Tokyo-based casting director Ko Iwagami has titles like Lena Dunham’s Girls and Drake Doremus’ Equals to his name, as well as more recent credits that include Netflix’s The Naked Director series. You can also anticipate seeing his casting work on the upcoming HBO Max show Tokyo Vice, as well as the Apple TV+ onscreen series adaptation of Min Jin Lee’s novel Pachinko. With a busy slate, Iwagami took the time to virtually sit down with Casting Networks and provide a window into the person behind all the credits.
It’s great to virtually meet you, Ko, and I’d love to start right at the beginning. When was the moment you knew that casting was the job for you?
Growing up, my dream was to go to the U.S. to make movies. I was a big fan of film, especially the work of Steven Spielberg, and Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park were two of my favorites. Seeing those movies inspired me to go study abroad in the U.S. to pursue filmmaking, and I convinced my parents to let me do it. After I finished junior high in Japan, I moved to Connecticut by myself to attend high school.
Wow. I am impressed you did that at such an early age.
Because I loved Hollywood films, I only knew the U.S. from movies I’d seen at the time, and I didn’t speak English. But my parents suggested started early with learning the language in the states so that I could be prepared and fully capable to eventually go to college there. After graduating high school, I went to a school in New Mexico that was then called College of Santa Fe — now it’s the Santa Fe University of Art and Design — for filmmaking. That included studying all the various roles, such as writing, directing, producing, etc. Acting stood out as an area of study that I particularly enjoyed, and I started appearing in classmates’ projects. It was around the time that The Last Samurai and Letters from Iwo Jima came out, and I saw for the first time Japanese actors collaborating with big American stars like Tom Cruise and filmmakers like Clint Eastwood, walking on the red carpet at the Academy Awards. It made me think that if I kept pursuing acting, I could maybe someday get to a point where I was buying a house in Beverly Hills.
That is definitely a sign of success!
As I kept acting in my classmates’ films, though, it started feeling like people perceived my strength as an actor to be the uniqueness of my position as the only Japanese boy on campus. The feedback I received from student directors was that I had such an uncommon perspective, which was different than if the focus was just on my storytelling abilities. I also started auditioning outside of college for Santa Fe-based projects, such as local commercials, but wasn’t booking anything. Where I found momentum, though, was as a casting assistant. Since I went to film school, I had the skills to tape the sessions and edit the audition videos really quickly.
I bet that came in handy.
Yes, and since New Mexico doesn’t have a large Asian population, casting directors started coming to me when they were looking for Asian actors. I would do my own small casting sessions, and when someone I recommended to them would get the part, it was as if I’d booked the role. I was just so excited for the actor, and it felt good to be a part of making the project more authentic and taking it to the next level. So the moment I knew that casting was the right job for me came pretty early at the beginning of my career in the industry.
And now you have your own casting company in Tokyo called KAIJU INC. Shifting gears here, I have to ask you my favorite question. If someone made a film about your life, which actor would you cast to play the role of Ko Iwagami?
That is such an interesting question and a difficult one to answer. Firstly, the film would need to have humor in it because my journey so far has been one of laughter and excitement. There also have been some unfortunate events, but my life has been filled with so many happy encounters that I couldn’t imagine anything other than a comedy to tell my story. From a director’s point of view, I would love to use the evolution of my ability to speak English as an outline for the progress of my career. In other words, as the film covered distinct periods in my life, such as attending high school in Connecticut and college in Santa Fe, it could use the progression of my English skills to create different benchmarks for my growing experience in the industry.
That’s such a fascinating way to outline a film that tells your story.
The only Japanese actor who could play that character would be Yuki Matsuzaki, who is one of the most respected Japanese Hollywood actors in the industry. He’s a master of linguistics and can tweak the phonetics of his speech to reflect how a native Japanese speaker would pronounce different English words during the various stages of learning the language. Plus, he’s a very skilled comedic actor who can also play extremely serious characters. And just like me, he also moved to the states at a young age, so his story resembles mine.
He sounds like the perfect choice! I feel like this film could also cover a number of benchmark moments in your career.
There are many — I’ll share a few. At 20, I worked as an intern on the set of a real Hollywood movie for the first time, the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men. Then after graduating from college, my first job on which I got hired for a full-time paid position came at the age of 23 with Todd Phillips’ Due Date. My first job as a casting assistant was at 24 when I helped cast Patricia Riggen’s Lemonade Mouth. When I was 26, I worked in production for Joss Whedon’s The Avengers, which was a dream come true! I was just one year older when I came back to Japan with The Avengers producers to work on James Mangold’s The Wolverine. Age 31 was when I started KAIJU INC., and then this year was when another dream of mine came true. I became a member of Casting Society of America!
And since you also have a number of impressive commercial credits to your name, Ko, I’d love to hear about one of the spots you’re most proud of before we wrap.
Uber Eats’ global “Tonight I’ll Be Eating…” campaign comes to mind because I’m casting the installment of it for Japan. The idea is to pair up two celebrities that no one would think of putting together on the same screen. They of course have to like the concept and agree to the commercial terms, but besides that, there’s no limit to your creativity as a casting director. The sky’s the limit. It’s such a fun project to work on, and the spots I’ve cast so far are getting great reviews. This past October, the campaign was chosen as the most favorite one in Japan from over 6,500 brands!
Those interested in learning more about Iwagami can check out his Instagram page, as well as the website for KAIJU INC. There, you can find out additional information about his work and mission “to bring amazing Japanese talents to the international stage.”
This interview has been edited and condensed.