Brena Bakke is an American actress who landed one of her first starring roles in Japan. Born in Klamath Falls, Oregon, Ms. Bakke grew up in Beaverton, located in the outskirts of Portland. When she reached the age of 18, Ms. Bakke moved to Los Angeles to pursue her dream of acting. Because she wanted to be an actress since the age of three, she began imitating comedians like Carol Burnett, Lily Tomlin, and Gilda Radner. Despite always wanting to do comedy, she ended up doing drama instead. After becoming an actress, Ms. Bakke has appeared in such films as Hot Shots! Part Deux (1993) and L.A. Confidential (1997), as well as television programs like Star Trek: The Next Generation and CSI. Of interest to Vantage Point Interview readers, she starred in Toho’s futuristic sci-fi thriller Gunhed in 1989 and the Japanese co-production Solar Crisis in 1990. Ms. Bakke recounted her experiences on both films on Christmas Eve 2005 with Brett Homenick.
Brett Homenick: How did you get your start in acting?
Brenda Bakke: I started doing plays in high school, and then came down to Los Angeles, then went to an acting school called the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. I eventually met an agent in Beverly Hills where I was working as a bartender and waitress at Tony Roma’s, which is no longer there. My first agent used to come in in the daytime, and I made him laugh.
I heard he was an agent. He started talking to me, and I told him I wanted to be an actress. So I auditioned for the office, and they took me on as an actress. I got my first movie with Charles Grodin, Jon Lovitz, and Phil Hartman (Last Resort). It was a comedy. It was their first movie, too, so it was a lot of fun. I just got lucky, and I was the right type for the part, so that’s how I got my Screen Actors Guild card.
BH: What eventually brought you to Japan?
BB: The producers of Gunhed came to Los Angeles to look at different people, and I was one that they wanted to meet. They actually came to an apartment I was living in on Hollywood Boulevard, and they loved that I drove a Jeep. I thought that was kind of funny. But they actually came to my apartment and interviewed me there and just thought that I was the right type for them. They wanted a Lauren Bacall type of girl. My hair was the right length and color, and they thought I was kind of tough because I drove a Jeep. I thought that was really funny. It was just a very economical car at the time. (laughs)
I guess they just thought I was charming, and they decided to hire me. It was not an audition process at all in any way. So that was interesting to me. They offered me $75,000 for the role, and I thought that was really cool at the time. So I just said, “Yeah! I’ll go to Japan and do a movie for you.” (laughs) It was very not-Hollywood. There was no casting process. It was just them coming to Los Angeles and looking at different actresses — very unusual situation. I thought that was great.
BH: Do you know of any of the other actresses that they looked at?
BB: No, I have no idea. No idea at all.
BH: Is that when they showed you the script for the movie?
BB: Yes, they did give me a script, which I read first, and then I took the role after they offered it to me.
BH: Give me an idea of what happened after you got to Japan and the movie was starting to get into production.
BB: It was really such an interesting experience. I was flown over to Hawaii first, and then to Japan — a very long trip. I’ve had many long trips during my career, but this was one of the longest ones I’ve ever had other than South Africa — probably about an 18-hour trip. But when I got there, I went to a dinner with the entire crew, which was entirely Japanese. We went to a very traditional Japanese-type food place. The very first bite that I took of my chopsticks, the entire crew watched me. (laughs) But luckily, I adjusted quickly, and it was really funny because I’m this blonde girl. I was very blonde in those days, and everyone watched me take my first bite. When I took my first bite, and I did a good job, they all laughed because I laughed. Well, I laughed first, I think. (laughs) So it was very unusual for me. The whole movie experience was very unusual. But they were very kind and lovely people.
BH: So the cast and the crew were all there?
