Shelley Sweeney, born in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, lived for many years in the small town of Kelowna, British Columbia, in the Okanagan Valley, an area of the Rocky Mountains. After being scouted and signing a modeling contract in Japan, she moved to London, England, where she attended the Corona School, a drama academy for young children, for one year. She was later accepted to Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts, another drama school in London, where she studied for almost a year. After quitting and returning to Canada, she became involved in modeling, which eventually brought her to Japan where she has since acted in several Godzilla films. She plated Mechagodzilla co-pilot Lt. Catherine Berger in Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II (1993), and went on to appear in several other Godzilla films, including Godzilla: Final Wars (2004). In 2005, while Ms. Sweeney was shooting her latest movie in Los Angeles, spoke to Brett Homenick about her roles in Godzilla films.
Brett Homenick: Why did you come to Japan?
Shelley Sweeney: I came to Japan as a model. I was scouted in Canada. I went to an agency in Toronto, Canada (Judy Welch), when I was about 17, 18 years old. A Japanese agent named Satoru came to Toronto and picked me up and brought me to Japan as a model for a three-month contract.
BH: How’d you get your start in acting over there?
SS: Well, because I was able to continue with my modeling contracts for three months over a process of a few years, I was able to save enough money to go to the drama schools in England. Then afterwards, a friend of mine who’s a famous actor in Japan had an opportunity to do a movie and invited me to Japan to do a movie with him. It was called King’s Fire Play.
BH: How did you get the role in Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II (as Lt. Catherine Berger, a Mechagodzilla co-pilot)?
SS: The agency who was representing me at the time asked me to go to the audition for the Godzilla movie. I was only in Japan at that time to do the movie King’s Fire Play through that agency. They were representing me, so I did this audition for Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla about two or three times. Actually, they were considering me and another girl, and fortunately I won the role.
BH: Do you remember who that other woman was who auditioned?
SS: Right offhand, I don’t remember her name, but I can get back to you on that at some point. (Ms. Sweeney later informed me that the actress was Julie Dreyfus, who went on to appear in Kill Bill: Vol. 1 and Inglourious Basterds. – BH)
BH: Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla certainly has a lot of Western actors in it. One of them is Leo Meneghetti, who plays a scientist in that movie. What was he like to work with?
SS: I fortunately had the experience of working with Leo Meneghetti in my movie that I did called King’s Fire Play because he was also a favorite actor/friend of my friend, so I had met him. Personally, wonderful man. We had a great, great time working together. I believe he was just starting in the business. It was my first big action movie, and we just didn’t know what to expect, so we were just thrown in. “Okay, here you go. Do it.”
BH: A lot of the movie is written in English, as you know. Who wrote that dialogue? Was that the screenwriter, Wataru Mimura, or did the Western actors actually play a role in writing that dialogue?
SS: We had no way of writing the dialogue, unfortunately. It was given to us from the Japanese side. I believe the person who wrote the script was the person who wrote the dialogue. We were not given any choice of the matter whatsoever.
BH: That’s kind of interesting because I noticed in one scene Leo Meneghetti is showing a Japanese official how they can rebuild Mechagodzilla, and it really sounds like he’s making it up on the spot. The dialogue goes, “Well, if we reattach this here, okay, I think that will lead us to … uh, once again, if we reattach this here…” It’s obvious it’s just off the top of his head. So I was just wondering if the Western actors got to write their dialogue or just say anything.
SS: I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the time that when we were doing the filming, a lot of the time it was done again, and perhaps it’s the director who (selects) that cut, thinking that it was okay. Perhaps it was one of the cuts that wasn’t okay. But at the end of the day, it’s the editor who decides to keep things in, and the director, of course. So no, we had nothing to do with the dialogue.
BH: One of the aspects of the film that was apparently dropped during the editing process was the fact that your character, Lt. Catherine Berger, was apparently an android. What do you remember about that story line?
SS: Unfortunately, I don’t remember anything about that or being told that at all. They didn’t really give us a lot of information about anything. A lot of the time, they would just hand us the script and say, “Here, this is what you’re going to read.” Of course, we look at each other, and we go, “It doesn’t make sense.” And they’re like, “Well, this is what we want.”
SS: I know! Plus, we were sort of new with the Japanese acting style, and so it was like, “Wow, this is quite something. It’s not our movie, but we’ll just do what the director says.”
BH: One actor in the movie who speaks quite a bit of English, it seems, is Masahiro Takashima.
SS: Yes, a favorite actor and worked with him several times.
BH: So you got along with him pretty well?
SS: Yeah, actually his younger brother, we worked together on a TV series called Hotel quite often.
BH: What was Takao Okawara like as a director?
SS: He was very interesting. I thought of him as very artistic and a very generous type of director, and was very kind to me. I had a few problems on the set because I had to have training for karate and judo. They gave me training for one month on judo and one month on karate. There is a scene where I had to do some flips where I had to beat up Takashima-san, and I pulled a muscle in my stomach. We had to stop filming, so I had to go to the hospital and get that looked into. That’s when they decided to put a double in for me.
