Diana Elizabeth Torres, “East Side Sushi”
For her first leading role, Diana Elizabeth Torres makes a turn as Juana, a Hispanic single mother who gets a job at a sushi restaurant. She soon begins learning how to make sushi, but faces obstacles from her boss, a traditional Japanese man who objects to her being a sushi chef because she’s a woman and Hispanic, and from her father, who believes she should support the family with a fruit cart.
The woman behind Juana in “East Side Sushi,” playing at the Heartland Film Festival, talks her first leading role, learning to become a believable onscreen chef, and acting for Paul Thomas Anderson.
Tell me about how you became involved with “East Side Sushi.”
I really think that when things are going to be for you, they’re going to be for you no matter what. I gave myself a goal that I was going to book a movie in 30 days, so my agent started sending me out for projects that I was not really interested in. I thought, “Hmm … I have to be more specific with what I want. I want a project I believe in, a strong female lead, a story that inspires people.” Then the month passed by, and I was like “OK, I guess I didn’t book it.”
The first days of the next month, I submitted myself for “East Side Sushi” and I got the audition. As soon as I read the scene, I felt that the message was so powerful; some part of my intuition told me, “This is it, this is the movie I’ve been looking for.” My rational part was like “Well, I’m not in my mid-30s, I’m too thin” — I was auditioning for teenagers at the time — so I got as close as I could to what I thought they were looking for, and my own interpretation of those words and the character. I put my heart into it knowing that I may not get it; I did my best and waited to see what happened
As soon as Anthony (Lucero, the director) saw me he was pretty much thinking what I was thinking about myself: She’s not right, she’s too skinny, too young, et cetera. He saw the first scene and he liked it, then the second scene and they were like “She’s our Juana.”
Then I got the callback the next day, and a few weeks later I got the call from Anthony saying that I booked the job! He also said that he was going to make some changes in the script to adapt the character for me and make it younger.
The story has a lot of layers, and there are plenty of heavily ingrained cultural norms at play here: Japanese, Hispanic, gender, and even the Americans have a hand in it with their expectations of an “authentic” sushi restaurant experience. Can you talk a little about them, and how your character strived to smash them?
Here’s the thing: Nobody is born racist, sexist or superstitious. There are many traditions and cultural norms that are beautiful and help our society to live harmoniously, but also there are many thoughts and beliefs that are passed through generations that are completely irrational. You can learn this at home in your religious groups, or society teaches you how to be and behave if you are a man or a woman, teaches you about your own expectations, and those of other people, and we assume that as our reality.
When Juana arrives to the restaurant, she is unaware of Japanese traditions. When she wants to become a sushi chef, reality hits her and “puts her in the place,” (where) she is “supposed to be,” meaning that she is a woman, she’s not Asian and she’s not even a chef, and that frustrates her a lot.
And Juana is a character that isn’t afraid of that conflict and is willing to fight for what she wants.
The beauty of Juana is that she has the soul of a fighter. She has to overcome first her own limitations and fears. I think she always put her family’s needs before her and forgets about herself, her needs, her image and what she wants in life. Then she has to convince her family to try new things, to open themselves and change their ideas about other cultures and ask for their support. That creates a lot of friction between her and her dad. Now that she has finally found something she likes and feels is her calling, she has to defend her dream from her own father and show him she has true talent. But the most challenging part is to face what I said at the beginning — the deeply rooted beliefs of our society, that we are all part of and it will remain if we don’t open ourselves to different possibilities.
I learn a lot from each character I play. What I learned from Juana is that you have to put yourself first and keep striving, to keep on going … We all need to be a little more like Juana.
One thing I love about movies where a chef is a major character is the way they show the food preparation. Were you already into cooking, or is it something you learned for the movie? Can you talk about these scenes, where Juana lovingly creates these sushi dishes?
I was already into cooking, but this movie raised my interest. I took knife lessons, I put myself on tape so I could see my own progress, but I never told Anthony about it. One day I asked him, “How fast do you want Juana?” He said “Really fast, like this video on YouTube.” I replied to him “I’m faster than that guy.” I sent him a video and he was surprised.
Yutaka Takeuchi (who plays Aki, the sushi chef who mentors Juana) and I took sushi lessons at the Sushi Chef Institute in Torrance, California, with Chef Andy Matsuda and Chef Leo. They helped us a lot and didn’t charge a single penny for it. Chef Tomoharu Nakamura (who plays Chef Hitoshi Watanabe) created and prepared the amazing dishes at the competition based on what was in the script! I also had the help of Chef Takao Minatoya, who let me practice in his restaurant and Chefs Hiro Makino and Kosuke Muranaka for helping at the competition.
On set, I had three hand doubles, Chefs Jun Kurono and Oliva Morales for sushi and Betsabe Mendoza for kitchen.
I did many of the shots, too — the tape for the competition, the entire competition scene and many other shots making sushi at the stock room and in the kitchen. I used to get really nervous while shooting with food because we only had certain amount of food and rice and we were shooting on a schedule. It is not like I can experiment there. The scenes where I’m chopping fast, it’s all me. So as you can see is a compilation of hands and efforts!
Can you talk a little about your experiences filming this movie in general?
It is my first movie as the lead, so it’s pretty special to me. I met amazing people that I consider now my friends. Some days were extremely fun, like the day I made sushi for the first time. Anthony told everybody, “This is a very difficult scene. Nobody laugh.” It was very hard for me not to laugh, and all of the sudden I could hear him laughing from the other side of the room. I burst out laughing even harder and Kaya (Jade Aguire, who plays Lydia, Juana’s young daughter) the youngest actress, shushed me and said “Quiet on the set!” She helped me a lot, actually.
The days filming in the Fruitvale with Rodrigo (Duarte Clark, who plays Apa, Juana’s father) and Kaya, it was fun because they were paying me to stroll down the street and eat stuff that I like. Who gets paid for doing that?! Same when Yutaka and I were eating tacos.
Some other days were more challenging. For example, the competition scene, we were at the studio shooting with four cameras at the same time. We were having a lot of difficulties and stress, and we were running out of time. On top of that, I cut myself while making sushi. Good thing was that it wasn’t really bad.
One of the most gratifying and best experiences was filming the confrontation scene with Roji (Roger Oyama, who plays Mr Yoshida, the owner of the sushi restaurant) because as soon as Anthony yelled “Cut!,” I saw part of the crew crying and applauding. That never happened to me before.
What are you doing next?
I’m doing a play about the life of Agustín Lara, the Mexican composer and singer. I’m playing one of the most iconic actresses of the Mexican golden cinema, María Félix. I participated in two movies that are coming this year: “Private Number” with Tom Sizemore, Judd Nelson and Hal Ozsan (directed by LasRael Lison) and “Inherent Vice,” directed by Paul Thomas Anderson with Joaquin Phoenix, Benicio del Toro and Owen Wilson. I play a stewardess named Lourdes. It’s a very small part, but I met Paul Thomas Anderson and Joaquin Phoenix, which was awesome since I admire them both. And hopefully more movies that inspire like “East Side Sushi”!