Cover Naomi Ogawa wears Simone Rocha, Sophie Bille, Protean Schouler, Falke and Nanushka (Photo: Courtesy of Joseph Sinclair)

The ‘cool kid’ from Tim Burton’s TV spin-off of ‘The Addams Family’ talks about the imaginary school for monsters and freaks, and Asian representation in films

Drinking blood smoothies, giving death stares and using only a few choice of words to get her point across—these are a few of rising star Naomi J Ogawa’s favourite things about playing the vampire Yoko Tanaka in Netflix’s Wednesday, a new spin-off series from The Addams Family.

Directed by Tim Burton, and starring Catherine Zeta-Jones and Jenna Ortega—as well as Christina Ricci, who played Wednesday in the iconic 1991 film The Addams Family, in a new role—this horror comedy is dark and heartwarming in equal measure. And, of course, it is infused with The Nightmare Before Christmas director’s signature oddball gothic style.

Set in the fictional world of Nevermore Academy, a school for freaks, monsters and outcasts, the story follows Wednesday Addams and her friends, who include Ogawa’s character Yoko, as they master their extraordinary abilities and solve supernatural mysteries.

When Ogawa took on the role, she was immediately hooked by the differences between her character’s personality and her own. But the biracial actress of Japanese and Anglo-Portuguese descent also felt connected to Yoko through a shared sense of vulnerability, which in real life she experienced growing up as mixed race.

Ahead of the show’s release on November 23, which is appropriately a Wednesday, Ogawa spoke to Tatler about her career, how her passion for acting has helped her overcome her feelings of “not belonging” and her dreams of landing a role in action films.

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Why did you take on this role?

This part came at a time when I felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere with my career. It was an especially difficult period as a lot of things were getting cancelled due to the pandemic. When this offer came, it was like a blessing. I love playing characters that are totally different from me; and Yoko was a bit of a transformation. And I definitely wanted to work with Tim [Burton].

Speaking of Tim Burton, what was it like to work with him?

This is my second acting job, [and] being a part of such a huge project and working with Tim was just mind-blowing. What I enjoyed the most is that he allows the actors to put their personal spin on the character, such as a line or a quirk the character might have in a scene. I loved how he was open to trying new things, while also giving us notes when needed.

He was so patient with us. As an actor, all I want to do is to deliver, but sometimes when a scene wasn’t going well, I could get frustrated, and that would make me even more nervous. But he has the ability to make an actor feel relaxed. He knew that was the only way he was going to get what he wanted out of a scene.

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Do you remember watching The Addams Family film?

I grew up watching The Addams Family and I remember loving it as a kid because it stoked my imagination. It was such an escape from reality. Since then, I have always enjoyed the fantasy genre.

How did you prepare for playing a brand new character while keeping true to the ethos of The Addams Family?

Wednesday is a whole new take on The Addams Family and from Wednesday’s point of view. And, yes, Yoko is a new character, so I approached her as who she is from reading the script. The show’s format helped build Yoko’s demeanour as the world the characters inhabit strongly reflects their personalities. As this series is a new version of the classic, I wanted to bring something different to my character.

How did you get started in the entertainment industry?

I went to London’s Drama Centre in 2016 [and studied] for four years. It was intense and you’re not guaranteed [a job] straight out of drama school, but I was really lucky and got signed [for a role in a feature film called Skylines] in my final year. It’s the craziest thing: you’re given all the tools but nothing prepares you for being on set on the first day.

You’re a qualified personal trainer, did you get to use some of those skills for Yoko Tanaka?

Yoko didn’t have major stunts, so I didn’t have to focus on her physicality. I am very athletic though, and would love to play a part where I have to train and challenge myself physically in the future.

Do you see parallels between the “others” in Wednesday reflected in reality?

Every student in Nevermore Academy is drastically different and considered an outcast, but they are trying to figure out their powers, who they are as a person or how they fit into the school’s milieu. There’s still a real human craving for acceptance, and this merges with reality, as we all want to fit in but we do have things that we would rather hide out of fear of being judged. There’s always someone who feels like the black sheep at school.

Do you relate to this?

When I was at school, I always felt like I was the weird one. I never really fit in. This series creates a world where it’s okay to be different and kooky, and just be yourself. This is an important message to send.

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Do you think Asian representation in the film industry has changed over the years?

In the last few years, there has been a noticeable change in Asian American representation in massive hit films and television shows. It motivates me and makes me feel proud that we’re making waves in the industry. Parasite did insanely well, and so did Crazy Rich Asians and Squid Games, just to name a few.

When Asian kids, myself included, were growing up, we watched films that might have made us feel like we were being put in a box, which was quite disempowering. I used to be told that I was “too white” to play a fully Asian character and “too Asian” to play a white one.

The audience deserves to see people they can connect [with]. There has been a huge step forward in casting Asians in lead roles, which has been empowering to see. I’d love to be part of this change as we break barriers and create more opportunities for Asian actors. Now, I’m at a point where I don’t look at my mixed heritage as an inconvenience. I have come to love and accept who I am as a person and actor, because I believe in what I do.

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Tell us about other projects are you working on.

I started a podcast called Identity Issues, where I talk about everything: mental health, law, love life and also being mixed raced. I always had issues with my identity. Growing up in a school with predominantly white people, I always felt a bit out of place. I would have liked to have had guidance at that stage, so I started the podcast to help those who need advice.

What are some stories you’d like to tell moving forward?

In the future, I would love to sink my teeth into productions where I get to explore my range as an actor. Perhaps in action films or through characters who are totally different from me. I just want to continue doing what I love.

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