BB: Oh, yeah. But they were all Japanese. No one spoke English. I had an interpreter, and the director spoke English, but that’s about the only people that spoke English. (laughs) So it was very interesting. Also, I was very much into aerobics in those days. At the hotel I was staying at, I found a gym that I could go to, to do aerobics. So I had to learn how to speak numbers in Japanese: ichi, ni, san, shi, go, roku, shichi, hachi, kyu, ju. That’s one through ten. But doing aerobics there — how you count in the days when I was doing the movie, the ’80s, we used to count: One, two, three, four, five.
So I went to the gym, and I really needed to learn how to count. So it was just a really exciting thing, aerobics with a bunch of people who didn’t speak English. I really just followed along. They have great spas there. They’re very much into spas, but they have TVs in their saunas. They talk all the time. Here in the United States, we usually just kind of chill out and don’t talk. But over there, they’re very social. So that was very funny. (laughs)
BH: Now one thing that I’ve noticed about Gunhed is that there are a lot of elaborate sets. Could you tell me where a lot of those sets were filmed? Were they filmed on a soundstage?
BB: A lot of them were filmed on Toho soundstages where the original (Godzilla) movies were made — very famous studios. But then there were also some warehouses where we used to drive out to, which were very far from the city of Tokyo. So they made different soundstages in these warehouses. They’re very elaborate; a lot of money was put into them — very interesting. It was not very convenient because of the outfit that I wore. It was a rubber suit with a lot of weapons attached to my body. If I ever had to go to the bathroom, they would have to drive me to the bathroom away from the set. I would have to take off my entire suit and take off my weapons and hold up my suit and squat. It was not comfortable. (laughs) It was actually horrifying. It was like, “Oh, God. I have to go to the bathroom. Okay, let’s drive to the bathroom and peel off my suit, shiver for about three minutes, then I’ll put it back on.” Not much fun for me. It was very uncomfortable. (laughs)
BH: Well, I can imagine that! With all sets and all the special effects going on, do you remember any accidents that happened on the set?
BB: Nothing really that stands out to me in my mind now. One thing that was really interesting was the one set where there were pools of water that we had to be very careful walking on. We had to be very careful not to fall in the pools of water. That was pretty intense. Walking in rubber suits, it wasn’t all that great. You had to be very careful not to fall in the water.
BH: What did you think about working with Masahiro Takashima and the other actors in the film?
BB: They were all so lovely to me; they were lovely people. We really didn’t communicate all that well without my interpreter. They were just really special, funny people. It was really strange to work with actors that were speaking Japanese and not speaking English. I thought that was kind of strange that they’d want to make a movie that way, but I took the role, and I did it. We just worked together as well as we could. It was really hard to communicate most of the time. But they were all very kind.
Our favorite joke was eating “runchbox.” (laughs) They’d bring me a lunchbox, and I would eat about two things out of the container. They would go, “Ha ha ha! You don’t eat that! Ha ha ha!” I’m like, “No, it didn’t taste bad.” “Hahaha!” (laughs) They used to make fun of me. But they were really fun people. It was a strange, hard-to-communicate way, but understanding each other through laughter. “Oh, good! More runchbox!” “Brenda no eat today! Ha ha ha!” I lost a lot of weight. It was great.
BH: What did you think of the Japanese crew, Mr. Kawakita who directed the special effects and Mr. Harada who directed the movie?
BB: They are just great. They really were very passionate about what they did — very different from American filmmakers, I would say. But half the time, I couldn’t understand what they were saying. They took care of everything. They were very efficient. Japanese people are very efficient; that’s what I really observed when I was there. Not quite as relaxed as an American crew — very much wanting to work very hard. So I respected that quite a bit.
BH: Now 99% of your dialogue is spoken in English. Were you given a lot of freedom to rewrite your dialogue if you didn’t think it was natural, or was it just handed to you, and you had to say what was written?
BB: I pretty much did the dialogue that they wanted me to do. I didn’t rewrite anything, I don’t believe — maybe a couple of things. My favorite line of the movie is from To Have and Have Not with Lauren Bacall, “Anybody got a match?” I thought that was pretty fun. No, I didn’t do much at all, no. I thought it worked really well.
