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The Accidental Actor: On Location with the Cast and Crew of Infinity and Chashu Ramen

I have spent a great deal of my life trying not to be conspicuous. Maybe it’s the result of my painful lack of social skills when I was younger, my innate shyness in front of people, or maybe it was my mother’s entreaties not to stand out. Though born in Los Angeles, she lived in Japan during World War II. My mother was painfully aware of the incarceration of Japanese Americans, including my father, grandfathers, aunt, uncle, and cousins. She was always a little afraid of that happening again.

Liz Arikawa holding the script

As a teenager and young adult, I immersed myself in photography. I used to develop black and white and color film and photos in the hall bathroom of our house. Out of high school, I won an honorable mention for my sports photography at the Fresno County Fair. In college, a professor commissioned me to take some pictures for his textbook (now out of print).

One day, as my daughter was growing up, I used my father-in-law’s video camera and was hooked. I taught myself video editing and for several years I produced the memory video for my daughter’s elementary school. Recently, I have been putting together artsy videos of clouds, rain, and the wind paired with music and an occasional haiku. I posted a few of these on my Facebook Wall.

And it was due to this connection to video, music, poetry, and Facebook, that this past summer I received an email from a man whom I only knew from our Facebook exchanges and a short film he had directed. The man is Kerwin Berk, a former sport editor for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Though his name belies his ethnicity, Kerwin, like many of the characters in his movies, is Japanese American. The short film is The Virtues of Corned Beef Hash, starring Hiroshi Kashiwagi and Tim Yamamura. Kerwin’s email started “Hey Ben, have you ever acted before?” One of the actors he cast for his new movie had gotten a role on a TV series and Kerwin had a hole to fill.

I think that the last time I had acted was in grade school. I think that it might have been the end of the year Japanese language school stage production. I can’t remember what it was about, but it was all in Japanese that I have since forgotten.

I was intrigued why Kerwin would want me, an average guy with graying hair, a monotone voice, and maybe two facial expressions—bored and blank stare. I hesitated to consider his offer. I couldn’t see myself memorizing lines, working with real actors, and looking into a camera. Half of me was thrilled just to be asked. The other half is quite anxious. In my response, I default to “I’ll have to talk it over with my wife” and “it’s a busy time at work” to defer a decision.

When I get home from work, I tell my wife about Kerwin’s offer. Unexpectedly, she tells me to go for it. I think in part because it gets me out of the house. And she adds it would be good for our daughter, Liz, too. In a strange coincidence, Liz wants to write screenplays, direct, and otherwise work on films. Without a viable excuse, I tell Kerwin I’m in and to send me the script. I ask him if Liz can watch the proceedings. “No free riders, everyone has to contribute,” is Kerwin’s response.

I quickly page through the script. The story will be filmed in and around San Francisco’s Japantown. It is a story of lost and found opportunities in a series of vignettes, not unlike those movies with a collection of famous actors all with separate lives that become interrelated as the story progresses. It will have a cast of mostly Asian American characters. The main characters in the movie are Tenshi and Lucy who are two spirits that wander San Francisco’s Japantown trying to help people make the right choices. In many of the same scenes as my character is Hank, a forty-something skateboarder who can’t quite bring himself to talk to the love of his life, Claire.

Tormenting Hank are Jerry and Phil, two former J-town boys who became successful and left the City. I play Phil, the aging Japanese American yuppie who now lives somewhere in the suburban inland East Bay. Phil wears polo shirts, khaki pants, loafers, and Tommy Hilfiger jackets. As I read the script, I notice that parts of Phil’s life bears strange coincidences to mine. Among my good friends is a Phil and another Phil is a neighbor.

As I read the script, I am wearing a polo shirt, khakis, and loafers, which is also my typical spring and summer workday attire. I am a somewhat aging, though not as old as the character, former yuppie. And, on top of that, one specific scene in the script actually happened to me.

Most of the rest of the cast has already met and had gone through a reading of the script. I, however, have about a week to learn my lines and get my character down before the first scenes are filmed. I have only a few lines, but I know that memorizing lines is a lot easier than delivering them. I try memorizing the lines while reading from the script, but I quickly realize that that’s not going to work. I find a recording app for my phone and record both my lines and those of anyone in the same scene.

As I walk to lunch, Bluetooth headset on my ear, I listen to the other people’s lines, anticipating the action in the scene and then repeating my lines. I do the same when I am alone during my commute to and from work and with Liz as I drive her to school in the morning.

Shooting begins on a Sunday in early July, but Kerwin wants to meet some of the actors for a walkthrough of some of the scenes on Saturday before. I think that Kerwin, in part, wants to meet me and wants me to meet some of the other actors before the big day. Since we live in about a hundred miles east of San Francisco in Placer County, we will stay at a friend’s house in the City during the filming.

On the morning of the rehearsal I begin to have doubts about what I’ve gotten myself into. Thoughts of inadequacy race through my head. What if I can’t remember my lines? What if I freeze when the director yells action? What if I deliver my lines without any emotion or expression? But I am committed and can’t back out, especially since I don’t want to look like a quitter in front of my daughter.

Liz and I arrive at Japantown and pick a place near the western edge of the Peace Plaza. I check my messages to see if there was any update to our rehearsal time. As we sit there, I noticed a silver haired Nikkei man walking across the Peace Plaza, phone in hand, index finger swiping across its screen. I thought to myself, “That must be Larry Kitagawa who will be Jerry in the film. He is so in character.”

