Ryan Potter provides the voice of Hiro Hamada, a young genius-turned-superhero in Disney’s latest animated film “Big Hero 6.” The 19-year-old Potter, whose father is Japanese and mother is Caucasian, plays what he describes as the first biracial main protagonist of a Disney film.
Born in Portland, Ore., Potter moved to Tokyo a few months after his birth and later moved to Los Angeles when he was seven. He started his acting career by chance by landing a role as Mike Fukunaga in Nickelodeon’s “Supah Ninjas,” where George Takei played his grandfather.
The Nichi Bei Weekly took a moment to learn more about the rising star. The phone interview has been edited for length.
Nichi Bei Weekly: What does it mean for you to play as Hiro in “Big Hero 6?”
Ryan Potter: It’s wish fulfillment, is what it is. Growing up in the United States, there’s not been a lot of … media that I can relate to. Being Japanese American, half Japanese and half Caucasian, the only things that were kind of relatable were things from Japan, when Wong Fu (Productions) started doing videos on YouTube and the guest roles Asian American actors would have here and there. So being able to voice the first biracial Disney character, and for him to be Japanese American, is wish fulfillment.
NBW: You previously said you were quizzed on your pop culture knowledge when auditioning, but did that come into play while you were recording?
RP: It’s funny because it wasn’t really like a quiz. Don Hall, the director, (was) just digging through my brain to get a sense of who I was and what my childhood was and how heavy my influence from my time in Tokyo was … I think, having that knowledge and being very similar to Hiro, Don wanted a real performance from a kid who understands those things and grew up with those things.
NBW: Do you have any moments that you particularly identified with Hiro?
RP: It’s kinda corny to say the whole film, because it doesn’t sound possible, but Hiro and I are so similar. The only difference is that he’s a couple years younger than I am and he’s much smarter than I am. Other than that, we’re so similar. We’re obviously both Japanese American. Hiro is a big Japanese American pop culture fan, you look around his room you can see stuff from “Wreck-It Ralph,” “Ultraman,” “Voltron,” all these different things, and those are things I have in my room. Personality-wise, when we set our mind to something, we get it done. We get really tunnel-visioned about a goal. And I guess we kinda look alike? Some people have said that.
NBW: What were some of the most challenging moments for you while working on the film?
RP: I didn’t really find anything challenging until there were a couple of scenes — very emotional scenes — that took quite a bit of time to record, just because of the nature of how sensitive the material was. It really took some time to warm up to the scene to actually do it. In the film we touch on loss and, I think in one way or another, everyone has experienced loss before, so I revisited that time of my life when I experienced loss to bring a real performance.
NBW: How did this experience differ from working in TV?
RP: With live action, there’s a lot of stuff that we have to account for, … you don’t want to mess up your lines because then they’ll have to cut and do another take. In animation, it’s a playground. You get complete freedom to be able to be in the booth and mess up a line, but then immediately say it five seconds after because you don’t have to cut and re-roll. You’re just recording sounds, so you go into that booth and you just go crazy. You come up with a bunch of different ad-libs, you’re running around the room, you’re jumping up and down, you’re doing all these things to get a very natural voice performance across on screen. In reality, we’re basically going insane in the booth.
NBW: That sounds fun.
RP: Yeah, it is. I think the most fun I’ve ever had while working in my entire life.
NBW: You said you got into acting through martial arts with “Supah Ninjas.” How did you get into martial arts?
RP: I actually wanted to start martial arts because I watched kung fu movies. I just wanted to do kung fu. I played a lot of baseball at the time and I was very active at school, but I also wanted something else. When it was off-season … I signed up at this kung fu school just a couple of blocks down from my old house, and it just happened to be one of the most traditional styles of martial arts … I really didn’t have any motive behind it. It was just kind of a, “I kinda wanna do this, let’s do it,” and then I happened to find one of the most kick-butt schools.
NBW: More on your acting career, who do you look up to?
RP: There’s so many actors that I absolutely look up to. Hugh Grant, Jeff Bridges, Steve Buscemi, Robert Downey Jr. Obviously some Asian American actors I’m a huge fan of, George Takei, he’s been a role model for me since day one. Daniel Dae Kim, phenomenal, Daniel Henney, these guys are so talented. These are the people I want to model my career after. Just because they don’t take on roles that don’t put down the Asian American community.
NBW: Moving on to your mixed-race heritage. Was your father born in Japan?
RP: My father was born in Japan, my mother was born here in Northern California. It’s funny because my mom was in Japan much longer than I was. She was there for about 11 years to my seven. She’s definitely more Japanese than I am.
NBW: Did she push you toward Japanese culture?
RP: Absolutely, she learned how to cook Japanese food when she lived in Japan. And when I moved to America, I did not like any of the food. I just did not have any of that palate I guess. Luckily, my mom took a couple of years of Japanese cooking school so she was able to cook Japanese food. We also went to Japanese restaurants in Sawtelle and Little Tokyo. For a while I was just eating Japanese food.
