Though the mercury levels are off the charts, Tao Okamoto looks unfazed as we head out into the oppressive summer heat to start her photo shoot. We can tell immediately this 28-year-old Japanese transplant knows what's she's doing, having spent half her life (literally) modeling around the world for the likes of Louis Vuitton, Alexander Wang, and Yves Saint Laurent.
But we're not here to talk about her modeling (even though it's abundantly clear from her quick-fire poses and impressive range of facial expressions that she's a pro). Instead, we're here to get the exclusive scoop on her first movie, starring opposite Hugh Jackman in Wolverine, which hits theaters today.
From combat training to kissing Hugh during auditions, Okamoto's magnetic draw isn't just an on-screen plot line, but ever present in real life, too. So, we chatted with her to get all the details on shooting a blockbuster hit. Click through for her top summer looks and the scoop you really want to know about the movies. Spoiler alert: This girl's the next big thing.
Photographed by Justin Chung
Tell us how you got into modeling.
"I started on the street. I was scouted by someone because I was a very tall Japanese girl so I decided to do modeling. That was when I was 14."
And what is the first thing an agent or maybe a modeling coach tells you when you want to get into modeling. Any tips or something you had to keep in mind starting out?
"When I started in Japan, I had to take walking lessons and stuff, but I don't think it's necessary because once you have walking lessons, you kind of lose your own style. So if I can give advice to someone who is going to become a model, I'd say, 'Don't take any lessons!'"
Unknown dress, bracelets from Peru.
That's good advice. What's a tip you'd give someone starting out in terms of how to pose?
"I think I looked up a lot of magazines and picture books from the past and I studied how I should pose in a mirror. But also I study a lot on set. For example, David Sims is one of those photographers who gave us really demanding requests, but then we became able to handle that. Otherwise you'd never be able to do that."
Claire Vivier bag.
What's the most difficult shoot you've ever done?
"Wow, there are so many. But basically, we have to shoot in summertime wearing winter clothes and the opposite in cold weather, with a lot of layers, so it's kind of hard not to sweat or not to get your ears or nose turned red in the winter. Yeah, those weather problems probably."
What was the most memorable shoot you've ever done in terms of location or clothing or photographer's set?
"There are so many, but I think maybe my first time working with Steven Meisel. I had so much imagination in myself [about] what he looked like because you can't Google his picture. He showed up very last minute to the shoot and was very detailed, very specific with what he wanted to do. It was for American Vogue so it was also a big deal for us. It was also good for all Asian girls that we are having a moment in this industry."
Do you feel like you've taken on a mentor role for Asian girls and for Asian models? And what do you think embodies that aspect of your career?
"I think once I could forget my race, being Asian, I could become someone more because before I felt like I put myself in a very limited situation. But I met this really great agent in New York and he said, 'You don't have to think about 'you're Asian or Japanese' or any other thing. You just try to become a good model.' I think that really breaks out something in my mind and I think that everybody should have that in their mind whether they're Asian girls, black girls...anyone."
Let's talk a little bit about the movie for a second. This is your first one, and it's a huge one. How did Wolverine come about and were you looking for acting roles?
"Well, I never really wanted to act before, but my Japanese agent called me and said, 'Tao we've got this audition we have to do.' And I said, 'I'm not interested.' But she said, 'Are you crazy?! You're gonna be a girlfriend of Hugh Jackman in a movie!' and I said, 'Alright! That's something different.' I was a huge fan of Hugh Jackman so I decided to do it. Fox studio was looking for a Japanese girl for this role for maybe like two years or something, but they couldn't find it so maybe they opened up their gate a little wider and they found me from the modeling world. I really appreciate that they had to find a girl from Japan because this movie takes place in Japan. They could have easily found some other Asian girls from another country, China, Korea, or wherever. So I auditioned three times and I met James Mangold, the director, in L.A., and he made me feel like I really wanted to do this. I had a reading with Hugh in New York for the last audition and it was improvisation. I didn't even know what improvisation was, but, um, I did it!"
Zero + Maria Cornejo sandals, Mother jeans, Zac Posen sunglasses, 3.1 Phillip Lim bag and jacket.
So what was the first day like on set?
"I was freaking out! I was running away almost. But James, the director, was really sweet. He was like, 'We understand that this is your first and there's nothing to be afraid of.' And it was a lot of cast members combination scenes, so after a few takes, I just could forget that we were making a big deal here. I just tried to enjoy my first time doing this."
We love this floral print Phillip Lim bag!
And what was it like working with Hugh Jackman. What was it like to kiss him? Answer that first and then I have many follow-up questions!
