“The Tokyo Kid”
Expat Thespian – Bob Werley
With roots in acting from Latrobe PA, Bob Werley has nurtured his passion for the craft in Tokyo, Japan. He has flourished with over 20 credits to his name proving that location is just another opportunity. A Bachelor of Arts graduate from The University of Dayton, Mr. Werley’s experience and focus has granted this expat thespian success in The Land of the Rising Sun.
How long have you been in Japan?
I’ve been here for 14 years, but only been a full time actor for the past 6 years. I visited Japan for a month in 1995 and fell in love with it. After graduating and suffering through two years as a banker (I thought it would be cool, it wasn’t), I decided to move to Japan for two years.
How would you compare your career in America to Japan?
It’s interesting to use the word “career” here. I don’t really feel that I have a career in Japan as much as I have a job in Japan. That’s not untrue of a lot of Japanese actors here, so I’m not complaining. My career in America was more in theater and here I’m more into TV/Film. I’m a working actor here, so that’s something different. Also, Japan has given me the opportunity to model and do voice work, something I hadn’t considered a possibility in America.
What tips can you provide for other expat thespians to further their career?
You can’t expect it to work like it does back home. I’ve met too many actors that complain about the work by saying, “Back in America, this would never fly.” Accept that you have left your country and embrace where you have landed. Constant complaining makes agents and directors not want to work with you and you won’t feel good about anything.
Second, get to know how the system works. Once you start getting into the industry, talk to people there of the opposite sex. If you’re a man, then the other men are technically your competition. They aren’t going to be giving you advice on what to do or how the whole system works.
If you could do it all over what would you do differently?
I would’ve gotten a better haircut, taken better pictures, and been more vigilant in contacting agencies. In Japan, foreign actors do not have just one agent/agency. You are signed up with 10-30 different agencies. With the turnover so high, if they don’t hear from you every 6 months or so, your name is taken off the active roster.
What Japanese actors inspire you and why?
I had a chance to work with Ken Watanabe, and he really impressed me because of his eagerness to be the best and to get the most out of each shot. He’s a famous Hollywood actor. He’s worked with the biggest stars and the biggest directors in the world. We were working on a Japanese TV show. He worked so hard to make sure every scene was perfect. And, most of all, he didn’t look down on anyone. I had two lines, super small role and he made it a point to talk to me before the scene. That is something I will never forget.
What would be your ideal role in a Japanese film?
A role that doesn’t have me being a WWII soldier or officer. A role that doesn’t have me be a teacher. Or a role that basically doesn’t have me be a caricature of an American. Those roles are the most common for the foreign actor in Japan. As with any actor, I want a role with a lot of meat on it. Something I can sink my teeth into and really feel good about. In my longer hair days, I was lucky enough to be in a TV movie where I could play a contemporary artist. He was a fun, free-spirited character that was a joy to play. It wasn’t my dream character, but it was very close.
What mindset should a person have when embarking on becoming an expat thespian?
Just like anywhere, you have to know that it isn’t going to be easy. You have to be willing to accept that things are different. You have to be flexible. And you NEED to be on time for everything and be respectful of the culture you’re in. You need to work. You can’t think you’ll have a great career just because you’re foreign. That kind of thing is dying out with this ever-growing global marketplace.
What is your funniest moment on set?
I was on set for my first big national TV show in Japan. It was set far in the past, and all my lines were in Japanese.
I put a lot of pressure on myself to do well, since people here think foreign actors are English teachers picked to do the role on TV for some reason. I was prepared, but nervous, and we did our first dry run on set. My part came up, and I just blanked, and the AD was feeding me lines, but it just wasn’t helping. We got done with the scene, and then we broke to get all the cameras in place. One of the other ADs came up and told me to practice my lines with her. I did it once, she said to go again. I did it again, and she said, “Ok”, and just gave me the look of “don’t f*** this up.” The look was absolutely priceless. So when I look back at it, it makes me laugh every time.
Do you think that being an expat thespian is about training & growth and not about being famous?
Yes and No. I wasn’t much of an improviser before, but while in a community theater production I met someone who was really into improv. When she was getting ready to leave Japan, she made me attend some classes. The leader of the class had seen me perform before and wanted me to stay. After a year I was invited to join their performing group. That improv training helped me grow as an actor in so many ways. And, in my mind, an actor never stops learning. Never stops challenging his or herself.
