Philip Casnoff is a versatile talent in the entertainment world. Nominated for a Golden Globe for his uncanny portrayal of Frank Sinatra in 1992’s CBS miniseries Sinatra, Mr. Casnoff first achieved national fame for his role as Elkanah Bent in North and South, a highly-rated Civil War-era miniseries for ABC, which aired in 1985 and spawned two sequels. Behind the camera, he’s directed episodes of such hit TV series as Strong Medicine and Monk. In 2017, Mr. Casnoff acted alongside Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep in Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-nominated historical drama The Post as Chalmers Roberts.
But before all this, Mr. Casnoff got his start in the theater world, during which time he was cast in the role of the tough-talking, free-wheeling space adventurer Aaron in Toei’s 1978 space opera Message from Space, directed by Kinji Fukasaku (The Green Slime, Battle Royale). Mr. Casnoff shared his memories of the production in a 2011 interview with Brett Homenick.
Brett Homenick: How did you get cast in Message from Space?
Philip Casnoff: You know, it’s funny. I don’t recall now. I’ve written a script based on combining a fictional story with my experience shooting this movie. In this script, I actually imagined that I thought I was going for an audition for a Shakespeare play at Arena Stage in Washington, and my agent had tricked me into going to this audition because he wanted me to make actual money.
I actually don’t remember. There was a casting woman by the name of Fern Champion who is still around and still casts. She’s in Los Angeles now. I went in for it, improvised some kind of scene, and then improvised some kind of action stuff. It was pretty funny. It was pretty ridiculous and pretty funny. I found out while working on Monk as a director, one of the assistants on Monk is a very, very close friend of Quentin Tarantino, and apparently this is one of the movies that he loves to show to his friends.
BH: Is that so?
BH: Very interesting! When you were ultimately cast, do you remember what happened in the preproduction meetings and that sort of thing?
PC: I was not in the preproduction meetings. The thing is, I had really for the most part been a theater actor. I had done a couple of small TV things and wasn’t really interested in the movies, except the idea of going to Japan I found really interesting. But I was very skeptical about the whole project. I thought, “Oh, this is going to be ridiculous.” But something about Japan was intriguing.
BH: When you ultimately went to Japan, what were your living arrangements like at the time you were shooting the movie?
PC: Well, we had a choice. I don’t remember what Peggy (Lee Brennan) did. I wonder if Vic (Morrow) was staying with me. We stayed in a place called the International Hotel, which had both Japanese floors — in other words, tatami mats — or you could stay in a European-style room. I chose to stay in a Japanese-style room.
BH: While you were there, what sort of things would you do off the set when you weren’t working, just for fun?
PC: I spent a lot of time around Kyoto. We were in Tokyo for a week, and then Kyoto for the majority of the shooting, and it was January, so there weren’t a lot of tourists. So I was the only gaijin, as they refer to us, wandering around all sorts of Kyoto places. I took my journal and had my big down winter jacket which made me stand out like a sore thumb there, and made all sorts of cultural mistakes, and had great adventures, and I loved it! I wrote a lot.
BH: Working with director Kinji Fukasaku, what was he like as a person, and how would he direct you in scenes?
PC: Well, to begin with, Kinji would never talk to us directly. He would always talk to us through a translator. The translator’s name was Simon Tse. I think there was trouble with the translation, and at a certain point we actually had a confrontation with each other because I said I didn’t know whether we were doing the Three Stooges, whether we were doing Star Wars, or whether we were doing Mean Streets! I said, “I don’t know what character you want me to play.” The entire shooting of the film came to a halt because Mr. Fukasaku referred to me as acting like a Hollywood star. I said, “I want to talk to him directly.” I finally had a discussion with him directly with the translator, but it turns out he spoke English.
PC: He’s a sensei. But, on the other hand, I understand that he’s a sensei and deserves that kind of respect, but there had to be some sort of movement, that I was not a Japanese actor. I was an American actor. So there had to be a meeting of the minds, and there was. From that point on, we got along sort of great.
BH: Typically, whether it was through Simon Tse or whether it was through Mr. Fukasaku directly, what kind of direction were you given that, maybe, confused you.
PC: Oh, you know, more smiles, more happy, or more sad, or more angry. Once that happened, I had a great time with Sonny Chiba and with Hiroyuki Sanada. Sanada has become a fairly big star.
