[ACTING] Gedde Watanabe's Career as a Character Actor / Mulan 2
- Youthful-looking Ogden native enjoys career as character actor
By Chris Hicks
Deseret Morning News
The voice of Ling, left, is Gedde Watanabe in "Mulan II," which was
released this week.
Jerry Tondo, Lea Salonga and Gedde Watanabe are promoting "Mulan II"
in Los Angeles. Watanabe has had a 30-year stage and film career.
Gedde Watanabe will turn 50 this year, and he's been in movies
and televison shows ranging from the recent "Alfie" remake to a
recurring part on TV's "ER." But he is still most recognized for his
first film, "Sixteen Candles," made more than 20 years ago, in which
he played a teenager although he was approaching 30 at the time.
"I still get that all the time on the street," Watanabe said
by phone from his Los Angeles home. "It's kind of mind-boggling.
People tell me I don't look older, but I don't see that.
"I look at Anthony Michael (Hall) and John Cusack and they
really were 16 when we made that film. They were really going
through puberty, but I already went."
Watanabe laughs as he says this. In fact, he laughs a lot
throughout the interview, and says he's quite happy with his career
as a character actor, though it's had its ups and downs.
The Ogden native says it's difficult as a Japanese-American to
overcome stereotypes, and he knows many Asian-American actors who
don't get much work, so he feels fortunate that he's kept himself
busy on the stage and on the big and small screens for the past 30
years or so.
Right now he's promoting Disney's straight-to-video animated
sequel "Mulan II," which was released this week. Watanabe reprises
his voice-role as the bumbling Ling, a comic character he originated
for the first "Mulan."
Watanabe said he is pleased with the finished product, and he
enjoys doing voice work; he's also done "The Simpsons" and some
Though he does sing he began his show-biz career as a street
singer in San Francisco Watanabe said he didn't do the singing for
Ling in "Mulan." "I actually created this character voice, but then
I couldn't hit the high note. I said to them, 'You know, he would do
that he just has a cracky voice.' But they didn't buy it."
He enjoys doing animation voice-work because it's such an easy
gig. "You get in, and you get out. It took three years to make the
first 'Mulan,' and I think I went in there six or seven times. The
same with this one. It's a great job."
It's also a little scary because each actor performs solo,
isolated in a booth, with no interaction with the other
actors. "That's where you ultimately have to trust the director.
Also, they gave the script in parts, in sections, and they were
always rewriting, adding things. You kind of had to be reminded
where you were at."
Watanabe was born and raised in Ogden, and his mother and
some other family members still live in Roy. He says he returns a
couple of times each year to visit.
When he was young, his mother sewed costumes for Weber State
College productions, and Watanabe's first stage appearance was in
one of those shows "The King and I." "I played one of the kids. I
think I was 6 or 7 years old. I still have those pictures of my
sister and I in the production; our costumes were so great."
After high school, Watanabe went to San Francisco, attending
the American Conservatory Theatre. An audition landed him a role in
the original Broadway production of Stephen Sondheim's "Pacific
Overtures"; he stayed for the entire run, and then continued his
role with the touring company.
Eventually, he auditioned in New York for "Sixteen Candles,"
using a thick faux-Chinese accent. "I remember going in there and
doing it, then reading for the casting person, and then realizing
that she liked what I did, and I walked out of there. And she didn't
realize I don't have an accent or know Chinese.
"So I went back to her and said, 'Look, I'm really sorry but
you have to know that I don't have an accent, and I'm from Utah and
everything like that.' She said, 'Well, don't tell the director.' "
That was 1984. Two years later, he landed his biggest film
role in the culture-clash comedy "Gung Ho," opposite Michael Keaton,
directed by Ron Howard.
Since then, he has played character roles in many familiar
movies and TV shows, often small parts (he had a recurring role
on "ER" for several years).
These days, he's leaning toward writing and directing. "I'm
writing quite a lot. I wrote a screenplay, so slowly that's getting
done, and I want to get more behind the camera; I'm coming closer
and closer. It's just a matter of time, I think, now."
The stardom promised by his first films may have eluded him,
but Watanabe feels good about his career and happy that he's been
able to work so much. "I've been very, very lucky."
Next up, an acting role in the sports-gambling comedy "For the
Money," starring Al Pacino, Matthew McConaughey and Rene Russo.
"MULAN II" (Disney, 2005, G, $29.99). This sequel to "Mulan"
is dumbed-down a bit, with more slapstick and silliness and no
attempt at any story depth. It's obviously an effort to appeal more
to young children than the first film. But the animation here is
surprisingly good for a straight-to-video sequel, and the voice
talent is excellent.
Young Chinese heroine Mulan (voiced by Ming-Na, sung by Lea
Salonga) becomes engaged, but marriage plans are put on hold when
she is called to perform a mission that will save the country. In a
comic subplot, the wiseacre dragon Mushu (Mark Moseley replacing
Eddie Murphy) is jealous and tries to sabotage Mulan's engagement.
More comic relief comes from Watanabe and friends as a trio of
bumbling soldiers and from Mulan's ghostly ancestors, who have an
agenda of their own. (More voice talent is provided by B.D. Wong,
Lucy Liu, Harvey Fierstein, Sandra Oh, Lauren Tom, Pat Morita and
Extras: Widescreen, deleted scenes, making-of featurettes,
interactive games, music videos, language options (English, French,