BH: So in a lot of those scenes, it’s actually a double and not you who’s performing those stunts.
SS: That’s right. At last, we had to do that. There were a lot of other accidents that came on the set, too. (laughs)
BH: Do you remember any of the other accidents that may have happened to the other actors?
SS: Well, there’s one scene where we’re in the Mechagodzilla, and it was quite an amazing setup. For some of the explosions, they had two “carbs” (electrical probes) zapping each other to get a reaction from us. So when it would be the take, all of us are in the cockpit, and we’re looking forward. We’re about to hit an explosion, so they hit these two carbs, and when they did that, everyone got burned! Our faces got burned! The next day, I couldn’t see. In fact, I had to wear an eyepatch for a whole week after that. I couldn’t see out of my eyes. It was quite a tragedy for me because I have blue eyes, and they’re really sensitive. Everyone’s face got kind of burned up. It was quite a hoopla! (laughs)
BH: Do you have any memories of the other actors who were in that movie, whether they were Western or Japanese — what they were like to work with?
SS: I forget the main captain’s name (Daijiro Harada). He was a wonderful guy. He’s an older gentleman. At that time, probably, he was like 45 years old.
BH: What was he like?
SS: Oh, out of all the actors, he was really supportive because he was just a very generous, giving actor. He was not in any way taking away from anyone’s spotlight. He would never upstage anyone. No one really upstaged anyone, but it was just an amazing learning experience for me at that time. Quite honestly, you’re the first person who’s actually wanting to cover the truth and talk to a real actor/actress that I am on the set. I’ll give you the best on hopefully getting the record straight on these bad reviews I’ve read.
BH: Oh, really? You’ve read bad reviews?
SS: Yes, of course. “Everyone knows that the acting was stilted,” or “I can’t believe that they would speak like that.” Yes, I know some of the scripting was really bad, and everyone has their own opinion. I think it’s great, but it’s kind of sad that no one’s ever asked me or wanting to get to me and interview me about it. I’m so glad that you’ve come forth, Brett. That’s fantastic! (laughs)
BH: It’s my pleasure. I’ve actually been looking forward to this. To be honest with you, about Mechagodzilla, I don’t know how it is in the Japanese press, but I do know that in the fan press in America, the only bad reviews I read for Mechagodzilla are for Leo Meneghetti’s performance. Other than that, that’s one of people’s favorite Godzilla movies.
SS: Oh, really? I guess since the Internet has come forth, I’ve been able to read up on some of these things. Way back when it first came out, it was really hard to see anyone’s point of view, but I’ve just often wished and hoped that I could tell my side of the story someday. Here I am, and I can do it. I’m just really grateful about that.
BH: Well, thank you. I’m glad you’re really getting into this interview. That’s good to hear.
SS: I’m just feeling very honored because it’s like, “Finally! Wow, after 12 years, someone wants to talk to me about the truth!” (laughs)
BH: Any other interesting stories from the set that you want to cover before we move on to some of your other roles?
SS: Actually, overall, it was a really hard movie to make, as it was my first action movie. The demands of the action were just so new to me. I’ve often found that the Japanese directors wouldn’t give enough compassion or encouragement to make us feel confident to do our job. I feel sorry sometimes for Leo Meneghetti, too, because he was just a person that was very popular with his look, such as how I’ve also progressed in my career in Japan. But unfortunately, he became very ill afterwards and ended up having a quadruple bypass.
BH: Is that so?
SS: Yeah, and he left the business completely afterwards and moved to Hawaii and stayed with his family, and I’ve never heard from him since. He used to be in Camp Zama, working there with horses and on a ranch. He used to run the ranch there. That’s when, of course, he got sick and had the quadruple bypass, and after (that) he moved to Hawaii.
BH: How’d you get the role in Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (as an analyst for the U.S. Satellite Information Center)?
SS: Well, fortunately because Toho was my sponsor for my visa, and also because I worked in Mechagodzilla, they’ve been most generous to let me be a part of almost all of their productions of Godzilla as much as possible. They’re very, very happy to have me on set whenever a role is there for me.
BH: What did you think of that role? It was very small. I think you only had about one line or so.
SS: Like I said, they’re very generous to give me any parts in any place that they can in those movies. What I do remember is just showing up on set and, “Hi, everybody!” “Oh, Shelley, how are you?” You know, very friendly, very kind, and just doing my job.
BH: Do you have any memories of that shoot, or was it that you go in there, say your line, go out, and that’s it?
SS: That was pretty much about it. Like I said, they’re always just very good to me whenever I get on the set. They all bow to me. “Thank you, thank you.” Very kind.
BH: Of course, you don’t just work in movies. You also have done some TV work, and one of your roles was in Ultraman Tiga (episode 6). Do you have any memories from that shoot?
SS: I think I was speaking some Japanese in that. If I remember correctly, they gave me a line in Japanese. I was just at that time learning Japanese, and I got really stuck on one word and had to keep repeating it. They’re like, “No, no, no.” I got stuck on a word, and when you get stuck on one word in Japan, they don’t let it go. You try to get the pronunciation just perfect. I forget what word it was right offhand, but I do remember briefly doing that. That was also fun. I’ve done quite a few things with that program, too.
