Photo by Alicia Palaniuk
Tomo Nakayama is used to performing, but the Grand Hallway lead singer usually does it with a guitar in his hand and a microphone at his mouth. Acting in a movie — and a movie by one of the most exciting emerging directors around — is a far different thing, altogether. The Japanese-Vietnamese-American talked with us recently to tell about falling in love with Ellen Page in Lynn Shelton’s new film Touchy Feely.
: How did you come to be involved with Touchy Feely?
Tomo Nakayama: I worked with Lynn on an MTV web series she did a few years ago called Five Dollar Cover, which was a bunch of vignettes, short films starring different bands from the local music scene. I was in one of the bands that was featured. We became friends, and she started coming to my shows. She saw me at an acapella show where I sang this Judy Garland song, and after that she kept bringing up the performance and talking about how much it affected her. And then one day, out of the blue, she sent me a script and said she wanted me to be in her next movie.
: It’s your first IMDB credit as an actor; had you done films before?
Nakayama: I’d done some short student films, but I’d never been in front of the camera. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I went to set, but Lynn creates this safe environment where everybody is working together for a common goal, to tell the story. So it’s really easy. And the part was basically written using aspects of my life. I really am a barista, and I play music. So those were details that were easy to react to! The actors were really down to earth. It’s essentially like a grown-up version of make believe, right? It didn’t feel any more complicated than that. And Lynn doesn’t tie you down to your lines; she’s more concerned with how you yourself would say it. So it’s easy to get into the moment and get inside the character.
: Is that because she isn’t overly precious with the script, or because she casts the personalities she wants?
Nakayama: I think it’s a bit of both. She has a picture in her mind of the dynamics of the cast, how each person is going to function within the story she has in mind. But she’s also open to whatever interpretations we come up with as actors, and that makes it a lot less scary, I think. This movie was more scripted than her other movies, but it still felt very open to the moment. She’s been known for her comedies, but in this one the tone is very different. Instead of trying to go for laughs, she just went where the story was wanting to go. I think it’s a really brave direction.
: It can’t be too difficult to play a character who falls in love with Ellen Page. How did that go?
Nakayama: She was really down to earth. There’s a scene where she’s giving a dental cleaning, and in between we were ranking where the best coffeeshops in America were. It was really casual. And the whole dynamic between Henry and Jenny is that she’s a regular at the coffeehouse where he works. So it should be familiar but not overly personal. That’s the tone we were trying to establish. Friendly but a little bit guarded, trying to figure out what the other person was about. It’s a story about people who have a hard time expressing themselves and connecting to other people. I think that dynamic was something we were all conscious of. It could have been terrifying, but Ellen made it much easier.
: When you saw the finished film, was there anything that surprised you?
Nakayama: I knew Lynn was trying to make it a very visually oriented film, where the cinematography is just as important as the dialogue. And it’s a beautiful film, the way it was shot, the color palette, the editing. I was not surprised, but really proud of how it all came out. To see it all brought together in a cohesive film is really satisfying. Especially the scene where she used my song, which is a montage that brings all the plot lines together. We never actually discussed how that was going to come together, and I wrote the song just based on the overall tone of the script. We didn’t want it to be a song that was describing the action on the screen. I knew what the song was about to me, but to see it through Lynn’s eyes, and to see how it worked with what was going on onscreen, was really surprising, and really satisfying to me.
: Did it make it more personal to have your music as part of the film?
Nakayama: It happened at a time when I was getting ready to get married, so I was going through a lot of reflection about everything that led up to that. I could really relate to Henry, in that it seems there’s things beyond the physical pain he’s experienced that are keeping him from pursuing the things he wants to do. Like if he broke up with a girl, and he was really down on himself, those kind of things can manifest themselves in physical pain. I never actually discussed it with Lynn, but that’s where I was coming from in terms of the character. But yes, it felt very personal, and it came at a time in my life when I was making big decisions about telling the world who I am and who I love. So that’s what the song is about, becoming more defined as a person and how that frees you to experience life.
: Will we see you on the screen again soon?
Nakayama: I don’t know how many people are going to be writing parts specifically for me. This is just a crazy, amazing opportunity I’ve been given, and I’m grateful for it. I’m just enjoying every step of it.