SHIP COMMANDER SPEAKS! Kent Gilbert Talks ‘Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah’!

Kent Gilbert in August 2011. Photo © Brett Homenick.

Kent Gilbert, a native of the Mountain West, was born in Pocatello, Idaho, and grew up in Orem, Utah. He went on to study at Brigham Young University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree, an MBA, and a law degree. While working as a lawyer in Tokyo, he obtained acting jobs in commercials and television programs, which ultimately led to the role of the World War II-era ship commander in Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991). Mr. Gilbert revealed all the behind-the-scenes secrets about his memorable performance in a 2005 interview with Brett Homenick.

Brett Homenick: First of all, what led you to come to Japan?

Kent Gilbert: Well, first of all, I went to Japan the first time when I was 19 as a missionary, and it was just for a two-year assignment. So, when I was 21, I went back to college and graduated. Since I had lived there for two years, I picked up the language, so I studied the language at university and ended up majoring in Japanese and international relations, a double major. Just before I graduated, they had an expo down in Okinawa, and so I went down and worked for that for the U.S. government for six or seven months. Then I came back and graduated and went back to graduate school, law school. When I got a job as an attorney, I went to work for Baker & McKenzie, which at the time was the world’s largest law firm, based out of Chicago. I was assigned to their Tokyo office, and so that’s how I got to Japan so many times. That was in 1980.

BH: So you went to Japan because of your law firm?

KG: Yeah, this time.

BH: How’d you get your start in acting over in Japan?

KG: That was an interesting thing. In Tokyo, they have a theater group. It’s called Tokyo International Players, and it’s been there probably 90 years or 100 years. It’s just people who are expatriates who are in Japan, and who like theater, and they just get together and do five shows a year. Sometimes it’s a musical; sometimes it’s a stage play.  They were doing The Imaginary Invalid, and my friend was directing it, but the guy who was supposed to play the young suitor, the young guy in the thing, dropped out because his wife had complications with her pregnancy. So he came to me and he said, “I only got a month to go, (and) I really need you to come be in this stage play.” I said, “Well, you know, I’m really busy as an international attorney, and I don’t want a bad review in The Japan Times.” He said, “Well, you gotta help me out.” So I did that.

When I did that, one of their Japanese TV producers came to see it. It just so happened that the girl I was playing opposite, he had already scheduled to use her in a commercial. He needed somebody to play opposite her in the commercial. He looked at us on the stage, and he thought, “Hey, he’d be all right.” So he came and asked me. I said, “Sure, if it doesn’t conflict with work.” He said, “Oh, no, we’re filming over a long weekend.”  I said, “Okay, great. So I’ll do that.” That was the first thing I ever did, and then one thing led to another. Within three months, I was on a really highly-rated game show. We had 30% ratings in a 10:00 p.m. time slot if you can imagine. So that’s how it started. The commercial went well, so they said, “Do you want to do a little drama piece?” I did a little drama piece, and then somebody saw that and said, “Do you want to do a quiz show?” So I did that. We got high ratings on that, and so everybody knew me after that.

BH: Just to backtrack a little, I’ve read that you came to Japan to work as a missionary, but would you say it was more your work with the law firm that led you to Japan?

KG: Well, I came as a missionary in 1971. But that was only for a two-year thing. So I went back. That was what originally got me to Japan, but the reason I’m working in Japan now is because I did come here with the law firm, yes.

BH: How’d you get your role in Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah?

KG: You know, I don’t know, to tell you the honest truth. (laughs) Our office arranged for several of the Americans in that one, Daniel Kahl and Chuck Wilson and all those. We were in the same office. They arranged it. So I don’t remember how they did it.

BH: How’d you find out you got the role?

KG: My manager told me. (laughs) He called me up and said, “Hey, you’re going to be in a Godzilla flick!” I go, “Oh, my gosh! My dream come true! What do I play?” He says, “Oh, you’re just a military guy.” I go, “Oh, okay.” (laughs)

BH: Now when you found out that you got the role, did you do any preparation for it? Did you watch any old Godzilla movies or do any military research?

KG: I did not, the reason being that I watched a lot of Godzilla movies anyway. I had worked with the director once before on something else — I can’t remember what it was. But anyway, I just got the script and read it, and so I knew the story, and then I just learned my lines, and that was all. That’s the only preparation I really did.

BH: What would you say Kazuki Omori was like as a director?