He was very helpful to me. He spent a lot of time with me. He didn’t speak English all that well, and he was sort of a protégé of Chiba-san, and the Japanese girl (Etsuko Shiomi) — they were both very nice. Chiba-san was a very good guy. So it was a great experience, as crazy as it was. I had a great time with Vic Morrow.
BH: Actually, in a little bit more detail, working with Vic Morrow, what was he like as a person, and what did he think about working on the film if he let on what he thought about that?
PC: He was there for the money at the time. He was trying to segue into a career as a director. He was doing it for the experience of being over in Japan, a combination of the experience and the paycheck. But when he did his work, he tried to do his work.. He was very, very generous and sharing stories from his life, from all the way back with Blackboard Jungle. We spent a fair amount of time with each other. He was a great guy.
BH: Also, on the set, what was it like to work with Peggy Lee Brennan?
PC: Peggy and I had a great time. Peggy and I had both done Grease in New York, and so we were buddies. I spent a fair amount of time with her, but I also enjoyed going off on my own. If I’m in a foreign place, I really want to experience it, and so I probably walked hundreds of miles in Kyoto when I was there.
BH: Well, we’ve talked about the principal cast players, was there anybody else in the cast that you have standout memories about, or is that pretty much all you have?
PC: It’s mostly that. There was a day when Sonny Chiba was doing his own stunts, and there was a metal door that was being dropped. He was getting through it, and something caught on something. It fell right on his leg, so he had to be taken away. I don’t think we lost him for the whole shoot. He would always invite me into his room for discussion, and we’d talk about America and Japan.
But the funniest part of the shoot was the Liabe seeds in the walnuts. It was hilarious — lights in the walnuts! They would work, then they wouldn’t work. They were plastic; they were ridiculous.
It’s funny, I haven’t seen it since it came out, but I would actually love to show it to my kids. They’d get a kick out of it. The funny thing is, as wacky as the movie is — I remember the Village Voice referred to it as “Mess from Space” — (there are) the images of the floating ships that I thought were sort of bizarrely beautiful in their own way. It’s just a wacky piece of pop culture of a period piece because it was a rip-off of Star Wars, but it was a rip-off of Seven Samurai. So it was a rip-off of an old, old Japanese folktale and who knows what else. It was a great experience, a lot of fun.
BH: What memories do you have about working at Toei Studios?
PC: I remember very, very, in some ways, very primitive, very cold, not a lot of internal heating systems. In fact, when it got very cold, whether we were on location or even shooting in the studios, they used to bring in these huge metal waste cans that had holes punched in them, and they would start wood and coal fires around them, so that when it got to be late at night, we would huddle around it to keep warm. You feel like you’re in the basement someplace.
On the other hand, the soundstages were fine. The set builders were terrific. I don’t remember if the dressing rooms were segregated by sex or not because I remember in the dressing rooms they would have all these Playboy photos all up around the dressing rooms but with the “important” parts blocked out. So it was funny. No matter where you were, everything was a little bit off from what you would expect from a Western upbringing. It was endlessly fascinating to me — and funny and beautiful.
BH: What was the shooting schedule like?
PC: Gosh, it was a long time, so I don’t remember, but I think it was six days. I think we shot six days a week, but I’m not sure. I can’t tell you. It was fairly long days. I do remember one day when there was an extra coming back from lunch, and he was late. Kinji humiliated him in front of everybody else and fired him in front of everybody else. He had to leave right there. That was pretty shocking.
BH: Do you have any other interesting memories from the set, anything that stands out in your mind about the film?
PC: Every day was pretty interesting. Nothing in particular. Nothing, really, no. The first time I was on the set, I remember they were speaking their lines in Japanese, and I was speaking my lines in English, so I didn’t know when their lines ended. I realized after that first day that I had to memorize their lines in Japanese. I had somebody record all the Japanese lines for me. I knew what their meaning was; I couldn’t hear the sound. So as an actor, you need to know when to finish. So that was a little tough. Actually, both sides had to work on it because they didn’t know when I was finished speaking English!
BH: What did you think of the film, and what do you think of it now?
PC: Well, I haven’t seen it, so I can’t tell you what I think of it now. The French have a word for a woman who is both ugly and beautiful at the same time. I would say, sublimely ridiculous — or ridiculously sublime!