A Conversation with Frank Nakashima

December 14, 2012 at 5:52 pm


by David Fujino

You may not know his name, but actor Frank Nakashima´s face has appeared on tv and film screens since 1980. Movie fans take note: he appears in the feature film Good Will Hunting. Frank has also been  a singer, composer, conductor, and administrator in the fields of early music and vocal music for over 30 years. He wrote an early music column for WholeNote magazine from 2001 to 2008 and currently serves as President of the Toronto Early Music Centre. From 1997 to 2003, he acted with the “Mukashi Banashi” group which performed Japanese folk tales at JC sites such as the Toronto Buddhist Church and Momiji Centre. I first met Frank over 12 years ago at auditions (where we usually compete for the same part), but How? and Why? he got into acting, is something I’ve always wanted to ask this versatile artist. Nakashima was born in Toronto in 1951.

You graduated from York University with a B.A. in music in 1975 – but eventually you, also, ended up acting professionally. When? and How? did that happen?
A friend was a contractor and she asked me to participate in the CBC radio choral program, Celebration, produced by John Reeves. After a few years of working on the show, ACTRA then approached me about becoming a full union member, which made sense: I could stop paying for their work permits. (If you’re not an ACTRA union member, you have to pay for a Work Permit to work on a union studio – DF.) Well, if I got more work, it made sense to join the union. I was already a member of the Musicians’ Union. That’s how the Toronto Consort got to be on Adrienne Clarkson’s TV show. You had to be in the Musicians’ Union to be on it. So, I now had full ACTRA membership, and the show got cancelled, and I wasn’t even sure what ACTRA was, until an agent from Noble Talent approached me.

They were looking for Japanese talent to appear in an Alberta Milk Board TV commercial. ‘Would you mind if we represent you?’ Within a couple of days I booked my first TV commercial, the Alberta Milk Board TV commercial, through them.

How do you manage stress in your life?
I tend to deny that I suffer stress. I generally tend to avoid conflict. It’s part of my upbringing. It’s from our parents because of the Internment … It wasn’t spoken about, but the message was, ‘Don’t cause trouble, be nice.’

Who have you studied acting with?
The first time I studied acting was with Brenda Kamino. Growing up in Scarborough, I didn’t know about other JCs or those in acting. I gradually met Denis (Akiyama), Brenda, Sandi Ross, and enrolled in one of Brenda’s classes for Asians and Blacks and People of Colour. Brenda taught some of it, and brought in specialists in Shakespeare and clown and mask work.
The workshops were free. This was in the early 80s … I’m still not sure if I’m so well-known as an actor …


Did you grow up around other Japanese Canadians?
No, I was isolated in a way, though our family is large (my mom’s from a family of ten kids). I have lots of uncles and aunts. In my family, there’s four boys, and I’m the oldest … and I’d go to the JCCC, occasionally.

What interesting books have you read this year?
One interesting book is Philip Shepherd’s New Self, New World, Philip’s acting philosophy and observations; it’s Zen-like, almost. He’s saying, try not to overthink, get out of the way.

Are you religious?
I’d describe myself as a humanist, or ‘spiritual,’ is a word I’d use, too. I do spend a lot of time, and I’ve been in most of the downtown churches in Toronto, and you’re sensitive to the environment, the rituals, the liturgy. I observe the history and tradition while I provide musical atmosphere.

Have you always been interested in classical music?
Yeah … I like the discipline of classical music. It’s a good place to start understanding music — music’s form, structure, theory, history. I appreciate classical music, I like jazz, and when I play guitar, I really like folk music and Joan Baez.

What can you share about acting in theatre?
It’s still a scary prospect, to be on stage. But it’s invigorating beyond belief, and you have no idea. I certainly have great admiration for those who make theatre their profession.

Have you been to Japan?
No … I’d like to go, someday … always had a fascination since a kid. What a culture — it’s so different from any others.

You’re athletic, right?
I’ve attempted at some point in my life to be athletic — the first Japanese player in the NHL was one of my first dreams. But like people of my era, we didn’t have the opportunities, the training, the schools, available to us. School sports were a lot of my athletic activity. But I tried to do everything — basketball, hockey, touch football, cross-country (but my Japanese legs are too short), and tennis.

When you’re asked to play a Japanese male, how do you prepare?
In back of my mind, I refer to Japanese males I know — certain actors in Japanese movies — or my relatives who are less removed from Japan as I. They have inner strength. That kind of Japanese personality. With new Japanese youth — with their global influences like everyone else everywhere, with hip hop, the music — it’s harder to see that traditional Japanese character.

Do you have your own voice? — literally, and figuratively?
I have my own unique voice. As a singer, I’ve sung a wide range of vocal music. I feel comfortable singing in most any style. As a singing coach, I could show a rock singer how to maintain power and strength and stamina over an extended period, without killing themselves.

Come hell or high water, rain or shine, you always cycle to auditions. I’ve noticed this through the years. How come?
I enjoy my ride. While attending to traffic — I do!— it’s my little time and space in the outdoors … it’s a kind of meditation. On the way, I visualize walking into the room, or I go over my lines. I do some of my best thinking on the bike …