"Okay! Somehow, we ended up kissing each other at the audition as improvisation and that time I was like, 'Did I just kiss Hugh Jackman??'"
Did you freak out?! He's a married man!
"I know! We were really in character at the time, and after the director said 'Cut', I was like, 'Oh my god!' I literally collapsed from the chair I was sitting down on. So for the real love scenes, I didn't have to be nervous so much because I had kissed him already. But he was a really generous person, so he understands how difficult it was for me to do that kind of thing for my first time. He gave me every little trick or tips for acting and also doing love scenes. He controls the atmosphere, so he was always kidding around so I didn't have to be super uptight. I really appreciated that he was making a great atmosphere."
What were the tips he gave you?
"I didn't even know what 'standing on camera' and 'off camera' meant. I didn't even imagine where the camera was so he told me, "You have to stand as close as you can next to the camera to give your eye line to me," and I was like, 'I don't understand.' He explained to me really carefully and I understood. Also when we were doing dinner scenes, he gave me this: "We should not eat too much because after many takes we're gonna be full." So we have to sneak eating something very small, like soup or water. Those kinds of [things] I would never think of myself."
Laurence Doligé dress, Chanel sandals, Abas clutch.
You have to maintain your body as a model. Now, you have to maintain your body as an actress. Do you have any diet tips? Are there any foods you love to splurge on that are surprising?
"I cannot gain weight easily, like I lose weight very easily when I don't eat much. So, being a model, I had to eat a lot to maintain my size.
But there are two types of models. One, you have to diet all the time, you know, eat very healthy food. And then there's me — you have to eat to keep the size, otherwise you're just gonna be really twiggy."
So what do you eat?
"I eat anything! I eat meat. I eat noodles, rice, everything. Maybe I just have a smaller stomach, I don't know. I eat very healthy...I just realized when I got to Sydney for the movie, there was a stunt team and they gave us a food package every morning. It was white fish, chicken, vegetables, a lot of like different things. I never knew I would get that much [weight] gain in my life."
Did they make you train and do martial arts? What was that routine like?
"I did karate forms, throwing knives."
So you're like a self-defense guru!
"Yeah, basically self-defense, but it was really fun and I didn't know I could do that kind of stuff. But that stunt team was the greatest team. I really enjoyed doing that."
A lot of actors and actresses say that the cast and crew become like your family and when you leave, it's kind of sad. You're like, "What do I do now?" Tell us a little bit about how the ending works. Do you still talk to Hugh?
"We were totally tearing up by the end of the day, hugging each other. We were really sad parting from each other. For me, of course, since it was my first time, but for everybody else who have had this kind of experience a million times, they even said, 'This was the best crew ever.' So we just loved each other like a family and that was something I was kind of missing from modeling life because models don't really have to speak up or give ideas. I mean we naturally give ideas by posing, but we don't have to attend meetings or talk about the layout in the magazine pages or whatever. I always wanted to feel more a part of the creation. Girls just show up in the morning and leave the studio in the evening, so you don't really get to get along with others. But this time we were together for five months, sharing good days and bad days. It's really nice to share everything and understand each other and appreciate that situation."
Miharayasuhiro shirt and shoes, American Apparel skirt, Jasper & Jeera clutch.
What was the craziest thing that happened on set? Any pranks you can tell us about?
"We were shooting outside of the studio in Sydney and there were a lot of paparazzi trying to get photos of Hugh. At that time, we were doing action scenes and I was wearing this harness because Hugh had to carry me while he was running. Hugh is a very strong man and he can carry me very easily, but you know, the crew tries to make him work less, so I have to wear that. And he was joking that "it's not very good for each of us because once they see a picture of this sequence, they're gonna think, 'Oh, Hugh Jackman got really old — now he can't carry even this little girl.' Or, 'This girl can be really heavy for him to carry.' So we were always joking around like that."
How would you describe your style, and what are we going to see you wearing to movie events and premieres?
"My daily style is very random. I wear dresses, pants, sometimes very [luxe], but sometimes really grungy. It's because I'm a model, I can just [transform into] someone different everyday. But in the movie I was wearing a lot of conservative fashion which was quite unusual for me. I was wearing this big kimono and I'm not used to wearing kimonos because I'm too tall, so they had to custom make one for me."
Did you get to keep it?
"No. I mean, it was specific for funerals and I wouldn't keep it, but it was beautiful. For the premiere, I'm going to wear a Miharayasuhiro dress who is a very talented Japanese designer. But yeah, he was the greatest supporter of me always, so I want to repay him for this sort of occasion so his work can get exposure."
Do you have any big projects coming up?
"For this summer, it's pretty much about Wolverine's press."