Sonoya Mizuno has been in Japan for the past month or so, a stay that’s lasted longer than she expected. Mizuno arrived inTokyo with her family after her father passed away, and has been stuck there since the coronavirus pandemic upended global travel. During this supremely disorienting time for the actor, the biggest project of her career, Devs, has been airing on FX on Hulu to wide acclaim. The techno thriller marks Mizuno’s third project with Alex Garland, who wrote and directed the cerebral science fiction films Ex Machina and Annihilation, both of which Mizuno appears in. But Devs, an eight-part miniseries that costars Nick Offerman and Allison Pill, marks Mizuno’s first lead role playing Lily Chan, a software engineer investigating the mysterious disappearance of her boyfriend at the quantum computing company Amaya. As is Garland’s wont, the show ricochets between pulpy murder mystery and profound metaphysical head-trip. Mizuno helps to carry the show with a subtlety that belies the crackling personalities she’s portrayed in projects like Maniac and Crazy Rich Asians. We recently spoke to Mizuno over the phone from Tokyo about her longtime collaboration with Garland, the frustrating realities of acting, and why technology leaves her unsettled.
SONOYA MIZUNO: You’ve got a bit of a sleepy brain to deal with, because of the time differences I literally just woke up
SHANTI ESCALANTE: You’re at home in Japan right now?
MIZUNO: I’m in Tokyo, yeah. It’s not really my home, but it’s where my dad has always lived. He just passed away, which is why I’m here.
ESCALANTE: I’m so sorry to hear that.
MIZUNO: Thank you.
ESCALANTE: Were you planning on staying in Japan, or have you found yourself trapped?
MIZUNO: No, I absolutely wasn’t planning on being here this long. We have a lot of things to sort out here, but the virus is the main reason. My flight back to America was canceled. My sibling’s flight back to the UK was also getting canceled. We are all living in his house together at the moment, for a while.
ESCALANTE: How is it there? I know that from the outside looking in the U.S. it must look kind of crazy, but it looks like Japan has been looking kind of reasonable, kind of calm.
MIZUNO: Yes, it does seem to be a lot calmer than in the UK, and the U.S. for sure, and the rest of Europe. Who knows if the worst is yet to come. It seems like they would be very lucky if they avoid the tragedy that has been everywhere else. I think people are taking measures to be careful, and the lockdown officially started here last week. So hopefully they don’t experience the kind of tragedy that’s happened elsewhere, but it’s difficult to say.
ESCALANTE: How have you been filling up the hours?
MIZUNO: Well, I’ve actually been really busy because we’ve had a lot of boring things to do in regards to my dad’s passing. So I’ve kept really busy, but I also try to do Open University degrees. So I also have, for the first time, no excuses to not hand in my coursework on time.
ESCALANTE: You’re going to university?
MIZUNO: Yeah, it’s an online university. It’s one that’s set up in London called The Open University. You do most of it online, but there are some [in-person] classes.
ESCALANTE: What are you studying?
MIZUNO: Arts and humanities. And as I get further along with it, I’ll probably specialize in something more specific like English literature or art history. But at the moment, I’m broadly studying literature, art history, music, history, the classics, philosophy, that kind of thing.
ESCALANTE: I wouldn’t expect someone who started to have such an exciting acting career to begin a university course. What led to that?
MIZUNO: Well, I’ve always been interested in doing further education. But, the experience of being an actor can feel very different from what it looks like as an outsider looking in. Truthfully, apart from this last year, I had very bad luck with work. A lot of jobs I was doing got canceled and fell apart. I did tons of auditions. This kind of pattern is very common in an actor’s life. It’s something I’d been experiencing since I started, and it can be very disheartening. About a year ago I thought I needed to take this into my own hands and do something about it, and give myself something that would occupy me in a way that I needed to be occupied when disappointment and rejections happen. So I just signed up and did it, and it’s not cheap, so you have to do it once you sign up for it.
ESCALANTE: How did you know acting was something that you could do, after dedicating all of your early years to dance? What did it take to trust yourself?