KG: He’s wonderful; I really like him. He’s not too serious, but he is really serious, you know what I’m saying?

BH: Yes.

KG: He’s really serious about doing a good job on the movie, but he doesn’t take himself too seriously. Now some of these people are really dictatorial; he’s not like that. It’s just like we’re all working together to do something really fun.

BH: Do you remember if Mr. Omori wrote your dialogue?

KG: I don’t know who wrote it because it came in the script all written in English.

BH: I’m curious to know if you were able to make any adjustments to your character if you thought his dialogue or reactions were too unnatural. So were you given any input like that?

KG: You know, I always do that. Once in a while, they’re perfect, but usually they’re not. (laughs) So I’ll negotiate with them. “I want to say it this way.” Sometimes they say okay, and sometimes they don’t. But I don’t think we revised this one very much. I think our lines were pretty well okay.

BH: Of course, you delivered the film’s infamous “Major Spielberg” line. I take it that was already in the script.

KG: (laughs) Yeah, it was in the script. When I first read it, I go, “What?!” Then Daniel and I looked at each other, and we go, “Hey, that’s kind of cool!” (laughs) It took me a minute to catch on what they were trying to say. (laughs)

BH: So that was obviously a reference to Close Encounters, I take it.

KG: Yeah, yeah.

BH: Were you involved at all with the special effects crew when you filmed the scenes with the Godzillasaurus?

KG: You know what, there were no special effects people anywhere when we filmed. We went out on a ship, which used to be owned by the U.S. Navy, and they gave it to the Japanese Navy. It’s parked in Yokosuka Bay. That’s where we filmed, and there were no special effects at all. That was all added later. The only thing I remember is that it was a really hot, humid day, and we were all trying to keep from looking too sweaty. (laughs)

BH: Could you describe what essentially it was like on your day of shooting?

KG: Well, we went down there. Have you ever been to Japan, to any of the military bases there?

BH: No, unfortunately, I’ve never been to Japan.

KG: Well, it’s a perfectly modern country. I think I drove down there. They let us in the base, which by the way that base is really hard to get into, and they park nuclear aircraft carriers down there. But anyway, we got in there, and it was really interesting because the Japanese Navy are so laid-back, and we got on the ship. It was interesting because these Japanese Navy guys come to work in jeans and a polo shirt, they change into their uniforms, and they work nine to five, then they change into their jeans and polo shirt, and go home! (laughs) Just like an office job. It was so interesting. But anyway, we got on the ship, and the Japanese crew was really excited to have this thing being filmed on their ship, and they prepared this beautiful lunch of sashimi and all this stuff. I was thinking to myself, “Man, if these navy guys eat this kind of thing every day, I ought to join the navy!” (laughs)

They were just really, really nice to us. Of course the guys in the lower ranks were cleaning the ship, and the higher-rank guys were doing their thing. But they really wanted to point out to me somehow that this had been a U.S. Navy ship. For some reason, they thought that was cool. (laughs) You know, you don’t film that long; you sit around and wait most of the time for this kind of a job, so we got to talk to the commanding officer of the ship for quite a while. It was kind of fun.

BH: How’d you get along with your costars?

KG: Oh, no problem whatsoever. We had a ball. The thing of it is, all of us are Godzilla fans. I don’t know why; I guess because we’re in the entertainment industry. I think Godzilla is just an outstanding series. People interpret it various ways, but I just think it’s fun. I remember the first time I lived in Japan, back in ’71 to ’73. I went home at the end of ’73, and my friends were having a party on the weekend. They said, “Come over and watch this horror film on Friday night.” So I said okay. So I went over there, and it was a Godzilla film. He was destroying the city of Sasebo, which is where I had just come home from. It’s down in Kyushu. There was Sasebo Station, and he was stomping it into the ground! I thought, “No! I was just there! I can’t believe this!” All my friends were freaking out, going, “You were there? Wow!” (laughs) So all of us had these old memories of different Godzilla flicks, and so it was kind of like a dream come true for us all to be in it. All of us were just so excited to be in it, and so we were all just kind of happy together.

BH: What were some of your favorite Godzilla movies?

KG: You know, I can’t remember the names of them. (laughs) But that one where he stomps Sasebo into the ground, I like that one. I don’t know, I can’t remember the names of movies.

BH: Well, do you remember anything that happened in the movies that would set some of them apart so that I might be able to identify what they might be?