Larry takes a position halfway between the East and West Malls. I hesitate for a moment, wondering if it really is Larry. As I get up to introduce myself to him, Kerwin and the crew walk into the Plaza from Post Street. Larry and I simultaneously wave to the group. Among the crew are Kirk Goldberg, Jason Lew, Chris Langton, Jeremy Conant, Alissa Lamb, Thayer Walker, Ben Morse, Red Saldivar, Alexandra Dixon, and Jon Littell. Cast members Hiroshi Kashiwagi (Tenshi), Wendy Huynh (Lucy), and Todd Nakagawa (Hank), all of whom are in the first scene, also arrive. We spend a few minutes introducing ourselves.

Larry and Hiroshi during a break

Kerwin has us sit down on concrete benches in the Plaza to rehearse our lines for the first scene that will be shot in Benkyodo the next morning. (Benkyodo, owned and operated by Bobby and Ricky Okamura, is a Japantown institution, serving manju and mochi since 1906 except for a few years during World War II.)

After running through the scene a few times with Larry, Hiroshi, Wendy, and Todd, we begin a walkthrough of another scene that takes place on the Peace Plaza. We are missing Randy Nakano, one of the actors for the scene, so Kerwin asks Liz to stand in and read lines with us. In this scene, while Larry and I are walking across the Plaza from the West Mall to the East Mall, we meet Randy and continue our walk. Liz, playing Randy, gets to call Larry “a cheap bastard.”

Larry, Wendy, and Liz mugging for the camera

Liz and I quickly get comfortable with the actors and crew. There is lots of joking and teasing. In a few hours, I feel like I’ve know Larry for years. Larry is among the hardest working guys I know. He has a regular day job, plays in a softball league, does charity work, acts in a web series, commercials, and movies and does promotions. Wendy is perfect as the young, naïve Lucy. Todd arriving on his skateboard really is, in some ways, the supposedly ne’er do well Hank. Hiroshi is the grand old man of the cast, someone we all look up to.

Kerwin, though easygoing, is just serious enough to get the right performance from his actors. After the rehearsal that Saturday, Kerwin is satisfied that I won’t mess up his film. At least I think that because he reminds me to be on location at Benkyodo the next morning at 5 am.

The next morning Liz and I are up and ready to go at 4 am. After a quick breakfast, we get in the car. I quickly notice that it is awfully dark on the streets. We’re travelling down the street and onto the freeway at 4:30 in the morning with burned out headlights! I flip on my fog lamps hoping that they will be enough to prevent me from getting a ticket. Somehow we avoid an accident, the police, and the Highway Patrol and arrive safely in Japantown.

Jason and Kerwin outside Benkyodo

Shooting is delayed because Benkyodo is locked and no one has the key. Eventually, Bobby Okamura arrives with the keys. During this morning we meet more of the actors, Suz Takeda, Henrietta Gard, Sandra Young, and Kallan Nishimoto. Suz plays Juanita and is the quintessential loud, brassy waitress. Kallan, who tells me that he wanted my part, is the cook Frank and Suz’s partner. Henrietta (Iris) and Sandra (Claire) play mother and daughter.

Over the next several days, we shoot five different scenes in different parts of Japantown. Filming doesn’t always go smoothly at times because we need to shoot around Japantown regulars and tourists and the weather doesn’t always cooperate.

During a scene inside the West Mall, a lady from Ohio asks for a photo with Hiroshi and Wendy, who are both in costume. A couple of guys ask if the movie is a Japanese language film and if there are English speaking parts. A passing tourist asks me “Are you someone famous?” I point to Hiroshi as the real star and mention that he was in Black Rain with Michael Douglas. She seemed impressed by that fact.

At the end of the first week, I have one more scene, the finale, left. Liz and I will return to San Francisco in a few weeks for that. Meanwhile, filming of the other scenes continues through the month of July and into August.

Almost every actor is brought in for the finale. We are filming outside of Benkyodo on the pedestrian mall and on Sutter Street. I can’t tell you much about the scene, except that we had actors and crew dodging cars and busses. Sometime that morning, someone called 911 saying there had been an accident. The firemen who arrived laughed it off when we told them that we were filming a movie.

Standing from left to right - Randy Nakano, Henrietta Gard, Kallan Nishimoto, Kerwin Berk - Kneeling from left to right - Anna Jones, Suz Takeda, Sandra Young, Todd Nakagawa

It’s a bit of an emotional letdown for me when the filming of the finale is over. I didn’t think that it would be so enjoyable being “on-camera.” And the camaraderie among actors reminds me somewhat of my years in grad school.

I learned that there is a vibrant community of Asian American actors in the Bay Area; something I really didn’t think about before. Working on the crew gave Liz insight into the making of a movie, a unique experience that might help her get into college. She has stories to tell about these experiences. Liz also got to meet and got to know a diverse group of Asian Americans, something that has been lacking in her life.

As the filming progressed, I realized that several of us working on the film were connected through Hiroshi. Hiroshi and Randy Nakano had first worked together on a play many years before. Kerwin, of course, had worked with Hiroshi on The Virtues of Corned Beef Hash. Some years earlier, Larry had been camp counselor to Hiroshi’s son, Soji. And there was me.

I had never met any of the actors (including Hiroshi) or crew before that first rehearsal, but I was also connected to Hiroshi. A year or so earlier, I had sought out Hiroshi’s advice through Facebook on a story I had written about my mother’s life. As I mentioned earlier, it was through this Facebook connection that Kerwin found me and cast me in his movie.

Please visit to learn more about the movie and its cast.

© 2011 Ben Arikawa

asian american films Ben Arikawa benkyodo facebook film Hiroshi Kashiwagi Infinity and Chashu Ramen japantown japantowns Kerwin Berk movies Northern California san francisco