You may not know Sonoya Mizuno by name—yet—but you’ve definitely seen her before. Maybe it was in Ex Machina, in which the 32-year-old made her acting debut opposite Oscar Isaac. Or perhaps you spotted her in Annihilation, La La Land, or Beauty and the Beast. You most likely saw her this summer, thanks to the one-two punch of starring roles in blockbuster Crazy Rich Asians and Netflix’s sci-fi thriller Maniac.
In Crazy Rich Asians Mizuno stands out as Araminta, the over-the-top bride who greets Rachel (Constance Wu) and Nick (Henry Golding) with a giant bunch of balloons, rents an entire island for her bachelorette party, and literally walks on water down the aisle. Then the actress transformed herself by putting on a truly iconic wig and oversize frames to play Dr. Azumi Fujita, the doctor behind a morally questionable drug study in Maniac.
Yeah, those characters are played by the same person. Proof alone that Mizuno is a chameleon.
More proof: Despite Mizuno starring in two of the biggest hits of the summer, she remains relatively anonymous in the public eye. When we met at her favorite East Village coffee shop, nobody asked for a selfie. No autographs are given. No one sneaked a covert photo from the other side of the room. Mizuno likes it that way.
“I swear, honestly, nobody will ever recognize me,” she says with a shrug. “I just don’t think I’m that kind of person, which is totally fine by me.”
Case in point: Mizuno was recently on the set of Devs, an upcoming FX sci-fi series from writer-director Alex Garland, when a high-profile actor kept talking about how much he loved Crazy Rich Asians and Maniac…without realizing she was the lead in both. “He was like, ‘Whoa, that was you? Both of them?!'” she jokes. “I blew his mind, and he could not get over it. I love surprising people like that.”
Maybe that’s because Mizuno is also still surprised that this year has been so big. “It’s so funny to me, what it looks like from the other side,” she says. “Because there were a few years in there where I was auditioning for everything and working my ass off, but I wasn’t getting jobs.”
“I was stealing toilet paper from acting class because I couldn’t afford to buy it,” she continues. “I went through all that kind of stuff—the hustle that most actors go through—and now here we are, and everything is coming out at the same time. It took a lot to get here.”
Her first-ever acting role, as robot Kyoko in Ex Machina, was a huge gamble. Mizuno, a successful dancer who studied at the Royal Ballet School, left her company in London on a gut feeling that she’d get the role. Her instinct was right: It changed from a small part as a girl in a closet to one of the most memorable (and viral) scenes from the movie, when Mizuno and Isaac do a surreal, coordinated dance to “Get Down Saturday Night.”
“It’s a roller coaster, this industry,” Mizuno says. “It’s continuously throwing caution into the wind and hoping you get the job. But I’m in for the ride.”
After Ex Machina, Mizuno started honing her craft with acting teachers like Mario Campanaro in Los Angeles. She got a few parts; first as one of Emma Stone’s friends in La La Land, followed by a dance cameo in Garland’s sci-fi thriller Annihilation. But she put all her eggs into the Crazy Rich Asians basket after she met director Jon M. Chu at a K-pop concert.
“I was hard up for jobs,” she says, “so I did something you really shouldn’t. After I auditioned, I sent Jon another tape of me doing Araminta just in case, because I really wanted the part.” The move freaked her out—she felt like she was presenting herself as “a neurotic actor”—so she went back to London and started researching universities to study English. “I was downloading a prospectus for King’s College University when I got the call that I got the job. After that, I decided that maybe I can hold on for a bit longer.”
“If you don’t get opportunities to act, you don’t get better, so you don’t get parts. And if you’re stopped from acting because of your ethnicity, how can you progress?”
But as wonderful as Crazy Rich Asians was for representation, Mizuno was in the front lines for backlash of not being “Asian enough.” (Both she and leading man Henry Golding were criticized for being biracial.) It upset her at the time, because she’s proud to be part Japanese, part Argentinian, and part English. “It’s annoying because people have a double standard,” she says. “It’s OK for white people to play someone from any country, with any accent or background. But if you’re Asian, you can only play what your true ethnicity is? It doesn’t measure up. People need to be careful about saying things like that, because in thinking that they’re being open-minded, what they’re actually doing is facetious.”
She hopes this will be a learning experience for those who were quick to judge. “At the end of the day, I’m not a political activist,” Mizuno says. “I’m just an actor doing the work that I think I can represent in the right way. I’ll keep doing that regardless of what people or trolls might say.”
Mizuno loves acting, first and foremost, but she appreciates that it also offers the opportunity to help young Asian—and biracial—people feel seen. She grew up in the English countryside, where she and her five siblings were the only Asian people in their primary school. (She jokes they were the “Asian Von Trapp family” because the family sang The Sound of Music while cleaning the house.) Since she didn’t see other people who resembled her in real life, she looked up to the few Asian actresses she saw onscreen. “I remember admiring Lucy Liu, Rinko Kikuchi, and Sandra Oh and feeling drawn to them just by the fact that they were Asian,” she says. “Even though I didn’t have much [else] in common with them.”
Now she’s an actress and a beauty ambassador for Shiseido’s global beauty campaigns, and she hopes to make young Asian women feel beautiful. “When I was younger, I wanted to be more like the girls with blond hair and blue eyes because they were the ones who were popular,” she explains. “They were the ones in makeup ads. Now, hopefully, things are shifting, and they’ll want to be themselves.”
That’s why Mizuno wants to build her career on roles that have meaning to her. Roles that aren’t too similar or portray stereotypical Asians. It’s what guided her toward Maniac, because doing the series meant transforming herself and staying with the character for a long time. Next up, Devs will be her biggest role yet. She plays Lily Chan, a computer engineer investigating her secretive tech company employer after the murder of her boyfriend.
In fact, her conversations about Asian representation with director Garland, whom she considers a friend, partially led to his creating an Asian lead. (Mizuno describes it as a “chicken and egg” situation.) “If you don’t get opportunities to act, you don’t get better, so you don’t get parts,” she explains. “And if you’re stopped from acting because of your ethnicity, how can you progress? With that in mind, Alex wrote [Lily] as Asian so no one could dispute it.” In spite of their friendship, she called filming Devs the “most grueling, intense audition process I’ve ever done.”
“For once I feel like it’s OK to have these big ambitions.”
What does the future hold after that? For Mizuno, it’s balancing drama, comedy, and theater roles with work that isn’t just defined by her ethnicity. “There are so many things that I could never even have dreamt to have happened that happened, so for once I feel like it’s OK to have these big ambitions,” she says. Those ambitions include hopefully one day playing the lead in Cabaret as well as Tina Chow, a half-Japanese model and activist who contracted AIDS in the eighties and tried to cure herself naturally with meditation. (Mizuno’s ready to option the rights now, if the right person is reading this.)
Until then, Mizuno is content drinking a drip coffee at her neighborhood spot, scrolling through Instagram photos of dogs, and keeping out of the spotlight. “It’s important to keep a kind of mystery,” she says. “It’s more fun that way, and isn’t that what this whole thing is all about?”