The Great Discontent

The Great Discontent

Mitzi Akaha

Mitzi Akaha

  • actor
  • illustrator

Mitzi Akaha, lead in the forthcoming horror film, Bashira, is an actor based in New York City with roots in gymnastics and art. Originally from Ohio and California, she spent several years in Japan learning the language and modeling before making the move to NYC to pursue acting full-time. We caught up with Mitzi at Wythe Hotel in Brooklyn to discuss her winding path, finding joy while striving for perfection, and how curiosity plays into her legacy.

You’ve done illustration and art, been very active in sports, you’ve modeled… now you’re acting and directing. What do you identify as, or what is your main focus right now? My main focus is not really identifying as one specific thing. I’m kind of tired of that. I feel like it’s old hat. No one is ever in one career for very long anymore, we’re not expected to be. We’re not taking over our family business. Basically, every actor that we all know is also producing and directing and writing. Everybody wants to be involved in more ways than they already are. If I had to choose one of those things, I would say acting. It’s been the most lucrative for me of all of the things that I have had my hand in, and I would say that I am the most passionate about it and feel the most confident in it.

That said, acting, illustration, and sports are three things that I’ve been doing my entire life. They’re all very deeply ingrained in my identity and I couldn’t see getting rid of any one of those things.

What was your path to where you are right now as an actor? I’ve always been a huge ham. I love attention. I love acting like an idiot and making people laugh. It was my way of lightening any tension in my family as I was growing up. My brother and I both always just wanted to make everyone laugh.

First, I was involved in gymnastics, and gymnastics is really performative. I started that when I was three, maybe two years old. And I did that through college. Acting, I didn’t have a ton of time for, but any opportunity I had in school to do a skit or make a video instead of writing a paper, I would seize it. I was never a discipline problem growing up. I’m very much a people pleaser and I was very good, but I was also the class clown. Somehow I managed that. (laughing) Whenever the teacher wasn’t looking I was making everyone laugh and I loved it. I’m still like that. And I still hate getting in trouble, but I like misbehaving just to see how much I can get away with.

I wanted to pursue both art and acting in college, but my parents weren’t the most excited about that given that they are not very lucrative careers and the success rate is really low. Can’t blame them—they were worried for my future. (laughing) Instead I majored in creative writing and Japanese language and I snuck in a minor in art studio. Still not the most lucrative career path but better than acting, I guess.

I graduated around the time that the economy crashed. My friends who graduated a year before me were all laid off and I thought, “I have nothing to offer. No one will hire me over those friends who just got fired because I studied creative writing. What’s this going to get me?” So I decided to just leave the country and I moved to Japan.

I am out of here! Yeah! I peaced out and I lived in the mountains for a year in Japan where it snowed half the year past the windows. It was really very dreamy. But the reality was that it was freezing cold, no one spoke English, alcohol is not taxed nearly as high, and that’s just a great way to spend the time when it’s cold and you’ve nothing else to do! (laughing) I did get some writing done, which is great, but after a year I needed to get out. I couldn’t spend another winter there and I moved to Tokyo and there I got scouted to model. Through that, I ended up doing really well in commercials. People would see me in commercials and suggest me for more creative and narrative film work. I got put in a Japanese TV show that I did for two years, which was kind of nonsense but a lot of fun, and it re-inspired me to get back into acting. I decided to take it seriously and move to New York and just went for it.

Mitzi Akaha
Mitzi Akaha at Wythe Hotel in Williamsburg, Brooklyn; photos by Ryan Essmaker.

“Whenever the teacher wasn’t looking I was making everyone laugh and I loved it. I’m still like that. And I still hate getting in trouble, but I like misbehaving just to see how much I can get away with.”

Where does art and illustration come into the picture? Did you draw a lot as a child? Yeah, I’ve always been very visual. I was really bored in school, which is why I was trying to make everyone laugh. Through every lecture I was never taking notes, I was drawing all over everything!

You probably still got good grades didn’t you? I still got good grades. I’m sorry!

(laughter) I drew my way through college. I just drew obsessively. I would draw all the people around me like a creep. I mean, yeah, every opportunity that I had to turn art in instead of anything else I would do it.

Was there a point where you wanted to just do art? No, I’m too social to just do art.

So it’s more of a hobby for you. Yeah, it’s always been a hobby. It’s been very meditative. I’m a pretty anxious person, so it helps center and organize my head.