Aside from food, my mom made sure to show me all the Miyazaki films, even if we were in the United States. She made sure to show me Satoshi Kon animated films, she got me Shonen Jump, the “Ultraman,” “Power Ranger” movies, “Doraemon” movies, just anime and manga, all these things she made sure I had access to, to make sure I had access to my Japanese roots.
NBW: Once you came down to L.A., did you go to Japanese school?
RP: I didn’t. I was so adamant about learning English because I wanted to make friends. Nobody else spoke Japanese in my school so I would tell my mom, “I gotta learn English, I gotta learn English.” I basically refused to speak Japanese as a kid and I regret that to this day. I honestly wish I had kept studying. I didn’t go to Japanese school, but my mom did not stop putting Japanese culture … in front of me. So I guess I was subliminally learning. But I’m relearning Japanese now, because it was my first language and I’ve gotta get it back.
NBW: What was the biggest challenge for you to move back to the United States?
RP: Learning English was a challenge … But kids, they don’t really need to talk to each other to start playing … The first day of kindergarten, I didn’t speak any English, but I made a couple really good friends. I still know one of them to this day, he’s still one of my closest friends and he remembers me not being able to speak English. For him, it’s almost kind of a trip that I don’t speak Japanese now.
I think the biggest challenge was the culture shock. Driving around L.A., seeing how obvious the homeless population is here, … The culture shock of just really bland food. The culture shock of not having weather in Los Angeles — that kind of blew my mind as a kid, I was like, “where’s the snow? Where’s the rain?” It was just 90 degrees all year round and that kind of confused me. Not having public transportation, that kind of blew my mind. Not being able to take a bus or train everywhere, having a car? Yeah, we didn’t have a car in Japan. We were able to bike and walk everywhere … I think the biggest difficulty was just understanding the different cultural ideas and values.
NBW: Do you miss Japan?
RP: Japan is definitely my home. I love the United States, but there’s something about Japan that I identify with. I think it has everything to do with spending the first seven years of my life there, that being my first real home. I love the Japanese people, I love their respect that everyone has for one another, the courtesy people have for one another, the food is unmatched — It’s the best food in the world — and I will probably take that to my grave. I have not tasted anything better than Kyushu black pork or Kyushu ramen or, oh man, there’s so much stuff in Japan that’s so good.
And the geography is phenomenal. You take a train an hour and you’re in the forest, you take a train an hour and you’re at the beach. You go from one city to another and in between those cities is a mountain. It’s just such a phenomenal place to live.
NBW: Would you like to go back there?
RP: Absolutely. I’m planning on it. I want to do four years of school here, keep working, but I want to buy a house in Japan, or an apartment or whatever. I want to be able to fly back and forth and start making friends in Japan, work in Japan for a little bit, maybe backpack all of Japan. I don’t know. I’m definitely going back, it’s just a matter of when.
NBW: Do you see yourself more as Japanese than American?
RP: I do, just because my first seven years of my life were in Japan, and I feel like Japan is my home. Even after I moved here, my favorite things were Japanese food and Japanese pop culture. There’s not a lot in American pop culture that I can identify with, but there’s definitely things that I love, like American music — I love the music here much more than the music in Japan — and some films here more than Japan. I don’t know, there’s just something about me that I feel like I’m more Japanese than anything. My mother is Caucasian but she is so Japanese in the sense that she speaks it fluently, she writes it, reads it, she taught it, she cooks Japanese food, she watches Japanese films, she travelled to Japan, she wrote for Japanese magazines, it’s almost like having two Japanese parents. That’s why I feel like I’m more Japanese than anything, but I am an American, I am a Japanese American.
NBW: Where have you felt most aware of your mixed race heritage?
RP: I was the first kid in my school that had Yu-Gi-Oh! cards and Pokemon cards and I was showing all my friends what they do. They were all in Japanese, so until the cards came out in America, they didn’t know what it said, but I taught them how to play the game. I was that kid showing everybody Miyazaki films and taking people out to ramen for the first time. My mom cooked fried rice or curry for friends.
I definitely feel my Japanese side, but I do feel my American side. Some of my favorite foods now are American foods. I don’t eat a traditional Japanese breakfast in the morning, I’ll have a bowl of cereal or a bagel with cream cheese. I watch American baseball, I go to concerts. … It’s hard to say that I see my mixed-race personality, because it’s so natural to me. I’ve never been in a situation where a part of me has been looked down on. Bringing Japanese toys to school, no one made fun of me. Everyone thought it was cool.
I feel like both cultures, both worlds, blend so well together that it just doesn’t feel any different from maybe being single race. I guess being mixed race with Japanese and American culture is really natural.
“Big Hero 6” is currently playing in theaters across the nation.
Accuracy is fundamental in journalism. In the Nov. 20 – Dec. 3, 2014 issue of the Nichi Bei Weekly, the article entitled “Nikkei teen stars in Disney’s ‘Big Hero 6’” erroneously stated Ryan Potter as Hamada in the second paragraph. Hamada is the character he played in “Big Hero 6.” The Nichi Bei Weekly regrets the error.