You might not recognize Sonoya Mizuno in Netflix’s Maniac, given that she appears underneath a gigantic bob wig and behind wire-frame glasses nearly as large as her face. Plus there’s the fact that the actress, who trained as a ballerina, previously played distant and/or glamorous characters, whether as a robot in Ex Machina, or socialite bride-to-be Araminta in Crazy Rich Asians. (Not to mention her role in Annihilation, where she literally played a faceless humanoid.)
In Maniac, Mizuno plays the awkward Dr. Azumi Fujita, who’s running a dangerous pharmaceutical trial with Justin Theroux’s Dr. James K. Mantleray. Azumi chain-smokes, hunches over constantly, and speaks with great trepidation, even when she gets some of the show’s funniest lines. Vulture spoke to the actress about venturing into the oddball comedy of Maniac, how she came up with Azumi’s distinct look, and her mysterious new FX series with filmmaker Alex Garland.
We have to start with your wig. Was that written into the script?
It wasn’t. After I got the job, I had an email from Cary and [hair department head] Fríða Aradóttir, who worked on La La Land a few years ago, so we kind of knew each other. They sent a picture of Rei Kawakubo, who is the designer of Comme des Garçons. She has basically the same hair as Azumi. They said, “What do you think about this, then?” I loved it.
Was the chain-smoking also added?
The cigarette was in the script. The other stuff, like her posture, I just turned up on the first day and did it. In hair and makeup fittings and wardrobe fittings, it was clear that Azumi was quite put together, and I wanted to offset that in a way, which would fit the tone of partly a comedy. It was like an exercise in seemingly being put-together, but not being together at all.
Azumi has a unique relationship with Dr. James Mantleray, and we discover their co-dependency as the show goes on. How did you build that dynamic with Justin Theroux?
He also just invented this character, which was so comic. For it to work well, you at once see us opposing each other and quite clearly struggling with similar things. I liked the idea that we were so hell-bent on getting this treatment to work to fix people, but to fix ourselves, what we needed to do was to turn to each other.
Aside from Crazy Rich Asians, I haven’t seen you do a lot of comedy. Was it intimidating to adjust to a joke-heavy performance?
I don’t think I felt intimidated. I felt like I knew how to do Azumi. I do get intimidated, and I was nervous before starting because I was working with incredible people.
What made you feel like you knew Azumi?
It came from Cary [Fukunaga] telling me she keeps her cards close to her chest. What are the things that she keeps close to her that she doesn’t tell other people? It’s in line with the themes of the whole show, how all these characters are disconnected, and are using things — whether it be work, or cigarettes, or drugs, or whatever it is — to feel connected. She cares a lot about people, but she doesn’t necessarily show it.
She’s the one who programs empathy into the GRTA computer in the first place, which reveals a lot.
The GRTA was James’s mother, in some ways. I also felt like she was Azumi’s child. She cared about that machine so much. She’s the one that put empathy into the computer, and if it wasn’t for that, the shit wouldn’t have hit the fan. I think she really does believe that it’s for the greater good of the world. I never saw her as being inhumane, or anything like that.
You’ve played characters, as in Ex Machina or Crazy Rich Asians, who have some distance in the way they hold themselves. Was Azumi different than the roles you typically get offered?
I guess. I was so desperate to do something like that because I felt like I was being pigeonholed into what you can do, because people see you do things, and they assume you can do it again and again. Azumi is part of me, and I can be totally awkward. There’s a lot of that in me, anyway.
You’re doing a TV show called Devs with Alex Garland for FX, and it seems like a similar kind of sci-fi universe. Can you tell us anything about that project?
It’s quite a mystery box. I’ll probably say the wrong thing. Azumi and my character [in Devs] couldn’t be more different, except for the fact that they’re really smart.
Has much changed for you after the success of Crazy Rich Asians?
Because I’ve been filming so intensely, I’ve been kind of under a rock. But I’ve noticed that it’s been so heartfelt and meaningful. [The Crazy Rich Asians cast members] have a WhatsApp group, which is still ongoing. Everyone’s still talking about it, which is really unusual and very special.
Were you disappointed that you didn’t get to be part of any of the alternate realities in Maniac?
There was one version of the script and I remember Azumi was in it, but I understood it could be a bit confusing.
I’ve heard that Cary is a very detailed-oriented director. What was it like to work with him?
There were two things that’d happen. He often just let us do the scenes and he wouldn’t say that much because he felt happy with it. And then, he’d do very specific direction, like very specific direction. Some things I would do with the joystick and the keys, smoking a cigarette and leaning back, he wanted it all in this motion. I just couldn’t get it right, so I had to do it a million times until he was happy with it. But I loved working with him.
I guess he wanted Azumi to seem really skilled with all the tools?
That was the whole other part to it. Before I did Maniac, I had to teach myself how to type in a few days. I don’t play video games. I had no idea what I was doing, so I had to really spend a couple of days getting comfortable in the control room, so that it looked like I was a pro.
Did you have any favorite props?
It wasn’t scripted or anything that she wore glasses. When I visited set, they said, “Do you wanna try some glasses?” I said to Cary, “What do you think? You think Azumi wears glasses?” And he’s like, “Uh, I don’t know, try them on.” I tried them on, and, yeah, she really, definitely wears glasses.
I have terrible eyesight myself, so they put my actual prescription in. Because my eyesight is so bad, the glasses are really thick, which makes them look even funnier. I’d go to work with my own glasses on, get my makeup done and my hair done, not being able to see anything. Then I put Azumi’s glasses on, and I’d be in Azumi’s world.