to wear them, but I think this season I’m pulling them out a little more, and it’s nice because they are so easy.
Catch Anna Sawai in F9: The Fast Saga, in theaters now.
Photographer: Akina Chan
Hairstylist: Erin Klassen
Makeup Artist: Minjee Mowat
Stylist: Marchel Eang