As a sergeant at various Japanese POW camps during World War II, Mutsuhiro Watanabe forced prisoners to lick their shoes clean and once ordered American Louis Zamperini to be punched in the face by each of his fellow captives. (The ordeal that lasted two hours.) For Unbroken – a new film directed by Angelina Jolie that’s based on a 2010 biography of Zamperini, who was also a U.S. Olympic runner – the job of portraying Watanabe went not to an actor but to a rock star: Ishihara Takamasa, known to fans as Miyavi, a 33-year-old musician famed for his manic slap-guitar style and wild fashion sense.
“It was so intense,” he says of his performance, which has critics talking Oscar nomination. “Of course I never hit people like [Watanabe did] – I’m just hitting the guitar strings. I tried to imagine if they killed my family or daughters. That’s the situation everybody was in.”
Miyavi scored the role after being approached by a casting director, and he soon met with Jolie, who aimed to make the villain multidimensional. “We wanted to put some sensitivity and vulnerability into the character,” he says. “He wanted to be like [Zamperini] but didn’t know what to do.” As a first-time actor, Miyavi felt tremendous pressure. In one scene, his character forces an emaciated Zamperini to hold a heavy plank over his head, pledging to kill him if he drops it. “I ended up vomiting,” says Miyavi. “It was really hard.”
Miyavi grew up in Osaka and was a junior-league soccer player before an injury ended his career. He started practicing guitar and playing gigs, inspired by the rowdy showmanship of Buddy Guy and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Before long, he was a heavily tattooed electro-rock star in Japan. Now, he’s got his eye on America – he just moved to L.A. and recently recorded in Nashville. “I just met Dave Grohl at a radio station in New York,” he says. “That was crazy.”
Miyavi was able to show off his talents at the film’s wrap party, where he dedicated “Angie” to Jolie and covered AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell.” “Angelina was moshing,” he says with a smile.