The Ex Machina actress's latest film La La Land, starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, is being shown as part of BFI

Sonoya Mizuno is an actress and dancer of mixed heritage. Born to a Japanese father and half Argentinian half English mother in Japan, Mizuno was raised in the UK. Speaking to Resonate, Mizuno discusses her upbringing as a half-Japanese girl in the UK and her journey into the film and media industry.

Mizuno’s repertoire of films includes Ex Machina, Alleycats and La La Land – which is currently being shown as part of BFI. Mizuno will also feature in the upcoming live-action film interpretation of Beauty And The Beast and has recently appeared in the music video to Frank Ocean’s ‘Nikes’ and The Chemical Brothers’ ‘Wide Open’. The actress/dancer was also featured in promotional material by Alexander McQueen and Calvin Klein.


Growing up in the UK

“I grew up in Somerset, in the middle of the English countryside, where most people, who were white, were born and raised in the area. I am one of six siblings who all have the same parents and therefore same ethnicity. We were definitely an unusual family in the area but there was a sense of alliance among us.”

“I was the only mixed race girl in my primary school class and I do remember being called names such as ‘Chinese take away’ and ‘chocolate brownie,’ as well as classmates imitating Japanese gestures and language. I was definitely an outsider. When I moved to London to study at the Royal Ballet School from age 11, that changed to some degree. The backgrounds were slightly more diverse, but still there were only three or four of us who were considered ‘ethnic’ in my class.”

Inspiration for becoming a dancer

“Because my artistic education was in classical dance I mostly looked up to ballet dancers, particularly principal dancers at the Royal Ballet. The biggest star at the time was British ballerina Darcey Bussell, who I deeply admired. I can’t remember having any Asian idols; they were definitely sparse. I remember Lucy Liu and when I saw Rinko Kikuchi in Babel I admired her. It was good to see Asian women break into the mainstream although I didn’t idolize them.”

Before the age of 10 I thought I wanted to become an actress because my uncle, who I adored, was an actor. However I started to take ballet lessons first, under his instruction, and then was accepted in to the Royal Ballet School. So I initially trained and worked as a professional dancer. Modeling came as an incidental side job when I was 17 and I started to work as an actress three years ago.”

Mizuno’s ethnicity and racial prejudice in the media

“I feel predominantly English so I think I assumed I would have as much chance as any other English girl. I wasn’t completely consciously aware of the deep complex issues to do with race within the entertainment industry. My feeling is that I don’t fit easily into casting moulds because I am considered different.”

“There is definitely a growing level of awareness, which is very positive. But I don’t think we can deny that it [racial prejudice] is still a problem. The fact that white people almost always take the lead in films and TV shows is a clear illustration of this prejudice. Asian characters are often written as stereotypes and have their ethnicity used as a qualifier for their existence.”

Overcoming the prejudice

“There are some obvious steps that could be taken. The film industry is risk averse and imbalanced towards one race and gender. If there was more diversity behind and in front of the camera, film would be a better and truer representation of our society.”

“But in redressing the imbalance, I think it is important not to be reflexive and tokenistic. I have auditioned for characters which were described as African American. To me, this feels like casting which looks to satisfy a quota with an ‘ethnic’ person: a very surface level attempt to rectify a very complicated problem.”

“A more subtle problem lies in the fact that Asian actors have fewer opportunities to develop their skills in comparison to their peers. Therefore their career progression is stunted, and from that a cycle of sorts is created.”



Whitewashing and ethnic representation in the media

“Speaking out is a choice that bears a lot of responsibility so I am grateful for Constance Wu’s voice. Although it is a very sensitive issue we can progress if those affected speak out. I definitely admire and support her for doing so.”

“There is a serious crisis of racial inequality permeating our current social and political climate and a need for change. We have the chance to tell stories of those with voices that might not be as loud as the ones we are used to hearing but equally as relevant and interesting.”

“I am constantly reminding myself to take pride in my Japanese heritage. It is inherently difficult for me not to resent the part of me that prevents me from getting certain opportunities or for the way it is portrayed in media/society. Really embracing ethnic diversity would help prevent our future generations from feeling this way. It would support them in feeling good about their place in this world and it would ultimately affect the rhythms of inequality moving through our society.”

Advice for the Asian community

“Don’t let it [whitewashing] stop you, but be prepared to work extra hard and keep reminding yourself that is good to be different. Also, self-generating work is very empowering!”