By Hye-Hin Kim
AsAmNews Staff Writer
The film Ready Player One is shaping up to be director Steven Spielberg’s next box office hit, raking in $53.2 million over its Easter weekend debut in U.S. theaters. The sci-fi thriller is also studio Warner Bros.’ biggest release in China to date, grossing nearly $25 million on opening day.
Based on a best-selling book by Ernest Cline, the movie’s dystopian plot is set in 2045 and follows the adventures of five youngsters as they search for hidden treasure in a virtual reality game called the Oasis. Tye Sheridan (Wade) leads the team of protagonists, played by Olivia Cooke (Samantha), Lena Waithe (Helen), Win Morisaki (Daito) and Philip Zhao (Sho).
Both Morisaki and Zhao are Hollywood newcomers, selected through an open casting call for two Asian male actors.
Morisaki auditioned in Japan, before flying to Los Angeles to meet Spielberg, himself. “Steven [Spielberg] was in front of me, and I was so nervous,” Morisaki said to AsAm News. “Maybe I did well.”
He did well enough to impress the Oscar-winning director and land a supporting role.
In Ready Player One, Morisaki plays Daito, a Japanese samurai warrior with martial arts superpowers. Myanmar-born Morisaki, 27, is now a Japanese actor and singer in the boy band PrizmaX. He said his experience performing on-stage helped get into character.
“There are a lot of similar points between Daito and me. He’s always acting like a warrior in Oasis, so he’s acting very confident,” Morisaki said. “When I perform on stage, I feel confidence, like I can be anyone.”
This is Morisaki’s first Hollywood film. And it left an impression — so much that he considers leaving Japan to pursue acting.
“I’m thinking about moving to the U.S. someday. I want to do a real live action movie.” he said. “My dream is in five years, I’m going to be the next Ken Watanabe (an Oscar nominee for The Last Samurai). In 10 years, I’m going to get an Academy Award.”
He noted that filming in Hollywood occurred at a more leisurely pace than he was used to in Japan. Instead of working “so hard” for two or three weeks straight, the four month-long shoot gave him two free days each week to rehearse his lines and improve his English. He also spent time bonding with his 14-year old costar Zhao, who plays Daito’s sidekick and protege Sho, off-camera.
“Daito and Sho are the dynamic duo,” Zhao said. “To put that on the big screen, we had to be the dynamic duo in real life.”
Often, the two would play video games in between scenes; FIFA was a favorite.
“He was like my real little brother. He loved me.” Morisaki laughed. “Everyday, he was like ‘Win, let’s do it. Let’s play soccer. Win, do you want to hang out with me?’ We stayed in the same hotel, so we spent a lot of time together.”
For Zhao’s 13th birthday, that happened during the shoot, Morisaki surprised him with the latest version of his favorite video game, NBA 2k, and an extra controller to play with. The cast also gifted him an iPad and Spielberg arranged for a cake and ice cream celebration on-set.
The young Chinese American actor grew up in Maryland and Ready Player One is his first time acting, ever — no school plays, no camps or master classes. Though he remembers dreaming of becoming a Hollywood actor when he was six years old, he didn’t think much of it by age 10.
“I was like, nah, it’s not going to happen,” he said.
Then his father, Liang Zhao who works for the FDA, came across the film’s open casting call in WeChat, a popular Chinese social media app.
Zhao always knew his son had charisma, telling funny stories and warming an audience with ease, and recognized his early love for the camera. He remembers finding self-taped videos on his wife’s phone of a five-year-old Philip trying to report the news. And though he hadn’t signed his son up for acting classes or camps, taking the more “traditional Asian” route to focus on academics, he thought Philip might fit the casting bill: young, male, Chinese American, bilingual. So they sent in a tape.
Now with a Spielberg credit to his name, Philip Zhao is rekindling his dreams for the big screen.
His ideal role? “It’s either going to be like an Avenger, or I want to be in the next Jumanji.”
When asked his thoughts on his son’s new career aspirations, Liang Zhao said he’s open-minded: “In the Asian community, we have kids who are funny and very good at communication, networking and acting. I think that’s great for the American community, overall. We can make movies together. It’s brilliant.”
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