For the John Wick: Chapter 4 premiere, Rina Sawayama is bleaching her eyebrows and thinking about wearing purple contacts. These selections could seem a little strange to many folks. However, for the model turned pop star turned assassin in an action film, everything may be done to create the glitz, the moment, or the appearance. She is willing to take chances since, after all, that’s how she got here. I get down with her to catch up hours before she enters the red carpet and watch as the makeup artists quickly transform her appearance from lovely to goddess-like.
“John Wick is a miracle movie to me,” she says. “I’ve been doing auditions and self-tapes in the background of music for years, but I hadn’t landed anything. Then I got a call from Chad Stahelski, the director, and he’d seen my music videos. He asked what I was doing for the next three months. I’d finished the bulk of my writing for the second record and had a gap in my schedule. I was in Berlin three days later. The ink on the contract hadn’t even dried when I began stunt training.” Sawayama plays Akira, the concierge and daughter of the Osaka Continental Hotel owner, and a bow-and-arrow-wielding action antihero herself. The stunt training to prepare for the role was no joke: five weeks of daily, nonstop work, night shoots from one to five in the morning, and constant drills.
“A tour is easy compared to this,” she says. “It was the most intense thing I’ve ever done. In music, I know what I’m doing onstage. I know my groove. But acting is completely new, and I was learning in a very high-pressure situation. It taught me I can push myself even more. We did five hours of exercise every day — and there were times I’d get through half the day and really not want to do it. But you push through,” she adds. “When I feel like I’m dying, I can tap into this place, locate where the tiredness is, and shine a light on it.” Sawayama threw her back out the first day of drills and pushed through until production insisted she get help. After recovering, she went right back to work.
This role was a lucky break, but also one for which she set the stage. “I codirect some of my videos and write some of my videos, as well. So I wrote into my videos that I’ll be, like, acting as a character… doing a fight scene. Honestly, I was thinking [then], If I’ve got this budget to do this music video, I’m going to also make it my acting portfolio,” she explained to Jimmy Fallon. The intention she set came true. “[Chad] said, ‘Keanu and I watched [those videos] and we were so impressed because clearly, you do stunts… and clearly, you can act.’” They gambled that she could learn a little more.
“I feel fortunate that I was given such a mysterious character,” Sawayama says. “She has her own life, she has depth. When I was little, watching Asians onscreen meant Memoirs of a Geisha. In hindsight, I recognize that it was an exploitative movie. But we only had moments like that. And now, we’re in a great time for storytelling. With moments like what happened at the Oscars with Everything Everywhere All at Once. It’s an Asian story that won! A story about identity, it’s not just about the immigrant experience. It’s about queerness, as well. It makes you fall in love with filmmaking.” Sawyama was quoted saying that she’d love to see Michelle Yeoh, star of EEAAO, play Akira’s mother in the John Wick universe one day.
Talks of a fifth John Wick film aren’t in the works, for now, and Sawayama is gearing up to go back onstage for more shows with her Hold the Girl tour. It’s a chance for her to delve deeper into storytelling as performance. “I wish I’d taken more time, even six months, to nail down the creative storytelling for this second album,” she says. “I care a lot about looking hot, but what makes me happy is looking like an old salaryman, like in ‘Bad Friend,’ or a weird robot with a wig on.” On tour, she does her own makeup to ground herself before performing.
“It gives me something to do off my phone, and it’s very ritualistic. I do something different every night,” she explains, lighting up at the memories of glitter and possibility. Now, in the glam chair in her hotel room, she swatches every shade of shimmer her makeup artist for the night, Melissa Hurkman, hands her, analyzing them with the critical eye of an obsessive. The three of us crouch together in a huddle as she waves her arm around, watching the colors hit different rays of light in the room. “Can you pass me the palette you showed me before?” she asks Hurkman, recalling a greige Chantecaille shade buried under a pile of palettes splayed out in front of her.
Sawayama’s exacting eye finds the shade she’ll wear tonight, the one that sets off her outfit with the highest payoff. The look, by the end of the glam session, is reminiscent of ’90s-era Kevyn Aucoin, one of Sawayama’s favorite sources of inspiration. “Making Faces, by Kevyn Aucoin… I love very soft, smoky eyes, warm and diffused, a bit of grease, and frosted eye shadow,” she says, describing her ideal look with nostalgia one might have for a precious childhood stuffed animal.