KG: I’ve been all over Japan, and so I’m always interested in the geography, which cities they’re working out of that time. If it’s Tokyo, or if it’s Yokohama, or where it is, that’s the part I always look at. (laughs) That may seem kind of strange, but I do so much traveling in the country that that’s one of the things that I really look at. The characters are always so interesting, I think, the bad guys.

BH: Yeah, they’re usually aliens or something else, so that’s always very interesting.

KG: Every time, they come up with a different one. I did a children’s drama one time. Actually, it wasn’t a children’s drama, but it was a drama with children and animals. It was a six-month drama, one episode a week, and every week they’d bring in a different animal, and they had several Godzilla references in that. The kids took a different monster, you know, bad guys that come up in the movies. Everybody knew all of them; all the little kids did. It was so funny.

BH: I’m sure that you’re aware that the movie was considered in the States to have an anti-American bias. Now since you were part of the Americans who got attacked by Godzilla, what do you think about that?

KG: Well, the people who wrote it may have an anti-American message that they want to give, but I don’t care if they want to do that. That’s fine with me. I never got that out of it, to tell you the truth. Even if it was there, there’s so much anti-Americanism in the world; that was mild stuff, in my opinion. So I didn’t find that at all. I think that’s one of the things that probably needs to be said. I mean, we don’t need nuclear bombs, for heaven’s sake. We’ve got to get rid of them, and I think everybody in the whole world agrees with that if they thought it was possible. So it doesn’t bother me at all, any movie that has a message like that.

BH: What did you think of the experience, filming King Ghidorah, overall?

KG: It was just a blast. It was so fun. The thing of it is, though, we just filmed our scenes, and we didn’t get to watch filming of other scenes. We didn’t get to watch the special effects stuff in the studio because our shot was on location. So it was like, “Okay, we filmed those scenes. Well, what in the world is this movie gonna look like?” (laughs) It was pretty hard to visualize how it was going to really turn out. It was kind of like you’re in limbo until you actually see the thing. When I finally saw it, I go, “Oh, my gosh! Wow! They did a good job on this movie!” (laughs) Then when I saw it in English, the American version, it was really interesting because even though we spoke English in the Japanese version, they dubbed us in English.

BH: Have you read any criticisms, whether online or in print, about your performance? If so, what do you have to say about that?

KG: I have not, actually. I think there was one thing I read in The Japan Times about it, and it wasn’t negative. So I felt fine. It wasn’t just about me; it was about all of us. Sometimes The Japan Times is critical, not of the acting or anything like that, but of just the movie, the plot, and that. But as I recall, they were pretty positive on this one.

BH: I’ve read that you starred in another Japanese monster movie called Peking Man (1997).

KG: I did; that was so fun! (laughs)

BH: What was that like?

KG: In that one, my part was extremely small. They were small in both ones, but Peking Man was quite different because I think they were trying to be more serious, to tell you the truth. The main thing in Godzilla is Godzilla, and all of us are secondary, whereas in Peking Man, they had it cast with very trendy people. So they were relying on the casting a lot to get their box office rather than the actual story. In that respect, it was more like one of these trendy TV dramas more than an actual movie. My part was filmed on location in a high-rise apartment building, as I recall, and it was cold. But I wasn’t supposed to act cold! (laughs) But that one, there was actually more acting involved than the Godzilla movie.

BH: I know you said your part was very small in this movie, but did you work at all with Tetsuro Tamba, who is a legendary Japanese actor, or did you get to meet him at all?

KG: I met him, but not there. I didn’t actually get to work with him in the movie. I have met him, and I think he’s quite a guy, actually.

BH: What was he like?

KG: (pause) Hard to get a grip on. There are some guys that you can immediately be friendly with, and there are some guys that you’re in a vertical relationship (with), and you have to kind of kowtow to them, and then there are some guys that are just kind of on a different plane, and they remain mysterious. That was what he was. He’s kind of a mystery to me. It’s fun to be around him, but we’re not at all on the same plane in the universe. So, in that respect, he kind of has a mystique about him that’s intriguing to me.

BH: In closing, is there anything else that you wanted to say?

KG: Oh, my gosh, yes! I love Godzilla movies! (laughs) I’m so glad that other people do. I wish they could get them to make more. I hope they’re not really done. They say they are, but I hope that’s not the case.





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