CHIAKI KURIYAMA KNOWS exactly what you’re thinking. It’s been just over a decade now since the Japanese actress bludgeoned her way into the world’s collective psyche thanks to her role as the brutal bodyguard tasked with protecting Lucy Liu’s character in director Quentin Tarantino’s smash hit Kill Bill: Volume 1. Before that, there was Kuriyama’s role in the ultra-violent Battle Royale (2000), Japan’s pre-Hunger Games blockbuster that courted controversy for its violent content wherever it screened.
But the 29-year-old is quick to point out any correlation between those on-screen characters and the woman you meet in the flesh is pure fantasy – those roles are exactly that, roles – and that it was the chance to play a bit of make-believe that first led her into acting as a teenager. With 20 films now to her credit, Kuriyama has become one of the region’s most recognisable stars, a fact acknowledged at the Asian Film Awards (AFAs) in March when she was handed a Rising Star of Asia Award.
In recent years the actress has turned pop star in her own country with a string of hits, and contributions to soundtracks that have expanded her range as well as her brand.
When we catch up for a chat just before the AFAs, Kuriyama settles in to explain how much working with Tarantino has meant to her career – and what she has planned for the future.
Are you a regular film festivalgoer?
Last year was actually the first time I had been to the Tokyo International Film Festival [where she acted as the festival’s “muse”]. To be surrounded by all those people involved in film was exciting and a very new experience for me. I was happy to help in any way I could. It was a great honour and I’m happy to come to Macau for the Asian Film Awards.
Do you regularly visit these parts?
Hong Kong is a favourite place of mine to visit and I’ve been here a few times before. To come here, and to pick up an award, is a great honour for me but it also means I’ll have to work harder in the future to live up to this award.
How did you enter the entertainment business?
When I was five I started on a contract with a talent agency, modelling in magazines. When I was 14 I got my first role – in Shikoku  – and that’s where it all started. That’s when I knew that I wanted to be an actress.
Has the job allowed you the chance to explore aspects of your own personality?
Well in that first role I played a zombie – so no! But it did make me realise that being an actor allows you to experience things you would never otherwise get a chance to. It’s make-believe, but also you get to explore different parts of yourself too – things you might not ever really get a chance to explore in real life.
What are the challenges acting presents?
Through acting I can surprise myself. The roles I am given allow me to bring out these parts of myself that might otherwise stay hidden.
Was that the case with Battle Royale?
The director actually gave me a number of roles to audition for and then decided which character I was going to play after that. I’d never really done action before so it taught me a lot about how to act with force, or to be aggressive. They sent us all on a boot camp to get us ready for the film. It was tough as I’m not really athletic and they had us running around and doing all these physical things. It wasn’t supposed to be an R-rated film so we were worried at first that this would mean it would attract a smaller audience, but the way it was advertised, as well as word of mouth, made it really popular.
What about the controversy over the violence in the film?
Well, the violence is a part of the story and is used to tell the story. For me personally, as the film travelled around the world, more people saw my work and saw what I was capable of, so this was a great result for me.
And that led to you being cast in Kill Bill.
Yes. When the call came through I was very nervous. It was my first time working on an international movie. But when I talked to Quentin he made me relaxed and his personality makes it fun. His enthusiasm for his work is infectious. Each director brings a specific passion to their projects and as actors we can feed off the passion.
The roles you’ve taken since have been quite diverse – was this deliberate?
I was worried that people would just know me for these sorts of cult films – horror, or action, or whatever. So I’m looking to do as much now as I can and have recently tried things such as comedy and voice-overs for animation. I’ve come to a point where I want to break down the stereotypes that people might have in their minds when they think of me. I’m happy that people have that image of me – it means that people respect what I’ve done in the past – but I think that it’s important to keep evolving and to keep trying new things.
What are your favourite films?
I’m not the type to watch thousands of films. I’m the kind of person who finds a favourite film and watches it over and over again. I was like that with all Quentin’s movies. Once I knew I was going to work with him, I just watched everything he’d done over and over again. He gave me a tremendous opportunity and I can never thank him enough for that. But it wasn’t just that, it was about working with him closely – to have my name associated with him has really helped my career. And I love his films, and the style that he brings to the films he makes.
What about Japanese film-makers – do you have any heroes?
Yes. By the same token Kinji Fukasaku (Battle Royale) was a huge influence on me and on my career. If it weren’t for him casting me in Battle Royale I wouldn’t have been offered the role in Kill Bill. That film was the one that really started my career. It was a great learning experience.
How did your musical career come about?
Music is a relatively new thing to me but it’s really just another way that I can express myself. There’s a difference: how you express yourself in music is a lot closer to the person that you actually are. The music part of my career is refreshing and new for me. It gives my life a balance and a fresh challenge that I hope I can keep exploring.
How do you escape from all the attention you get in Japanese media?
I love anime and Japanese comic books. So when I want to get away from everything I read comic books and watch anime. They provide my great escape. But my job allows me to go to different countries and eat all these different foods and try their wine. I’m lucky to get the chance to do this.
What do you have planned, looking forward?
Right now I feel like I’m in a comfort zone. I’m happy but I know I have to find some new challenges. That’s what makes a person endure as an artist. It can be a hard thing to do but I know I have to keep moving forward.
I’m about to enter my 30s, so I know things like playing schoolgirls are over for me. I’m looking forward to getting more challenging roles in the future so I can develop my talents as an actor.