Bad Day
“Bad Day,” from So Lo, a full-color 60-page book of art and other stuff (2014).

You mentioned your parents being concerned about you pursuing something creative or acting. Do they have more typical, standard careers? Yeah, well my dad for sure. He’s so impressive—I didn’t realize. I thought he was just a normal guy. But he’s from Japan and he learned English by reading the dictionary as a kid and befriending, what do you call them…people who move to a new country to convert—

A missionary? Yeah, that’s it! There was a small group of missionaries in his tiny town and he would just talk to them in English. I think he has two undergraduate degrees, maybe even two graduate degrees—one Japanese, the rest American—all scholarships, brainiac, very impressive. He’s a professor at a graduate school on East Asian politics and travels constantly giving lectures. He’s written a million books. He’s doing pretty well! (laughing)

My mom was a homemaker, but she is very educated. She studied economics and accounting. Then at some point after I was born she got into genealogy—she’s Jewish, and I think that’s a pretty common curiosity in that community for some obvious and other less obvious reasons. She was always quiet about it and never went to school for it, but one day she was going to conferences and getting published in journals and discovering adoptees’ long lost siblings. She’s a kooky lady, but her capacity to retain generations of information is remarkable.

Were you the odd kid out then, just drawing all the time? No. My brother and I are both kind of oddballs. I don’t know where we went wrong exactly. We turned out really differently but we both were very sports-oriented and academics were always important. Academics were “prioritized” because we got good grades and went to college as you’re supposed to. I was just obsessed with other stuff. (laughing) Art was so much cooler than business.

I feel it’s also a little difficult to focus on that if it does come really easy to you. It’s more fun to do art or entertain people… Yeah, my parents are both pretty artistic people, too. My mom made a lot of our clothes. She made every Halloween costume. She puff-painted our sweatshirts. My dad painted and drew. It definitely runs in the family.

“I drew my way through college. I just drew obsessively. I would draw all the people around me like a creep… every opportunity that I had to turn art in instead of anything else I would do it.”

page from Kuzu
Select pages from Kuzu, Mitzi’s debut comic.
page from Kuzu

Was there an aha moment with acting where you really thought you could do it and make a career out of it? Yeah, I think toward the end of my time in Japan. I was also just so done with Japan because I’d been there for five years, and culturally we didn’t fit each other. I was auditioning for really good projects that were shooting in America and mostly casting in the states, and getting pretty far in them. So I thought, why not? That’s when it felt safe enough to leave.

The fact that I’d somehow managed to live for years of my life in Japan modeling was amazing. No offense to the industry, but it’s a crazy job. I never thought I’d be able to do that. I never saw myself that way. Even toward the end I think I’d just started to identify myself as someone who could make money selling an image. That was maybe the push I needed to think I can be one of those millions of people an audience might be willing to at least look at on a screen.

Has there been anyone in your life that has had a profound impact on your path or that you’d consider to be a mentor? Yeah, sure. There’s been a lot of people. She wasn’t my first, but the gymnastics coach that was with me the longest was very significant. I made the most progress with her and she definitely shaped the way I work. She had tough love and rarely smiled. She wouldn’t hug you or praise you that much because she knew what you were truly capable of. That didn’t work for everyone. A lot of parents complained about how cold she was, but I think my dad parented in a similar way so it was something I was really familiar with. I am also a people pleaser, maybe even because of her. I learned how to work so so hard, and become as perfect as I can be, just to get a tiny response.

Mhmm. Just a little smile? One little smile, and then if she hugs you—oh my god—that’s like you won life! I still work this way, which kind of drives me crazy because I’m rarely happy with what I’ve accomplished. I always think that I need more because I know I can always do better, and that’s probably also why I am trying to do everything. But, yes, that was a very formative relationship in my life.

“…acting, illustration, and sports are three things that I’ve been doing my entire life. They’re all very deeply ingrained in my identity and I couldn’t see getting rid of any one of [them].”

Mitzi Akaha
Mitzi Akaha

I’ve always done a lot of different things, and it can be really frustrating because I always want to do more or push myself harder in multiple disciplines. It’s like nothing is ever good enough. It can be tough to stay content or at least not let it bring you down… Yeah. It’s a constant. First of all, it’s a constant progression, and also, it’s entirely your perspective regarding how you’re doing it and what you’re getting out of every experience. As an adult, it has been really hard for me, because I was always score and grade oriented and it was really easy to measure my success.

