Derek Mio, who plays Chester Nakayama on The Terror: Infamy talks about his personal connection to the story, the older generation’s belief in spirits and why he’s excited for viewers to experience Japanese horror.
Q: How did you prepare for this role that is so deeply rooted in history?
A: I have a personal connection to this story. My grandfather actually grew up in Terminal Island and he was also imprisoned at Manzanar internment camp, so this was the most special role and acting experience I’ve ever had. And so, in preparing for the role, I went straight to my family. My grandfather is no longer with us, but his sister is still alive and she also grew up in Terminal Island, so I went down to visit with her. I’ve interviewed her before about her experiences in the camps, but this was a good reason to reconnect with her. I also searched online, and I came across some interviews and testimonials from Terminal Islanders. There was this kind of preservation project where a bunch of people from Terminal Island were interviewed, and I came across interviews of my own family — my great-grandmother and my aunt and my grandfather as well. … So, in researching for this project that was telling my family’s story, it also helped me reconnect with them.
In fact, in this research, I came across an interview that my aunt gave telling about the night that the FBI came and rounded up all the community elders. It’s exactly like the scene that we see at the end of the first episode and, in the interview, she describes how my grandpa was pleading with the FBI to take him instead. He was in tears and that was so revelatory because I’d never seen my grandfather in such a vulnerable state, so it was very moving. And, when we shot that scene, I just tried to remember that and to channel that and it was by far the most moving experience that I’ve ever had acting and, after it was done, I had to have a moment to myself and just kind of sit there and just kind of be with my grandpa for a moment.
Q: Chester is noticeably tough on his father. How would you describe their relationship?
A: The generational conflict between Chester and his father is very indicative of, I think, this generation at this point in time. Chester is second-generation Japanese, but he is American. He has the American dream. He wants to assimilate into this country. He wants to be a photographer. He wants to see the rest of the country and he’s dating outside of the Japanese-American community, so he has bigger hopes and dreams, whereas Henry, his father, wants him to remain in Terminal Island and work on the boat. That conflict gets exacerbated as the season goes on and it’s central to Chester’s identity. That’s going to be something that he struggles with throughout the season.
Q: It’s clear Chester’s mother believes in the existence of evil spirits. Does he have the same beliefs?
A: I think he’s very skeptical at first, whereas the older generation holds on to its superstitions. So that, again, points out the generational difference that he feels. Chester doesn’t necessarily believe in those things, but, as these strange occurrences continue to happen around him, I think he can’t help but wonder if these things actually do exist. What I love about our season is that the haunting that’s occurring mirrors all the different levels of terror that is facing this community and Chester in particular.
Q: What can you tell us about Chester’s feelings for Luz? How does her pregnancy complicate their relationship?
A: The first time that we see them, you see the state of their relationship. You see the dire circumstances of their relationship, and it’s already strained. Given the time period that we’re in where interracial relationships are outlawed, it just adds to the conflict. But they do love each other. Also, the decisions that Chester makes regarding this pregnancy are very central and crucial to determining the arc of not only the growth of his character but the trajectory of the season.
Q: Chester is having visions. Would you say this is new for him?
A: I was thinking about that and I was wondering maybe it’s not the first time, but maybe the presence of this strange energy is making them more vivid. Maybe before he was just having dreams about certain things, but now he’s actually having these visions while he’s fully conscious.
Q: What’s going through his mind when he sees the blurred faces in his photos?
A: He has no idea what it is. But, again, the more that these odd events are happening, the more that he’s hearing from his family and his community about evil spirits and different folklore from Japan, he’s wondering if there’s any weight to those ideas.
Q: How will the war impact Chester’s life as he knows it?
A: Well, the war’s going to have a great impact on Chester and his family and community because, as we all know, the fate of the Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor — they get thrown into the internment camps. And this whole time he’s trying to shake this ominous figure that he thinks is following him, and he is going to do anything he can to try and protect his family and try to lure it away from those that he loves. And this is happening while all of his worlds are being turned upside down, so it’s a very tumultuous time period, but hopefully it makes for some high drama.
Q: What are you most excited for people to see this season?
A: I’m excited for people to see this Japanese horror genre being presented at such a high production value level on mainstream American television. This is kind of a niche genre of horror, but it’s also praised for having its own flavor of horror. In the past, these movies like The Ring and The Grudge get adapted, but here we’re holding onto the “J” part of the J-horror, which is really great. We’re collaborating with some of the best filmmakers that we have in the world, like Ridley Scott and Max Borenstein and Alex Woo, and everything — the cinematography, the production design and the costumes and hair — comes together to make such a vivid and visceral viewing experience.
Obviously we want to thrill and we want to scare the audiences and make for an enjoyable viewing experience, but hopefully we can also inspire people to have empathy for communities that they are not familiar with or have not been exposed to or have been underrepresented in the past.
Read an interview with George Takei, who plays Yamato-san and is a consultant on the show.
The Terror airs Mondays at 9/8c.
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