MIZUNO: The truth is that I didn’t know, and I still don’t know. I had a desire to do it from a young age. The reason I started dancing was because I wanted to learn how to act, and my uncle, an actor, suggested I learn how to dance first. When I became unsatisfied in my dance career, it kept cropping to the surface, and the more I ignored it, the more it refused to go away. So I basically took a massive risk, and I didn’t know when I left my job to do Ex Machina that there would be any work that followed. I was very unaware of the difficulties with getting work and getting agents, and you hear about the hard life of an actor, but you don’t really know what it’s like until you live it.
ESCALANTE: What is it like seeing Devs come out now, after having finished working on it over a year ago?
MIZUNO: It’s strange, isn’t it, because that’s all so disconnected. It’s really lovely to get nice feedback from people who connect to the show. As far as I’m concerned, I’d done my job when I did it, and I did it to the best that I could, and I’m learning to let the job go then because otherwise it’s very difficult. You can get wrapped up in what happens to it when it comes out, which isn’t really the reason why I do it.
ESCALANTE: It’s definitely been generating a lot of buzz.
MIZUNO: It’s weird because being so far away, and not having social media, I don’t really know what the buzz is, but that’s lovely to hear.
ESCALANTE: How did you start preparing for this role?
MIZUNO: It’s different to anything I’ve played, and the part was so much bigger than anything I’ve done. There was the endurance aspect, but I had a long period of prep. I got the role in April, we started filming at the end of August, so I really spent that time prepping very hard. I was lucky to be working with Alex. He and I have worked together many times before, so the trust was already there.
We had all the scripts before we started shooting, which was so unusual because usually you’d get the scripts as you’re going along, so you don’t really know what the journey of your character is. Which has positives to it as well, but for this being my first time I led a project, it was really helpful to have all of them before so I had a lot of time to prep and figure out who she was and why she was doing the things she was doing.
ESCALANTE: When characters start talking about the technological aspects, I have to trust that what they’re saying makes sense. Have you done the research that would allow you to know what these words even mean?
MIZUNO: We all got quite geeky about it. That’s partly due to the fact that Alex had written and directed it, and he understands all of this so thoroughly and deeply that he was able to explain it to us very clearly. One of the things I love about this job is you get to learn these other facets of the world that you may otherwise not encounter. A few of us spent some time with people who work in the Google quantum computing lab in Santa Barbara. Alex and I, and the FX supervisor, Andrew Whitehurst, got to sit in a meeting at the Google quantum computing lab. It was quite amazing, I didn’t understand a single sentence they were saying.
ESCALANTE: You mentioned that this is your third project with Alex Garland. How has your relationship as a collaborator with him changed throughout these different projects?
MIZUNO: The thing about Alex is he treats everyone on his set as equals. And when I say everyone, I mean everyone. Everyone in the cast and the crew are treated as equal collaborators, and everyone’s opinions are valid, and everyone is supported. I felt like that when I auditioned for Ex Machina and I felt that on the last day of Devs.
ESCALANTE: What is your general stance on how tech is influencing our lives?
MIZUNO: I have my own disquiet about it, which has always been there. I don’t know if I’m born in the wrong century or what, but I find things like social media very difficult to contend with. What I find a bit scary is how fast it changes our lives, and how it feels like our governments and the way that our society is structured, we don’t have control over how fast it’s changing our lives. The people who do have control are the people who run these tech companies, and their motives may be questionable.
ESCALANTE: Can you describe your setting a bit for me? Do you have a view that you’re looking out of?
MIZUNO: It’s quite sunny, actually. In Tokyo the houses aren’t huge, and my dad did, by Tokyo standards, have a lovely little house. At the moment there are two bedrooms, and I’m one of six siblings. Two of my sisters have children, so we’re all cramped in this small house and we pull out these futons every night. We share a futon on the floor in what was his office. So I’m currently lying on this futon in this office that’s halfway being packed up. Like a lot of people, I don’t exactly recognize my life right now.