But in real life you can’t possibly do it that way, especially in my industry. You either get a job or you don’t, but it really doesn’t matter how you did. You could have done an A+ job and you didn’t get it because you have bangs or because they don’t like your freckles, you’re a little too Asian, you’re not Asian enough, you’re too skinny or fat or whatever. You can’t be result-oriented anymore. Anything art-related, it’s totally abstract. It’s really just about what you learn from every experience and enjoying it, I guess.

Does it feel kind of freeing for you? Incredibly, but it took me so long to get here!

(laughter) Oh, joy, like that’s something to strive for rather than winning? Wow! That was really mind-blowing, and it’s so cheesy. I have a really hard time swallowing really saccharine tasting, genuine sentiment. Like people coming out on social media, talking about all the growth that they’ve accomplished and finding their best selves and living their best lives. I gag a little bit! But it’s also because of that, like, extreme movement, that I started to consider that maybe the way I view success has kind of been unhealthy.

Yeah. Maybe a little too hard on yourself sometimes? Yeah, yeah. Because people have told me that for my entire life I’m too hard on myself, but I just always thought that you’re not going to ever accomplish anything—

If you don’t work hard enough! You have to be this hard on yourself to accomplish anything! But joy is important, that’s why I got back into sports, too. My connection to gymnastics was winning. I would win a lot, I was good! And then I got injured and I stopped, and I tried going back a couple times because that was my identity. I had to do it, but I wasn’t as good as I was. It was really frustrating and it was painful. I stopped again and I didn’t do it for nine or ten years until I went back last November. I didn’t have any expectations for myself. I went because I did a stunt job for a friend of mine’s show. I found joy in it and now that’s the only reason I do it. Of course, I still want to be really good, but now it brings me so much joy.

Mitzi in Tea, Milk & Honey by Oh Pep! directed by Samantha Scaffidi—a music video that hurts but you do it anyway.

“Coming to New York didn’t feel like a risk to me. Moving to Japan didn’t feel like a risk to me. I’m a pretty safe person. I like to plan. I’m pretty calculated.”

Has there been a risk that you’ve taken where you’re just like, “I need to do this to move forward”? Was coming to New York that for you? You know, coming to New York didn’t feel like a risk to me. Moving to Japan didn’t feel like a risk to me. I’m a pretty safe person. I like to plan. I’m pretty calculated.

Do you plan out the jump for a long time before you take it? Oh yeah, I’m that person who will stay in a bad relationship for years beyond!

You don’t want to give up, right? Just like in sports? No, what it is, is that I think I’m so fundamentally optimistic. And I really think that I can accomplish anything if I try hard enough, and that goes for personal relationships. I’ll try try try to make it work! That’s also like the sign of an insane person. It’s like trying to do things the same way twice expecting different results. But big risks…the only thing I can really think of, and it’s not really anything tangible, is just trying—this sounds so cheesy, I kind of hate myself for even thinking it—trying to live in a more genuine way, to me.

I used to go into auditions thinking of what they wanted to see and trying to do that, to fit myself into that mold. And it doesn’t work, because they can tell that you’re not fully living it or enjoying yourself, and after doing it enough times and failing, thinking I was doing it the right way, I kind of gave up. And then I had a few auditions where I was like fuck it, I’m going to do whatever the hell I want, and I booked these jobs, one of them being the lead of this huge film I was sure I had no chance of getting, and then I thought what? What? Okay, so I just need to perform for myself. That feels like a risk to me because I’m always about performing for other people. I’m a people pleaser. It keeps coming back to this. I just want to do a good job so that people are proud of me, so I’m trying to do things for myself.

It can be difficult being totally okay with yourself and not caring what anyone thinks of you in situations like that—like really owning the vulnerability. Yeah, it’s never come naturally to me! That goes for personal relationships, too. I’m actually speaking my mind now and not just going with everything, which has been a fun experiment. (laughing)

Mitzi Akaha

How does your family feel about what you’re doing now? I think they find it funny and confusing. I don’t know that they’re proud of me, per se. They’re not unhappy with my decisions. They’re thrilled that I’m supporting myself and that I seem happy. They’re very happy to share my accomplishments with their friends on the Internet. They love that. But they rarely tell me directly that they’re proud of something that I did, but I guess this is how you express yourself in today’s age. Your behavior on the Internet can be translated into real life responses.