BH: What else have you done with that program?
SS: I can’t think of the things offhand. It’s like a family business when you get into the Japan productions. Once you got in, they’re really loyal people in that respect. So I believe it had probably something to do with my agents, of course, being able to be close with these people in the movie business and TV.
BH: Your next role in Godzilla films was in Godzilla 2000, which was the role of the reporter. Now what were your memories of this role?
SS: That was great because we went into a big, huge parking lot, and there were just so many people. I think over 100 extras and reporters and all the lights — everything was quite amazing to see it. When we had to start reporting, there were other reporters, and there is actually a quite well-known reporter, a Japanese lady. She was like, “Oh, Shelley, you’re here, too!” I’m like, “Oh, yes! Well, of course, you’re here because you’re very famous! But yes, we’re all reporting on Godzilla. Isn’t this great?!” (laughs) But it was really good — good shoot. It was cold!
BH: Is that like Godzilla vs. Destoroyah where you don’t really have many other memories about it because it was one line, and that’s it?
SS: That’s right.
BH: Your most recent role in the Godzilla series was in the controversial Godzilla: Final Wars. How’d you get the role in Final Wars, which was the 50th-anniversary movie and had the biggest budget of all the Godzilla movies?
SS: Well, they auditioned everyone in Japan. I think every foreigner in Japan went to this audition for Final Wars. It was exclusive through my agency, the Inagawa Motoko Office (IMO for short). Everybody auditioned — all the action people. They just picked the people they wanted for the parts. Fortunately, like I said, they’re very generous and kind to Shelley! (laughs) And there I was. So I went on the set, and I just had the one day, of course, on the set. They fitted us for the costumes. They had the costumes done perfectly. Everything was perfectly done — the makeup and the hair, how they wanted it. They really took their time and effort on details in this particular movie, I felt.
BH: What was Ryuhei Kitamura like to work with?
SS: He was really great because it was like having young blood getting into the business for Toho, and getting Godzilla pulled up to the younger generation style of doing things, I felt.
BH: How would you compare working with Mr. Kitamura to working with Mr. Okawara?
SS: They’re both fantastic. They both have their ideas, and they’ve both been doing Godzilla for years, right? So I really couldn’t compare them other than that they’re really, really good directors. They know what they’re doing on the Godzilla set, that’s for sure.
Fortunately, I don’t think I was around for the special effects per se. It was just a lot of sitting around on the set, a lot of waiting around, and being very patient.
BH: So unlike Mechagodzilla, your face didn’t get blown off this time. (laughs)
SS: Yeah. No, Mechagodzilla was the biggest role and the hardest role I ever did in an action movie. (laughs)
BH: Did you get to meet any of the other Western actors who were a part of Final Wars, such as Don Frye?
SS: No, I didn’t. I did not meet Don Frye. I heard that he was also on the set, I think, the day after I was, but I never got to meet him, no.
BH: I don’t think you were at the premiere, were you, in Hollywood?
SS: No, I didn’t make it to that.
BH: Was there a reason for that?
SS: Nope, nope. I think, probably, they wanted just the main actors who could be able to finance going there. (laughs)
BH: What are some of your roles coming up in films, whether they’re kaiju films or not?
SS: I don’t have any of those type of roles in films coming up. The reason why I’m here in L.A. right now is I’m doing a movie that’s called I Am Nihonjin. It’s a movie that’s based on my daughter, who is the protagonist, who is experiencing her life here in America and also in Japan. I don’t have a lot more details on it, but one of the actors who’s very famous is Hiroshi Fujioka, and he’s playing my husband. Now he’s an action star.
BH: Kamen Rider.
SS: Yes, that’s right. He’s here in L.A. with us now. We’re going to start filming, I believe, tomorrow and the next day.
BH: What is Mr. Fujioka like to work with since he was in Kamen Rider, and he’s certainly been in a lot of special effects movies?
SS: I’ve been with him a couple of times. He’s really kind. He’s really quiet, very gentle soul. He seems to me like a person that has a lot of peace and good harmony in life that I can feel. He’s a good person, good people.
BH: Is there anything else you wanted to say?
SS: Like I said, Brett, I think it’s really amazing that we could finally connect up and do this type of interview and to let the readers know that in Japan, when it comes to writing the scripts, the actors don‘t have a lot to say. That’s why it sometimes comes out really funny. What they decide on the editing — what is good, or what it bad — is at the end of the day up to the director and the editor. That’s unfortunate for some of us actors because we don’t have any unions here in Japan to control anything or to make anything understandable. (laughs)
BH: So you’re pretty much at the whim of the director and the screenwriter in that respect.
SS: That’s right. There are times when I would say, “You know, this just doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t work in English.” And they’re like, “But that’s okay, just do it.” Then of course, we’re given the opportunity to do it this way, and that sounds good, but then they’ll decide what happens at the editing room.
I hope that I will be able to work with Godzilla and have Godzilla fans enjoy even more and more productions of greater things in the future.