SAVING THE WORLD FROM THE VIRUS! Bo Svenson on His Turn in Kinji Fukasaku’s End-of-the-World Thriller!

Bo Svenson in a 2007 publicity still. Photo © Bo Svenson.

Bo Svenson is one of the best known actors to appear in a Japanese sci-fi film, having acted in such popular movies as The Great Waldo Pepper (1975), Walking Tall Part II (1975), The Inglorious Bastards (1978), North Dallas Forty (1979), The Delta Force (1986), Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004), and Inglourious Basterds (2009). Mr. Svenson portrayed Major Carter, one of the leading characters in Kinji Fukasaku’s science fiction epic Virus (1980), who helps save the world from disaster. Mr. Svenson, who holds a godan (fifth dan) in judo, recalled his role in the film with Brett Homenick in a 2006 interview.

Brett Homenick: First question, what led to your involvement in Virus?

Bo Svenson: The Japanese producer got in touch with my agent at the time. The producer and director showed up at my home as I was painting flowers on a door. As we shook hands, paint got on the director’s hand. He thought that was a spiritual message.

BH: How did you prepare for your role because you play a Southerner, and obviously you’re not from the South.

BS: Well, I lived in the South, and I didn’t really prepare for the role.

BH: Did you have much control over your dialogue when filming was going on, or was that pretty much in the script, and you followed that?

BS: I rewrote just about all of it. I had to.

BH: Did you find that the dialogue was unnatural?

BS: Yes. The screenplay was, well, let’s say, not up to par.

BH: (laughs) Where were the scenes in Antarctica filmed?

BS: In Antarctica.

BH: Were any of them filmed anywhere else, or was it all on location?

BS: Some of the Antarctic scenes were filmed in, I think, Thunder Bay, Ontario. It was a very, very long limo ride from Toronto.

BH: Do you have any memories of working with, say, Edward James Olmos or George Kennedy?

BS: Not really. I wasn’t always sober. That was back in my rowdy period.

BH: (laughs) Does anything stick out in your memory about either of them?

BS: Not really. I seem to recall that Eddie Olmos played piano quite well and that he’s a good singer. I never saw the movie. Does he play the piano in the movie?

BH: I think there might be a scene where he plays the piano. What about Kinji Fukasaku? What was it like to work with him?

BS: Oh, Kinji was a great guy. A wonderful director clearly caught in an uncomfortable situation in that his English was limited, and his knowledge of Japanese gangsters was far superior to his knowledge of, and feel for, American culture.

BH: But, other than that, you got along with him well, and he was fine to work with?

BS: He was great! We were both doing our best to make as good a movie as possible. Since we were from different cultures, and at times suspicious of the other’s motives and opinions, and as the translators were less than accurate at times and had their own opinions and alliances, at first Kinji and I disagreed much of the time until he understood American culture better. At times, I felt like the Lone Ranger as I was seemingly the only one who had enough energy to convey Americana to Kinji. Most people told him what they thought he wanted to hear.

BH: Would that go for people like I mentioned before, George Kennedy and Edward James Olmos?

BS: I have no idea what went on between Kinji, George, and Eddie. I do know that I was unrelenting in my quest to give Kinji and the producer the best I had to offer. It would have been a lot easier on me if I had just gone with the flow and kowtowed to the producer and his money, of which he had a bundle. He was one of Japan’s ten richest persons at the time. I don’t know if people kowtowed to him because they were being nice, politically correct, or because they had ulterior motives. As it turned out, I was the only American cast member invited to the world premiere.

BH: Really?

BS: Yeah, and that was odd. I was tough on the producer during production because I felt that I owed him my professional opinion. I always gave him the option to have me discontinue giving my opinion, but he never did. So I continued to be unrelentingly honest with my feelings about the story, the scenes, about the characters. I have great respect for humanity, and I felt it would have been disrespectful of me not to be honest regarding my feelings about the material.

BH: Now you talked about the money that some of the actors were being paid. Do you remember how much money was involved in terms of paying the actors?

BS: No, I have no idea. I know I was paid quite well and that my overtime was a little over $380,000.

BH: That’s quite a sum!

BS: For being overtime, yes.

BH: I’ve read that there was, on the way to Antarctica, an accident involving a ship that aground. I believe you were actually on that ship. What happened, exactly?

BS: On Christmas Eve 1979, at 11:26 a.m., the ship we were on hit an emerging underwater volcano. Where the charts showed 38 fathoms there were only three fathoms when we hit. I photographed the echo sounder which very clearly shows the volcano rising from the sea bed. The inquiry was held in Panama because the ship was under Panamanian flag. The captain was held responsible, even though the first officer was on deck at the time.

BH: The rumor is that several people died during this accident. Is that true or not?

BS: No, that’s not true.

BH: Now talk a little bit about the fight that you have with Masao Kusakari, who is the lead Japanese personality in the movie. Did you choreograph that, or was that all laid out for you?

BS: They asked me to choreograph it. They knew I was a fourth degree black belt in judo.

BH: I think in one of our earlier discussions, you referenced that Masao Kusakari was abused by the production staff.

BS: Yes, they were totally disrespectful of him. I’ve been told that is common in Japan. Actors and actresses are often treated like crap until they become stars.

BH: Do you have any memories of how specifically they would disrespect him?

BS: They were disrespectful, abusive. They yelled at him. At times, he was brought to tears.

BH: Moving right along, how was the Washington, D.C., set built, if you recall?

BS: All sets were built at Kleinberg Studios outside Toronto.

BH: Do you have any other memories from the set of Virus at all?

BS: While we were preparing to do some diving in the Potomac as part of the movie, I was told that Masao had been given expert instructions in diving. I’m a former U.S. Marine with underwater demolition training and learned to my dismay that Masao’s expertise was bullshit. I ended up saving his ass when he lost orientation during a dive. Instead of ascending, he went down and the current took him away. I was the only other person on the set in diving gear. I found him downstream in the prop cage of a U.S. Destroyer. I don’t take credit for finding him. It was a miracle. The Potomac was so murky I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face, much less Masao in his black diving suit. Divine intervention carried me downstream to Masao. He was damn lucky to get out of that experience with his life.

BH: Overall, what did you think about the experience filming Virus?

BS: I had a really nice time. I met a bunch of really different people and saw different parts of the world — Antarctica, Peru, Chile, and got to travel through the Beagle Channel, Tierra del Fuego, Antarctica. Yeah, I got to see much of the world, and I got to work with a Japanese crew. That was the first time I worked with a Japanese crew. Later, I co-produced a movie with a Japanese crew, directed a movie with a Japanese crew, and have several times worked as an actor with Japanese crews. All in all, I’m thrilled to have been part of the Virus experience.

BH: Last question, you talked about your going to the world premiere. Where was that held?

BS: Tokyo.

BH: Any interesting stories from that?

BS: Haruki Kadokawa, the producer, was quite gracious. He invited me and my wife and our two children and flew us all there first class. At the premiere, a few minutes into the movie, our daughters, then eight and ten, got frightened by the gruesome opening sequence and asked if we could leave, which we did. Outside the theater, the girls hugged us and said that letting them leave was the nicest thing we had ever done for them. The producer visited us several times in our home in Los Angeles. He never understood why our girls didn’t like his movie. Kinji and I remained friends. I heard from him many times over the years and was saddened when he passed away.

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