(laughs) Or that’s just what you want people to think. It’s like you post all these pictures because like, I’m happy I’m happy! But inside, you’re really— Oh completely! Yeah, everybody lies about what their lives are on the Internet!

Do you feel creatively satisfied right now doing what you’re doing? Yes.

Yeah? But you still want to do more? I still want to do more. My mind is always on a lot of things. It’s not even really about how much I accomplish in one day, or a certain period of time, but I enjoy juggling a lot of projects at once so that as soon as one is not fulfilling me, I’m distracted by something else.

Are there other things, though? You’re satisfied doing what you’re doing right now, but are there creative projects that you’re dying to tackle? Most definitely, yes! I’m working on four scripts right now, I need to finish one of them. I’m working on two features and two short scripts, and this project that I did a couple years ago, that was released one year ago, that my writing partner and I are returning to because it has had some interest.

Lowlives? Yeah, it’s a web series that I did called Lowlives. We only had four episodes, but we had some interested parties that we met with in LA and now we’re sort of revamping it to see if we can sell it somewhere, and that would be a pretty incredible thing!

Yeah, I was going to ask you about that project because I watched the full web series. Oh, thanks!

I thought it was really charming, well written, I like the two of you together. You said John was your co-creator? John [Hein], yeah!

I think we were really safe with the project, which is stupid because we funded the whole thing ourselves and we had a lot of our friends working for favors. We only had our own money. There were things that we wanted to do that we didn’t have time for that would have required a lot of post work that we just couldn’t pay for. So now we’re writing all of that stuff in. Cut outs of additional scenes, potentially animating some stuff and then also just thematically hitting a lot of the points a lot harder. It’s being willing to split the audience a little bit more.

Let’s change it up a little… What advice would you give to a creative someone that’s like the younger version of yourself, essentially? (sigh) I would say to never limit yourself to what you’re already comfortable with. Within reason, without driving yourself too crazy—unless you thrive in that, some people do—really just try a little bit of everything that you’re curious about. Slowly, some things will fall away and some you realize you won’t be able to live without. And honestly, I think that the busier you are, the more you get done. It’s hard, I want to say try to make your decisions not based on how promising they are financially for you, but I also think I have been pretty lucky. I do really believe that if you stick to the things that feel natural to you, that excite you and do your best work in those things, something good will come of it.

“I do really believe that if you stick to the things that feel natural to you, that excite you and do your best work in those things, something good will come of it.”

Lowlives (Episoide 1); a melancholy comedy series created by Mitzi Akaha and John Hein; view the whole series here.

Yeah, I agree! So, you grew up in California, spent five years or so in Japan, now you’re in New York. How does where you live inspire your creativity? Especially now, what is it about New York? Is the energy helpful here, or is it distracting? Well, I live in a quiet neighborhood, I have to. I’ve spent time in the city, and it drives me crazy, it’s too much. That said, I am in the city pretty much every day and I like having moments of that chaos and then having mostly peace. But I do really like that it makes for a lot of opportunities to meet so many different people. I think the most important thing in acting is being well-rounded and understanding how so many different people live and trying a lot of different things, and that’s something I’m so grateful to be able to explore now. Like I’m taking circus classes, which you can’t do most places!

Circus classes? That’s a huge thing here, though! I’m doing Lyra, which is the hoop, trapeze, gymnastics classes that are really accessible. I’m dead set on investigating this thing I was watching this really incredible aerial artist do the other day, called Cloud Swing, which I’d never seen before. It’s not a very popular apparatus, but it’s like a big padded rope, basically, that hangs from one point on the ceiling and can pivot. You just sort of climb all over it and flip through it and twist around it, and I can do that here! I can take private lessons with this guy and just learn how to do this thing, which is amazing! You can see Broadway. There are a million movie theaters showing everything. You see like the world’s poorest and wealthiest on the same block, it’s like the weather, every season. It’s the diversity.

You will never get bored here. That is true. I also like to leave often, though. I fantasize about moving sometimes, but really all I need is to leave once every two months for a few days.

