Q&A: Babel's Rinko Kikuchi

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Actress Rinko Kikuchi is nominated for the best supporting actress Academy Award.

Rinko Kikuchi's breakthrough performance as a troubled, sexually exploring, deaf-mute teenager in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Babel was so convincing that co-star Cate Blanchett didn't know the Japanese actress could actually talk until Kikuchi spoke to her off-camera. Her country's first Oscar-nominated actress in 49 years, Kikuchi talked to TIME's Michiko Toyama.

TIME: What made you audition for Babel and how did you win the role out of 1,000 other aspirants?

Kikuchi: I spent about a year auditioning and learning sign language, I came to make friends with girls that were deaf. More importantly, as I was given the script scene by scene for the audition, I was constructing the character of Chieko feeling how she would have felt.

Besides learning sign language, what else did you do to enact the role?

Chieko usually wears a miniskirt. If I wear a miniskirt, I feel watched. But, the 16-year-old Chieko is not like that. She is open and blunt, is always so edgy. Her anger, passion, the distance with her father, the loss of her mother, she is dealing with all these problems and she is always looking for someone to be hugged by, not necessarily sexually, but also for some warmth, her simmering tension, that's the kind of thing I created during the year. Alejandro told me that he would give me the role only a week before shooting began, which if I think about it now, is quite amazing (laughs). Although I was under pressure of possibly not getting the role, but in the end, I was lucky that I had that time.

Did you have any language or communication problems in working with Inarritu?

That is also the theme of this film: People should be able to communicate not by words. Therefore, in order not to diminish my concentration [Inarritu] would ask me to communicate in sign language and had it interpreted into English.

Is there anything you could identify with this character Chieko?

Chieko is yearning to have somebody to lean on, not in a sexual way. Well, there is a bit of that too. Yearning for someone is what every woman does to a certain extent.

How was it to work with Inarritu? How was he different from other directors?

I had absolute trust in him. I knew that when he said that it was OK that it was definitely OK. I never had to wonder how it was. In that respect I could relax and concentrate on my acting.

How did you cope with the nudity?

The scene had sexuality of course, but it was a scene where she was seeking something more primordial. It's not that she was looking for sex, but that was the only means she had to keep the guy, and she couldn't help doing it. I knew from the beginning that there was going to be such a scene. After all, actors cry, laugh or do love scenes in front of an audience, and you have to use everything as an actor. I find that nudity is merely beautiful, and especially in the film it was created so beautifully... Chieko had no other way of communication, and I felt her despair.

Do you feel the pressure of the Oscar nomination for supporting actress?

My work begins and ends at the film sets, so anything else, I just enjoy. I am just having a ball. It is like the audition. Regardless of the outcome, the whole thing does not fail to amaze me. Come to think of it, it's amazing that I am even nominated and I am very grateful about that. Here I am an unknown Japanese actress who arrives in Hollywood and is warmly accepted and celebrated.