BH: Overall, what did you think of the whole experience?
BB: I was in another world. It was very interesting, very different from my normal life. It was very strange, just other-wordly. But I appreciated how gentle everyone was. I appreciated how kind everyone was. It was just a very loving experience. People tried to take care of you as well as they could. They gave me a lot of gifts. They were just very kind people. It was a very, very different experience. I’m glad I had it.
BH: Another film that you worked on that was being produced by a Japanese company was called Solar Crisis. Was that actually filmed in Japan, or was that filmed in America?
BB: No, that was filmed in America. Eventually, I believe the investors were Japanese, and the film was never really finished, and I believe the producers came in and started to add some footage to the film. I actually went back and did some reshooting of added scenes after we had finished the film. I don’t believe the product that came out was as good as the product that would have come out without them interfering with it, unfortunately. The director was a really good friend of my manager, who passed recently. So it was nowhere connected to anyone that I worked with on Gunhed. It didn’t come out as well as it would have. I think they tried to fix something that didn’t need to be fixed.
BH: That movie certainly had an impressive cast of American actors.
BB: Oh, yeah. Peter Boyle, Tim Matheson, and Jack Palance. All great guys, really fun people. It was one of my early bigger film experiences in my career. We had a good time.
BH: So everyone had fun making that movie, and it would have turned out better if there had been no tampering in the end.
BB: I think so. I think it would have had a good theatrical outcome. It just didn’t happen.
BH: Now another role that you had, although it has nothing to do with Japan or Japanese movies, was in L.A. Confidential where you played Lana Turner. That’s certainly one of the most memorable scenes in the movie. In fact, I haven’t seen the movie since it came out in the theaters, but I remember that scene — it was so funny. What do you have to say about that scene?
BB: Well, it was really interesting to get that role. I actually just went in with the casting director, did meet the director, and he held up a photograph of Lana Turner next to my face and said, “Okay, okay. Go learn her accent, come back, put it on tape, and I’ll consider it.” So I went to work with a voice teacher, and we worked on the three lines that I had — actually one got cut. But I went on tape, and he basically hired me from the tape. Had me watch Peyton Place. I looked at Peyton Place with her in it for three weeks. Worked with the voice teacher, got fitted with my wig, got my costume. I was very nervous about doing well because I wanted to do it perfectly. I was actually playing a real person — very, very nerve-wracking. But I think it came out okay. Do you?
BH: Oh, yeah! As I said, it was very memorable. That’s certainly one of the funniest scenes in the movie, and I think it was even shown during the Oscar ceremony.
BB: Yes, it was. It was. I was really happy about that. It was fun. It was very fun. It was really scary. I just wanted to do it perfectly, so I put a lot of pressure on myself. But I feel okay about it. I still don’t think it’s perfect. I could have done it better.
BH: In closing for this interview, is there anything else that you wanted to say?
BB: When I was filming there, (Emperor Hirohito had died), and I was in the hotel, and it was obviously a day off. It was a pretty big day in Japan. All that was on TV was the funeral. I just wanted to get out of the hotel and go for a walk. So I took the elevator down to the lobby, and everyone was completely quiet. It was a huge hotel with lots of delegates and stuff. I walked to the door to go out, and it was raining.
I asked for an umbrella, and the guy that hands out the umbrellas — his head is down. I’m like (whispering), “Hey, can I get an umbrella?” He won’t answer me. I’m like (whispering), “I really want an umbrella.” He looks up at me and goes, “It is the moment of silence.” (laughs) So I was very selfish, asking for an umbrella during the moment of silence, and I didn’t even know. I took the umbrella, and went out to the temple, and I prayed and asked for forgiveness. It was very embarrassing. It was a huge moment in Japan’s history, and I ruined it! (laughs) So I went to the temple for a while to pray.
I hope you enjoyed the interview, and I hope the people reading this enjoyed it as well.