However, Japan puts a lot of stock in the fame of people. If you have some fame in your home country, it might make it that much easier to get work here. And if you start gaining in popularity here, then you’ll also be cast more even without auditioning. So fame will always have a part in your experience, but as a serious actor, if you train hard and grow, you WILL get recognized for it by directors and casting agents. So yes, training and growth is extremely important.
What are two personal habits that have served you well?
1. Being able to improvise. A lot of the times the director doesn’t want me to go off script here, but they do sometimes need a different interpretation of the character I’ve developed. I’ve seen many actors here that weren’t able to improvise and move on from what they’d planned out. It ends up costing the production time, and the directors take note of this for future castings.
2. Learning my lines. I know, that sounds like a no-brainer. However, depending on where you are overseas, the foreign actors sometimes feel they can relax and just “be foreign” and no one will care if they mess up. Just like above, it wastes time and money, and directors take note.
What has been the hardest aspect of this career choice?
This is not exclusive to acting overseas, but the constant rejection. You really do need a thick skin in this business, no matter where you do it. The rejection, coupled with being in a country where you might not speak the language can be doubly as hard. So be prepared for the really low moments. It’s hard.
How do you define the glass ceiling and what do you do to overcome it?
Oh, there is definitely a glass ceiling. Depending on where you’re at, the ceiling might be much lower, or slightly higher. Here in Japan, it’s quite low. There’s a level of respect or quality of work that you can expect as a foreign actor. If you’re lucky enough to be in something that really connects with the public, then you can break through that ceiling, but in general you will just be a foreign actor, rather than an actor.
Now, as far as overcoming it, there are a few things to do. First, be good at what you do and develop your craft. Don’t sit around hoping for things to change either. NETWORK. Be friendly on set and if an opportunity arises to talk to some of the staff or the director, take it. Take advantage of either the expat community around you and/or the online community.
In Tokyo, there’s YouTube Space. It’s a great stepping stone for creating exciting original content. One of my friends used a production of his at YouTube Space and found a distributor at a main TV network in Japan. They’ve started an online digital channel, and picked up his production. He used all of the options available to him that I mentioned and made it happen.
Is the career choice of an expat thespian a growing market or just a current fad?
I do not think it’s a fad. I think it has traditionally been more of a fad, but with online content (like Netflix and Hulu) popping up around the globe, there are more productions in more cities and countries. As these companies are more global, so are the stories that get produced, meaning that wherever you are there is an opportunity to get some work.
What advice would you give to actors when deciding on becoming an expat thespian?
Do as much research about the market and the country you’re thinking about going to. There’s nothing worse than feeling stuck in a new country and working with someone who feels that way. Just merely being a foreigner is a big enough hurdle to deal with. If you don’t know about the market or the system of that country, then you’re creating more hurdles. Make it easier on yourself and do the research.
Why should an actor leave L.A. or New York to become an expat thespian?
You might actually get more experience and grow a lot more by getting out of your country and your comfort zone. When I graduated university with my theater degree I figured I’d learned and experienced all that I needed and would immediately be able to make it in Hollywood. It wasn’t until fate landed me in Japan and I started acting in movies and TV that I learned I was dead wrong. I’ve learned so much here, that I probably wouldn’t have been able to, in such a relatively short period of time.
Rocket News recently reported that Japanese film is not up to par. What are your thoughts?
I would 100% agree with this. Definitely not up to par. It’s true that creativity is shunned and most directors are merely puppets. Also the big agencies here have quite a lot of power. Very often there will not be auditions for major movies. The powerful agencies basically cast their stars in the lead roles. Directors know the formula they’re to stick to and they know they just have to deal with the cast they’re given. Basically, the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mantra is at play here in Japan.
Should an actor prove the industry or just their craft? Why?
An actor should always be professional. You have to give 110% all the time. I don’t care if the show is failing or the producer is a total a**hole. I believe that’s true of any profession, actually, but if you don’t take pride in your work and if you don’t look for the opportunities to learn, then what’s the point really? Even in a bad situation, there is a chance to learn.
Could you tell us about your Facebook post on getting married and having a child with a Japanese actress?
Well, you are gonna hate me, but I thought you realized what I had done there. I posted that completely unbelievable, yet well written, story on April 1st . You got trapped in an April Fool’s Day post, my friend. And I apologize for tricking you. But for the record, I always keep my private life private, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.
There you have it thespians. BOB WERLEY, Straight Outta Japan. Yes, I really did think he was getting married and having a child. I was authentically happy for him. LOL!
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Till next time thespians,