- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 8, 2015

NEW YORK (AP) — Ken Watanabe’s face lights up when breakfast arrives, a nice big stack of fluffy pancakes.

“They’re my favorite,” he says, lifting the lid off an aluminum foil container and inhaling that distinctive bready smell. “Please have some.”

Pancakes are close to the actor’s heart: Long before his starring roles “The Last Samurai” and “Letters From Iwo Jima,” Watanabe encountered his first stack when he came to New York to film his first TV show.

He was 24. It was the first time he’d left his native country of Japan. It was also the first time he’d been on a plane. “It was so crazy,” he says.

Watanabe walked the streets of 1983 Manhattan. He listened to some jazz at the Village Vanguard club. He went uptown to catch the big, brassy musical “42nd Street” on Broadway. “I could never do that,” he thought to himself.

One morning at a diner, he sat next to an old man who carefully cut into a stack of pancakes, drizzling maple syrup on top. Watanabe ordered his own and was hooked. “It was some good stuff,” he says.

Thirty-two years later, he’s back in New York. The Village Vanguard is still there, but “42nd Street” is closed. And something else has changed: He’s starring in his own big, brassy musical.

To Watanabe’s own astonishment, the 55-year-old is making his American stage debut — and singing and dancing for the first time — in a revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “The King and I.”

Though he attended drama school years ago and was onstage in a comedy in Japan recently, the task before him is big. “I need to relearn how to project. I need to relearn so many things,” he said. “I love the learning. I’m back being a student at 55.”

The revival by Lincoln Center Theater has a cast of 51, is directed by Bartlett Sher and co-stars Kelli O’Hara as the Englishwoman who travels to Siam to teach the children of the king.

Watanabe is stepping into a role made famous by Yul Brynner, who was king for more than 4,600 performances. Brynner shaved his head for the part and so has Watanabe, hoping to visually channel Brynner before revealing his own king to the audience.

“Lots of people in the audience will think of Yul Brynner. If I try it with hair, they will think ‘Who is he playing?’ With a shaved head, they know, instantly, I’m the king. And then I can take them to different places,” says Watanabe, whose English is sometimes helped by his assistant.

“Coming in, I look the same but by the time we’re finished, they have a fuller picture of the king. And I hope they will forget about Yul Brynner.”

Sher, a Tony Award-winning director for “South Pacific,” another Rodgers and Hammerstein hit, was searching for a king when he saw “Letters From Iwo Jima” and instantly appreciated Watanabe’s charisma. He begged him to join “The King and I” over lunch in Vancouver.

“In my lifetime I have never seen a person of his accomplishments be insane enough to take the risk that he’s taking and the challenge that he’s taken to do this - outside of his language, singing in a Broadway musical in New York City at Lincoln Center,” says Sher. “What he’s doing is absolutely extraordinary to me.”

Watanabe, whose been in Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins” and “Inception,” also starred in the reboot of “Godzilla” last year and lent his voice to the fourth installment of the Transformers franchise, “Transformers: Age of Extinction.”

While he enjoys his frequent forays abroad to act in English-language films, his heart is back in Japan.

“A lot of foreign actors work in Hollywood but they’re never lost to their home country. It’s a good thing. I need to keep my nationality, my identity,” he says. “If I don’t get any more offers, I’m OK. I’ll go back to my country.”

After the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated a long stretch of Japan’s northeastern coast, killing about 19,000 people, Watanabe wanted to help.

So he helped build K-port, a cafe and restaurant in hard-hit Kesennuma, to serve as a community gathering place. He faxes an encouraging message to it every day.

Any guess what the first item is on the menu?

That’s right. Pancakes.

___

Online: http://www.lct.org

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