Just a little escape! Is it important for you to be a part of the creative community here, especially the filmmaking and acting community? Yeah! I have taken acting classes and the people that I was in class with have become my best friends. I can’t imagine going through life as an actor: auditioning, being rejected multiple times a day, every fucking day, without having a community of people telling me that’s normal.

But then you’re also all competing for the same jobs. That’s true, if you see it that way. If you meet someone who gets the role that you went out for, they’ve all faced the same amount of rejection. They all get it, they’re all there to tell you you’re not crazy, you know, talk theory, and go to plays with you.

It sounds a little more communal than like modeling for example. Yeah, I think modeling would be a lot more competitive, because everybody has the same exact body type and is around the same height. It’s getting more diverse now, but still the same people are sought after, same types of bodies and faces. It’s cutthroat. I’m glad to not be doing that anymore. When I moved back to America, I gained weight instantly to shut myself out of it. Like, there’s no potential for this because I’m not going to fit the clothes and I’m also too short here. So, it doesn’t matter.

Was it a big shift after spending so much time in Japan, you said in the mountains, and then in Tokyo? Did you go right from Japan to New York? Yeah. I went from Tokyo to New York, and at first it didn’t feel like any kind of shift happened, because they’re both pretty crowded, chaotic cities, that function in a lot of the same ways. Like the apartments are tiny, you take trains everywhere. Everyone’s out really late and there are small communities for everything there. But culturally, it’s really different, and I didn’t realize that until a lot later, just how different it was to interact with people. Coming back took some getting used to.

“I had a few auditions where I was like fuck it, I’m going to do whatever the hell I want, and I booked these jobs…and then I thought what? What? Okay, so I just need to perform for myself.”

Mitzi Akaha

Alright, last serious question. What kind of legacy do you hope to leave? Or do you? Oh, of course, doesn’t everyone want to leave some kind of legacy?

Some people don’t think about it. Yes, I want to leave a legacy.

What is it? What I’ve finally come to in my life, and what will probably be more difficult for people beyond us, because there are now like hashtags and Facebook groups, is that identity is way too formative for, this is going to sound stupid, but for people’s identities. Like everybody thinks that they need to choose one identity to stick to, and remain loyal to it forever, and strive to fulfill all of the facets of that one identity to the best of their ability. That also makes you so rigid and closed off to exploring anything else, and inviting any surprising opportunities that might come your way. And you’ll turn down really exciting things because they don’t fit your conception of yourself.

I feel very strongly about this, because I grew up very, very strongly identifying to one identity. It was really, really hard to break away from. As soon as I lost it, my mom told me to focus on developing a new identity, and I chose one thing, and I worked on that as hard as I could, but it didn’t ultimately feel fulfilling.

I became so frustrated and so down on myself for not becoming the most successful version of that one thing. And I’m sure that I’ve turned down a million opportunities on the way to trying to fulfill this one thing, but really, it’s just about fulfilling curiosity. I think that curiosity is the best instinct that we have been given regarding people and activities and even the next book that you pick up to read. It’s great to always choose things that are totally unfamiliar to you.

So basically, if you’re curious about something, pursue it. See where it leads. If it’s a dead end, it’s a dead end. Yeah, and also be very generous about your curiosity, or with it. Because I could probably have a conversation with this glass, if I wanted to, because there’s a lot to discover about it. Everything that I learn about this glass will probably help me glean more insight into who I am. And what excites me, and what doesn’t. What I’m drawn to, what propels me. And I think that we need to be more curious about people, more curious about other places, more curious about the opposite political stance.

Be more open to things, and have conversations with people, because that is the only way that you’ll truly get to understand what makes you wake up every morning with purpose.

So, is this how you want to live your life? Or is this advice that you would give to someone else? I guess it’s both.

You want to live a life full of curiosity. This is how I’m always trying to live my life. In the past, I’ve found myself in some conversations thinking, “We have nothing in common, please leave me alone.” But I don’t really have those thoughts anymore. I used to be very closed off to playing with any kids who didn’t partake in all the same activities as me, but now, I’m much more curious about those with whom I have nothing in common. Because they’re fascinating, they have so much to teach me! I think that you should always be open and not close yourself off only because you think you know who you are.interview close

Mitzi Akaha

“Be more open to things, and have conversations with people, because that is the only way that you’ll truly get to understand what makes you wake up every morning with purpose.”