American actress Kumiko Konishi has been perfecting her craft for over a decade, all whilst working a full-time job and raising her two children. You may have seen her in FOX TV’s “ The Following” or CBS Television’s “Madam Secretary” and films “Julia” and in Focus Features’ “Hyde Park on Hudson” in the role of Te Ata (Mary Thompson Fisher), alongside stars Bill Murray and Laura Linney.
SAY Magazine recently spoke with Kumiko about life on and off screen. Keep reading to learn more about her career and future endeavours.
SAY: Tell us more about your culture and background.
Kumiko: I am Japanese on my father’s side and Choctaw Creole on my mother’s side. My father was born and raised in Hiroshima, Japan, and my maternal grandmother, who I call “Big-mama”, grew up in Louisiana, so my mother was raised in the US, which is where my parents met and married.
While growing up, my parents felt it was important to stay well connected to both sides of our culture, and so I participated in Native youth groups, danced Pow Wow (Jingle Dress, Fancy, and Women’s Traditional) and participated in Japanese traditions.
SAY: As an actor, I read that you are really good at “accents” – do you happen to speak other languages?
Kumiko: Yes. I went to Japanese school as a child in the US and then I lived in Japan for a few years as an adult, so I am pretty fluent in Japanese. I also have a basic understanding of Spanish. I love learning, and I love languages. I would definitely like to learn Osage and Lakota – it’s on my bucket list.
SAY: When did you know you wanted to be an actress?
Kumiko: I kind of knew when I was little, but it wasn’t something I chose to pursue until the end of college. I was always a performer at heart, and I spoke out a lot as a child.
SAY: If you didn’t start your acting career until the end of college, what were you doing before that? What changed your mind?
Kumiko: I went to the University of Maryland and went in with the idea that I was going to be a doctor, and I even worked in a hospital for the experience. I ended up with a degree in business from the University of Maryland, and towards the end of my degree I remember the moment when people were preparing for consulting jobs and just the thought of it made me ill – it did not appeal to me – working at a desk, in a cubicle.
I was also taking dance classes during college, and after a modern dance class I remember walking by the theatre department and looking at the upcoming shows on the bulletin board, and thought ‘oh, I really should have done theatre!’ So, in my last semester of college, after everything, I decided to change paths and take some other courses. I was still young, with nothing to lose, so I decided it was time to pursue my passion while I could. If all else failed I supposed I could get a “real job” in a cubicle if I had to. I decided that acting was something I really wanted to do.
SAY: What attracts you to the world of acting?
Kumiko: Acting is storytelling – it is performance art. Storytelling is also a part of my culture as a Native American, and it comes naturally to me. I always tell people my first love is dance and they always assume I mean ballet, but I was a Jingle Dress dancer from a young age. I’ve always been an expressive person, and I was always that person in the house mimicking others and doing voices. As a young adult, I struggled with ‘what I wanted to be when I grew-up’, but I always came back to it [acting].
SAY: What are some misconceptions people have about your profession?
Kumiko: I think a lot of people have this idea that it’s all about memorizing lines. When people nd out I’m an actor they say, “Wow, you must be able to memo- rize lines, how do you do that?” Funny enough, that is the easiest part [mem- orizing lines]. It’s not easy, but it’s the easiest part. It takes a lot of crafting and work. You don’t just roll out of bed and become Meryl Streep or Viola Davis. For example, one of the reasons why so many great actors come out of England is because they have a tradition of theatre and many years of training. You can’t just go to Hollywood and become famous, although I suppose it can or has happened. This is a craft, a discipline that involves preparation and education, and it does cost a lot of money, just like it does to become a doctor or a lawyer.
SAY: Tell us about life off-screen.
Kumiko: My life is pretty normal. I live in New York, I am a wife, a busy mom of two and most of the time I work a full-time job from 9:00 AM – 5:00 PM. I’m always looking for new and interesting projects – I take gigs on the side, and right now I am working on a screenplay.
SAY: You said you work full-time. That’s a lot to juggle. Do you have any tips for anyone thinking of going into acting because it is quite a competitive industry?
Kumiko: It’s a very hard profession. It takes a lot of work to succeed in this industry. The reality of this business is that it’s labour intensive. It’s a lot of work on the creative end, it requires a lot of training and understanding people and it takes a lot of humility to be an actor.
You also have to be tough because sometimes the feedback is difficult to take. It’s hard not to take it personally, but you have to be open to listening and learning from it. When you’re learning, it’s not uncommon for instructors to tell you your work sucks. You’ve got to really work for it. We are all students in life, no matter how old we are. We have to find out what we can do to be better and improve our craft. Be patient with yourself.
It’s also crucial to find your centre and find what makes you happy (outside of acting) because it is a grueling business. There are a lot of ups and downs that have nothing to do with you. Finding joy in other things in life is important.
SAY: And what advice can you offer a teenager – the 16-year-old who wants to be an actor?
Kumiko: First and foremost, if your school has a theatre or drama department, get involved, it’s free. Explore and have fun. Watch movies and TV and study people’s behaviour. Pay attention to why you like certain shows or genres. Get involved in community events because it takes time to develop your skills. Read plays, read about directors and producers and attend community theatre. Take advantage of all the resources around you that don’t cost money.
Check out your local library for plays or books about actors and directors or order books online. Some great reading to start out with are books such as Uta Hagen’s A Challenge for the Actor and On Acting by Sanford Meisner, as well as Kazan on Directing about the great theatre director Elia Kazan.
SAY: What keeps you grounded?
Kumiko: My family. And I do a lot of meditation to help ground me. I’ve worked hard to get where I’m at, and I’m a lot more confident now (in my thirties) than I was in my twenties. I don’t necessarily like the limelight. I like to be seen when I am performing, but outside of that I don’t mind not being the centre of attention.
SAY: Earlier, you said you were working on a screenplay. Can you tell us more about it?
Kumiko: It’s somewhat of a passion project for me, and I’m really excited about it! It’s a long process that requires a lot of research and that speaks to Native American history. I’m really passionate about the storytelling and want to keep it positive and modern. I’m hoping to complete it within the next two years.
SAY: If you could pick anyone in the world to direct it, who would it be?
Kumiko: I love Ava DuVernay (Director of Selma  and A Wrinkle in Time ). I just think she is someone who has a very keen eye and a desire to understand humanity. I feel she has a passion to give a voice to people whose stories don’t often get told…I feel like our passions match up.